How a flying visit can help create a community of scholars

How should a university welcome a visiting scholar? Hopefully, as warmly as I have been welcomed by the Centre for Philosophical Studies of History at the University of Oulu.

For a month in September 2018 I am enjoying the benefit of a stimulating intellectual environment in which to pursue my research activities.

Travelling from afar – literally in my case, flying into Oulu from Sydney, Australia – presents its own challenges for the itinerant scholar. Most valuably, I have been made to feel at home in a vibrant and collegial community, both within the Centre and in the wider domain of the Faculty of Humanities.

Since 2014 the Centre has developed as an important international focus for researchers interested in deepening knowledge of the conceptual and philosophical studies of history and historiography. It was the appeal of the Centre’s focus on these themes that literally drew me across the globe. Twenty-four hours in an airplane is at least testimony to intellectual dedication!

My own intellectual home, Macquarie University, offers its own important and dynamic study of modern history in a number of national and conceptual contexts. Macquarie is a great place to visit, either online or in person, and welcomes visiting scholars.

International collaboration is vital for developing scholarly practice. Over recent years I have been drawn to exploring the connections between the study of the past on one hand, and the practice of historical analysis and writing on the other. Increasingly, it seemed to me that these two aspects were intimately connected.

To know the mind of the past requires that we understand our own minds, and the forces that compel our actions, and which shape our beliefs and identities. History, as a form of knowledge, represents an exchange between past and present: knowing history is to know who we are. The scholarly practice of historians is shaped by this complex dynamic.

The Centre for Philosophical Studies of History provides a forum in which our relationship with the past can be creatively explored. The research conducted here is of great intrinsic value, and is equally important in stimulating research beyond the Centre into how we understand the past.

My first contact with the Centre came in October 2017, when the Centre conducted an important international conference on the Philosophy of History. The conference reflected the revival of scholarly interest in the philosophy and theory of history that has grown in recent decades.

That the Centre is a key part of this international development was confirmed by the fact that the conference marked the arrival of the prestigious scholarly journal, The Journal of the Philosophy of History, to its new home in the Centre, under the editorship of the Centre’s director, Professor Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen.

So you can see why a visiting historian from distant Australia would be drawn all the way to Oulu.

It would be difficult to describe the varied ways my interaction with the Centre’s researchers has helped to develop my research project: reflecting on the study of historical ‘periods’ - how the people of the past conceived of the experience of their time, and how historians subsequently interpret and define those times.

The Centre’s staff have prompted me to ask questions that I had not thought of – or not thought about enough – and to engage with scholarly books and articles that I had missed and which could help take my research in new directions.

Most helpfully of all, the Centre’s friendly researchers have patiently helped me find my way around the campus, and navigate the network of corridors and staircases. They have generously shared coffee sessions, lunch breaks and their time with me.

The Centre describes its long-term goal as ‘to function as a node in the international network of institutions and create a community of scholars’. In the hands of its director, Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, and the Centre’s scholars – Kari Väyrynen, Ilkka Lähteenmäki, Georg Gangl and Daniel Fairbrother, the Centre is well on its way to establishing that community.

Dr. Mark Hearn, Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University is a visiting scholar in the University of Oulu in September 2018.