Author Archives: Geoffrey Harpham

About Geoffrey Harpham

Geoffrey Harpham is a Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. He was trained as a literary scholar, but has worked in a wide range of fields within the humanities. His abiding concerns have been ethics and literary study, the concept of language, the work of Joseph Conrad, and, more recently, a variety of issues relating to educational theory and practice, especially the humanities. His more recent books are Language Alone: The Critical Fetish of Modernity, The Character of Criticism, and The Humanities and the Dream of America. He is the co-author, with M. H. Abrams, of A Glossary of Literary Terms. From 2003-15, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.

A Progressive Defense of Originalism

In nominating Judge Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, President Trump fulfilled a campaign pledge to nominate a person who followed in the tradition of “Originalism” espoused by Justice Antonin J. Scalia. In making this pledge, Mr. Trump affirmed the conventional association between an Originalist approach to legal interpretation and a well defined set of conservative political and social views. To be an Originalist, Trump implied and his supporters assumed, was to be anti-regulation, anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-immigrant, anti-minority rights; it was also to be Continue reading →

“Yet there is a Need”: Human Rights as an Intellectual Practice (Part 2)

This paper was first given at the Stockholm Conference on Human Rights, May 26, 2015. This concludes the post that appeared yesterday. For most of the critiques of human rights, the tragic flaw in the entire system, the serpent in the garden of universal rights, is the state. In theory, the state has no role in determining human rights, which pertain to the species rather than the polis. Indeed, modern human rights—the UDHR version—were conceived as a way of protecting individuals, and the “intermediate institutions,” Continue reading →

“Yet there is a Need”: Human Rights as an Intellectual Practice (Part 1)

This paper was first given at the Stockholm Conference on Human Rights, May 26, 2015. The second part will appear tomorrow. Like others here, I received a very kind invitation to participate in this conference. The letter noted that the concept of human rights, once limited to cases of torture and slavery, had acquired a wider applicability, and was now deployed in a wide range of situations. The concept of species-specific rights had, this letter said, brought into focus “innumerable examples” of “violations” that otherwise Continue reading →

The human in human rights

Q: When we abduct, imprison, torture, or force another person by violence and credible threats of violence to do our bidding, are we engaging in acts of a) dehumanization, b) demonization, or c) dis-humanization? Think hard, because a lot depends on the answer.

Michael Ignatieff’s critique of human rights (and other scenes from the National Humanities Center)

It was the first few pleasant moments in a two-day event, the second annual “Human Rights and the Humanities” conference at the National Humanities Center, held in March 2013. Greetings had been extended, sponsors thanked, the distinguished keynote speaker introduced, and the audience settled in. But almost immediately the speaker was parting company with many in his audience. His title was “Do States Have the Right to be Wrong about Justice?,” and the argument, surprising and disturbing to many in the room, was that yes, they did.