The faculty of the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature shares an ongoing commitment to questions at the intersection of literature, philosophy, and aesthetics. Central to these concerns is the analysis of literary and philosophical texts, ranging across a set of diverse traditions, genres, and languages, in juxtaposition to ethics, religion, history, art history, anthropology, media studies, political theory, and the natural sciences. Questions of literary theory, the history and value of literature, and the constitution and development of philosophical and literary forms in a global context are similarly at the forefront of the department’s research and teaching.
The department’s interdisciplinary nature is one of its main strengths and provides crucial common ground for scholars from humanities departments across the university. Faculty members work in a variety of fields but are unified by a common investment in intellectual curiosity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and careful reading and criticism. Graduate students are encouraged to undertake projects addressing authentic philosophical or theoretical problems without the restriction of disciplinary conventions. Students may also cultivate strong ties with faculty in other departments working in their areas of interest.
Every year, the department hosts at least two associates, who are faculty members from other institutions that stay for an extended period to present lectures, give seminars, and interact with faculty and students. Previous and current associates include many distinguished scholars, such as Anita LaFrance Allen, Susan James, Barbara Cassin, David Wellbery, Robert Pippin, Jean-Luc Marion, Eli Friedlander, Sari Nusseibeh, and Toril Moi.
In the mid-20th century, the department, which was then known as the Humanities Center, was established as a meeting ground for the various humanities departments. With Charles Singleton as its first director, the center aimed to strengthen the humanities at Johns Hopkins and provide a place where scholars could engage in theoretical reflections on the human sciences, including recent European movements such as structuralist thought and literary hermeneutics.
The department’s first full academic year was 1966–67, and from the outset, its founders sought to establish a focal site for structuralism in the U.S., based on the model of the “sixième section” of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris or the Institut für Sozialforschung at the University of Frankfurt. The conference held in the fall of its inaugural year, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structural Controversy” brought many of the leading figures of European thought together in the U.S. and continues to be cited as both the substantial introduction of structuralist thought into the American academy and an important moment of transition between structuralism and post-structuralism. This model of exchange and innovation continued into the 21st century with a robust program of visiting scholars, professors, and lecturers.
As of January 1, 2018, the name of the Humanities Center has been changed to Department of Comparative Thought and Literature. The new name recognizes the department’s ongoing commitment to serious interdisciplinary study, with a focus on questions at the intersection of literature, philosophy, and aesthetics. It also represents the various literatures, philosophies, religions, political systems, cultures, and methodologies that its faculty studies and applies.