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Early-modern vices: why are they still around? Vici grant for Herman Paul

Over the past few hundreds of years, the world has changed radically. However, cultural stereotypes from the 17th century are still alive and well today, and even academic researchers sometimes use terms coined centuries ago. Why do they do that? Herman Paul, Professor of the History of the Humanities, will research this question with a Vici grant worth 1.5 million euros.

Herman Paul, recently appointed Professor of the History of the Humanities, is still rather dazed. “It is a great privilege and enormous motivator for me: this will give my research a substantial boost. At the same time, 1.5 million is an almost absurdly large amount of money — the modest Calvinist in me still needs time to get used to it.” 

Terms like “dogmatism” and “speculation” are hundreds of years old

What does he plan on doing with the money? “I will try to answer two questions. The first is why scientists always assess each other’s work, and in particular criticise it, using terms that have been around for hundreds of years. “Dogmatism”, “prejudice”, and “speculation” date back to the 17th century, at least. This is unusual, because science has changed tremendously since then. We don’t tend to focus on that continuity, because we are primarily fascinated by change. Whether or not there is continuity in scientific history, even if it was just at the level of the language, is — oddly enough — a question that hardly anyone asks.”

Rhetorical appeal

The methodological question underlying this is how historians can explain the long-term usage of words and images. “Ask a historian about the history of dogmatism and you will be handed a book that explains why dogmatism meant something different to Karl Popper in the 20th century than it did to Joseph Glanvill in the 17th century. Having a sense keen enough to sniff out shifting meanings is important, but it’s not enough on its own. Over the past 50 years, historians have reflected on meaning. Now it’s time to start thinking about usage. Why are archaic terms still around today? What was their rhetorical appeal? How were these vocabularies passed on from generation to generation?”

Roots in different disciplines and academic traditions

The project will research academic vices from 1700 to 2000, in many different academic fields. This means that it is not limited simply to Paul’s teaching and research remit in the history of the humanities. “What intrigues me is laying analogies bare and drawing connections across the various disciplines and academic traditions. That is something that my teaching and research remit and this project have in common. The language of virtue (such as accuracy and impartiality) and vice (like dogmatism and bias) appear to be very well suited to this, because nearly everyone spoke that language until the 20th century.”

Things go wrong under stress and competition

Doesn’t the term “academic vices” sound a bit outdated? “Yes,” responds Paul, “and that is exactly what makes the theme relevant today. We think of good science in terms of rules and protocols, and no longer in terms of character. I would like to challenge academics to help reflect on this and share their ideas: what have we won by doing this and what have we lost? I believe that science, education, and academic governance test skills and attitudes. But I also believe that things are bound to go wrong when you put them under stress and the pressure of competition. Is it a coincidence that the critics of modern academia have dusted off the old language of vices once again?”

No fewer than seven Vicis are going to Leiden University in this round, two of which are for the Faculty of Humanities. Yiya Chen is receiving a Vici grant for her project “Melodie in spraak” (melody in speech).

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research encourages quality and innovation in science by selecting and funding the best research. One of the tools used to do this is the Innovational Research Incentives Scheme, which provides talented and creative researchers with personal funding. The programme consists of the Veni, for those who have recently received their PhD; the Vidi, for those who have been conducting research for a number of years since obtaining their doctorate; and the Vici, for experienced researchers who have demonstrated the ability to develop their own line of research.

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