UChicago linguist to examine nature of truth in Humanities Day keynote

Prof. Christopher Kennedy’s address one of 40 presentations in Oct. 20 event

To Prof. Christopher Kennedy, words matter. So in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the University of Chicago linguist has been disturbed to see terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” enter the popular discourse.

Kennedy saw this shift not only as a threat to democracy, but as a dangerous reconfiguration of how we understand truth.

“The question was: ‘What can I do? What role do I play in thinking about that?’” Kennedy said. “If you’re someone who studies meaning, then maybe talking about the role that truth plays in meaning and communication will help other people think about this stuff in a richer way.”

Kennedy, the William H. Colvin Professor of Linguistics, will explore the nature of truth—how it is built into the ways we communicate, and how those processes create sets of shared beliefs—during his keynote address during UChicago’s annual Humanities Day on Oct. 20. The speech, which will begin at 11 a.m. in Mandel Hall, is one of 40 presentations on Saturday showcasing the richness and variety of scholarship from UChicago’s Division of the Humanities.

Of particular interest to Kennedy is the way that social media has become a megaphone for distortions or outright lies.

“It’s not like people started lying and BS-ing in 2016,” Kennedy said. “I would be shocked if that hasn’t been going on as long as people have been talking. But what are the differences now? That’s one of them.”

Founded in 1980, Humanities Day is a free annual event filled with dozens of discussions, performances, and lectures from faculty and students. Visitors can delve into alternate reality gaming, explore the South Side Movie Project’s digital archive or tour a new exhibit at the Logan Center.

For Kennedy, the day represents another opportunity to discuss language and discourse—topics he has thought about for years. Once a bass player in an Austin-based rock band, his career trajectory changed when he read a library copy of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures. The book helped Kennedy realize that his interest in Russian, which he studied as an undergrad at Dartmouth University, was rooted in a fascination with how language functioned.

Nearly two years ago, Kennedy decided to launch a new class called “Truth” to address the way President Donald Trump’s ambivalence toward facts stoked political polarization. While he acknowledged the difficulty of finding objective “truth,” Kennedy hopes that his efforts can prompt students—and the broader public—to think more deeply about conversational conventions and the way they shape meaning.

“It’s not up to me to tell people what sense to make out of all of this,” Kennedy said. “It’s more about giving them, hopefully, ways of thinking about these issues that they haven’t considered before.”

Here is a selection of other presentations at Humanities Day 2018:

  • Transforming First-Year Orientation Through Alternate Reality Gaming9:30 a.m., Logan Center Penthouse — Assoc. Profs. Patrick Jagoda and Kristen Schilt discuss the parasite, the alternate reality game they created to immerse first-year UChicago students in a more dynamic orientation experience.
  • Putin’s Puppets: 9:30 a.m., Kent Chemical Laboratory, Room 120 — Assoc. Prof. William Nickell, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, will examine how Vladimir Putin seized control of his image after being caricatured on the weekly Russian television show “Puppets.”
  • New Faculty Books in Creative Writing3:30 p.m., Seminary Co-op Bookstore — Asst. Profs. Rachel Galvin, Will Boast and Ling Ma will read from their respective new releases: Elevated Threat Level, a poetry collection from Galvin that explores American comfort and its ties to war and exploitation; Daphne, Boast’s modern-day reinterpretation of Ovid’s myth; and Severance, Ma’s post-apocalyptic satire. Director of Creative Writing John Wilkinson will moderate the panel.
  • Animal Cognition in Antiquity3:30 p.m., Stuart Hall, Room 101 — Graduate students Amber Ace, Jordan Johansen and Rik Peters will hold a panel on how ancient Greek authors voiced their fascination with animal behavior, something that still enchants modern audiences in the form of Pixar films and viral cat videos.