Recent discourse has taken a pessimistic view of academic ends, from hand-wringing over the “end of the English major” to warnings that developing artificial intelligence programs will end the world if climate change doesn’t end it first. A combination of economic, institutional, political and cultural pressures is threatening humanities disciplines including English, modern languages, race and ethnic studies, gender studies, and classics, while scientific fields including environmental science and epidemiology confront partisan public hostility. In the wake of COVID-19 and amid the rising temperatures of our planet and politics, many features of 20th-century academic life seem to be facing their end.
Rather than adding to endless debates about the crisis of the humanities or rehearsing defenses of different majors, we hope to shift the conversation by arguing that it is not only necessary but also beneficial for disciplines to confront their ends. Instead of rejecting the concept of ending, scholars across disciplines should use this moment to ask: why do we do what we do, and when (if ever) could we be done?
Our recently published edited collection, The Ends of Knowledge: Outcomes and Endpoints Across the Arts and Sciences (Bloomsbury) asked scholars from across fields to answer the same question: What are the end(s) of your discipline? Their answers revealed the robustness of disciplinary thinking as well as both obvious and surprising points of commonality spanning the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
As scholars of the Enlightenment, we drew our inspiration for this intertwining of end and ends from an era that ended old ways of thinking and initiated many of our current models. Enlightenment authors called for new modes and institutions of knowledge production, understanding ends as large-scale goals that must, at the same time, be achievable. In The Advancement of Learning (1605), Francis Bacon wrote that “the greatest error of all … is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge.” The New Science, Bacon later wrote, would lead to “the proper end and termination of infinite error” and was worth undertaking precisely because an end was possible: “For it is better to make a beginning of a thing which has a chance of an end, than to get caught up in things which have no end, in perpetual struggle and exertion.”
We asked scholars to revisit Bacon’s foundational concern of the Enlightenment at another inflection point in its long history: What is “the last or furthest end of knowledge?” Recent changes in technologies and institutions, predating but accentuated by the pandemic, as well as mounting political pressures have refocused attention on the specialized nature of knowledge production. In a political and economic climate fixated on the value of education and the question of practical versus theoretical learning, we asked contributors to consider how we should understand the ends of knowledge today. In disciplines ranging from physics to literary studies to activism to climate science, scholars considered their fields’ motivations as well as their potential end points.
This focus on disciplines may seem old-fashioned. The disciplines as we currently occupy them are artifacts of the 19th-century origins of the research university, which gave us the tripartite structure of the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Recent decades have witnessed widespread interest in interdisciplinarity in the form of institutional programs and centers as well as new fields such as American studies, area studies and cultural studies. Julie Thompson Klein places disciplines and interdisciplinarity in a long history of the pursuit of unified knowledge stretching back to Plato, writing that two of the primary motivations for interdisciplinary work are “to solve problems that are beyond the scope of any one discipline” and “to achieve unity of knowledge, whether on a limited or grand scale.” Interdisciplinary efforts arise in order to effect new academic ends.
However, critiques of interdisciplinarity point out that such efforts are frequently additive rather than interactive: that is, they combine established disciplinary methods rather than remaking them. Jerry A. Jacobs contends that “interdisciplinary undertakings are likely to result in the proliferation of academic units rather than the consolidation of knowledge into a more unified whole.” Questions of purpose, unity and completion have been key to, if often implicit in, the discourse of interdisciplinarity that has dominated discussions of academic institutional organization.
Some of the scholars we surveyed occupy traditional (i.e., post-19th-century) academic disciplines, while others, such as those in gender studies and cultural studies, discussed fields that are the poster children for interdisciplinarity. Whether dealing with established or more recent fields—and whether within or outside the academy—we proceeded from the assumption that knowledge production involves specialization within a field. Given that we still ask undergraduates what they will “do with” their degrees, this understanding of the importance of disciplinary training within and without the university remains salient.
In organizing our survey by discipline, then, we are not arguing that disciplinary divisions are either immanent or necessarily superfluous but rather acknowledging that they continue to structure and separate knowledge projects. Some contributors questioned their disciplines’ boundaries while others asserted their usefulness. We did not expect consensus, but we did find points of commonality. In some cases, these followed predictable disciplinary patterns, but in more ways, writers across fields demonstrated unexpected points of convergence.
As we have seen, the natural and applied sciences have been oriented toward the pursuit of practical and epistemic outcomes for centuries, with the ends of some STEM disciplines appearing deceptively straightforward. Although devices, software applications and (particularly during the pandemic) medical advances often constitute the most visible evidence of scientific progress, major breakthroughs—such as the detection of gravitational waves and the Higgs boson, or gene sequencing and the identification of Richard III’s remains—also reliably capture public interest. A recent article in PNAS, however, suggests that as a whole the sciences face challenges in terms of purpose and end point. As the paper’s authors explain, science follows a pattern in which a few well-cited works elicit a “deluge” of follow-up work that positions findings within established frameworks. As a result, “the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon.” The sciences’ emphasis on research productivity, when defined in the quantitative terms of publications and citations, may be at odds with the greater end of scientific advancement.
As might be expected, scholars in the humanities had more complicated, and often less definitive, responses to the question of the ends of knowledge. The brave souls who agreed to contribute to our volume took a variety of approaches that, while usefully explaining their own purposes and goals, generally demurred from speaking on behalf of their colleagues or specifying the epistemological ends of their particular disciplines. With humanities scholars often focused on defending their fields, identifying their ends may be an unnatural task.
Despite these divides, we found four broad ways in which scholars answered the question of the ends of knowledge. One group, which included scholars in physics, literary studies, computing, biology and the digital humanities, took the approach of unification: How could the author’s field achieve a unified theory or explanation, and how close is the field to that goal? A second group, comprising contributors from law, journalism, pedagogy and the liberal arts, focused on access, arguing that the purpose and endpoint of knowledge production is increased access, and that such access is key to social justice. Writers in artificial intelligence, gender studies, activism and environmental studies considered the theme of utopia and its opposite, dystopia, raising the issue of whether the consideration of ends can foster utopian outcomes or whether endings inevitably lead to dystopian scenarios. And finally, scholars discussing performance studies, history, Black studies and cultural studies oriented the end(s) of their disciplines around conceptualization, relating their discipline’s knowledge work to the creation and clarification of a key concept.
Our project, therefore, highlights individual disciplines while moving from the present three-part division of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to a new four-part structure: unification, access, utopia and conceptualization. Many fields necessarily remain unrepresented, as would be the case in any but a truly encyclopedic account. Our goal was not to represent knowledge as it currently is, but to offer one model for scaling up an account of its ends.
Ultimately, we hope to show what the benefits would be of knowledge projects starting with their end(s) in mind. How can we get anywhere if we cannot even say where we want to go? And even if we think we have goals, are we actually working toward them? A firm sense of both purpose and outcome could help scholars demonstrate how they are advancing knowledge rather than spinning their wheels.