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James Simpson (Harvard University)

James Simpson

James Simpson
Image Credit: Wissenschaftskolleg 2018

Fellow in Research Area 3: "Future Perfect"

October – December 2021

The Ethics of Temporal Communities

In his currently-projected book, Textual Face: Romance, Recognition and How We Read, James Simpson seeks to persuade readers that there is a distinctive form of thinking and pedagogy in the humanities. Thinking in the humanities is more a matter of recovery than of discovery. Moments of revelation in the Humanities are more inventions in the older sense (finding the already known) than scientific inventions in the newer sense (discovering the never previously known). To know in the Humanities is "to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again." Knowledge in the humanities is more, that is, a matter of rediscovering the immanent old than of discovering the wholly new. Cognition, to put the case in its crispest form, is re-cognition.

Simpson makes this case from the representation of recognition both in and of European literature from Homer through to Primo Levi. He focuses on two senses of the word "recognition": (i) as a cognitive experience with its distinctive drama; but also (ii) as an ethical act, whereby through the generosity of the recognitional act we know even as also we are known.

His chosen genre is the romance, the happily-ending narrative of return home (what the ancient Greeks called nostos). His most obvious reason for choosing this genre is that moments of high recognitional intensity occur most frequently in story structures of this kind: protagonists do not make it home without recognitions. He also choses this genre because, despite being forever disdained by sophisticated literary critics as, precisely, nostalgic (a word derived from nostos), and forever threatened by powerful new cultural forces, especially in European modernity, romance adapts and survives with remarkable staying power across more than 2700 years of literary history.

James Simpson is the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English at Harvard University (2004-). Educated in Melbourne and Oxford, he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge (1999-2003) before moving to Harvard. He usually works across the boundary of the late Middle Ages (i.e. fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and early European modernity (i.e. sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), offering revisionist accounts of both modernity and liberalism.

His most recent books are Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents (Harvard University Press, 2007); Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2010); and Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism (Harvard University Press, 2019). In 2017-18 James Simpson was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.