On Sovereignty and Human Rights at the QMUL Annual Symposium in the Humanities and Social Sciences


The annual Queen Mary University London symposium in the humanities and social sciences, held at the Institute of Historical Research, was an intellectualy spectacular if organizationally modest event. So quite the opposite to many conferences in Poland.

The first session chaired by Quentin Skinner (QMUL) started at 10.00am and concentrated on the newest book by the great Richard Tuck (Harvard) – “The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy” (2016). The book was commented in two half-hour long papers by Annabel Brett (Cambridge) and Christopher Brooke (Cambridge). After coffee break, the author had time for a reply, and then members of the audience joined the discussion that concluded at 12.30pm.

The second session, presided by Katrina Forrester (QMUL), started at 2.30pm. Its topic was another book – “Christian Human Rights” (2015) by Samuel Moyn (Harvard). This time the commentators were Sarah Shorthall (Oxford) and Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth). A format of the session was almost exactly the same as before, leaving plenty of time for a discussion. The symposium concluded about 5.00pm with remarks from both authors and the final questions from the audience.

I am not even trying to repeat arguments from all the brilliant papers, authors’ replies or questions and comments offered by the audience members. That is because the whole discussion was extremely broad, although at the same time always to the point, and privileging one or another speaker would not be fair.

What is worth saying from the Polish perspective is the already mentioned organisational modesty of the event. There were only two sessions, each two hours long, without prolonged welcome addresses, with only three speakers each (not six or seven in 90 minutes) and time for discussion. Beside coffee in the morning, no meals were served – something unimaginable on the Polish conferences where catering is usually more important than the selection of submited papers. Last but not least, not one speaker used slide presentation.

Yet every minute was a food for thought, satisfying therefore an Ancient Greek definition of the symposion. It is therefore not very strange that there were about 70 people in the audience – yet another respect that differentiated the event from Polish conferences in which there is “no participation without my presentation”.

QMUL Annual Symposium in Humanities and Social Sciences: Sovereignty and Human Rights
Institute of Historical Research, 15 January, 2016

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