Friday, May 23, 2014

I don’t give a crap about science

I originally published this in The Valve, 25 March 2010. I republished it once before at New Savanna and I think it's worth republishing again, this time in the context of my extensive posting on digital humanities, which is sometimes subject to an unproductive discussion of humanistic vs. scientific method. In these discussions the opposed methods are ideological formations more than actual procedures real people use to arrive at more or less reliable knowledge.
Let me repeat that: I don’t give a crap about science. And again, just so you know I mean business: I don’t give a crap about science. Though just what kind of business I mean, well...

From which it follows, as the night the day, that I’m not interested in making the study of literature more scientific. I certainly want to see literary studies change in certain ways, use new ways of thinking—and of organizing and publishing our work. But making it “more scientific” is not part of the program.

Still, when I say “I don’t give a crap about science,” what do I mean? Anyone who has more than a casual acquaintance with my work knows that I frequently cite work in, e.g. cognitive science, neurobiology, and actually use those ideas in the body of my text. Until few years ago I only got three academic journals, PMLA, Science, and Nature. Then I dropped PMLA (not all that interesting), a year later I dropped Nature (too expensive), and finally, alas, Science (not as expensive as Nature, but still too much). It thus seems unlikely that I intend “I don’t give a crap about science” to have its most obvious meaning, that is: I don’t give a crap about science.

I mean something else.

Most intimately, most closely at hand, I mean that I don’t worry about whether or not my work is sufficiently scientific. I worry about whether or not it is interesting, about rigor and coherence, about whether the prose is clear and, as appropriate, elegant. But is it scientific? Not an issue. Nor is it an issue I worry about in the work of others.

Another thing I worry about is objectivity. Something I find deeply obscure.

As I walk about my apartment there are all these things that clearly are objects, existing apart from me. Much philosophical ink has been spilled on that issue, but it is not that ink and its intended meanings that I mean to evoke here and now. Just the ordinary experience and those real objects out there in the world. So that is one thing.

Then there is scientific objectivity, over which much philosophical ink has also been spilled. I believe such objectivity is real, though our understanding of it is obscure and contested.

What about the objectivity of journalists? That is different from the objectivity of scientists. How does it work? Some might wonder whether it is possible at all. Can the notion of “objectivity” be given useful meaning with respect to the situations on which journalists must report?

I also recognize that some matters are ineluctably subjective. Among those, some may be relentlessly idiosyncratic and specific to individuals. But I’m not sure that beauty is among those. Nor the good. It is often possible to reach substantial intersubjective agreement on matters that are subjective. Society would be impossible without such agreement. And we may well mistake widespread intersubjective agreement on subjective matters for objectivity. Or is that a mistake? Sometimes, often, always, never?

Objectivity, how to achieve it, that has perhaps been my main methodological concern in literary studies. These days I am particularly interested in the ways in which we can extend the reach of objective analysis and description of literary works (cf. this post on how "Kubla Khan" kicked my intellectual training into oblivion, of this article on literary morphology).

What about intersubjective agreement on subjective matters? What role does it play in literary studies? Note that I believe genuine critical activity, aesthetic or ethical evaluation of texts, is subjective and so criticism in this sense is about securing intersubjective agreement.

I further suspect that in many cases where we talk of humanistic knowledge being subjective we really mean something more like informal or unformalized.

(What about objectivity and intersubjective agreement?)

* * * * *

Ergo, I tend to regard much-most humanities vs. science discussion as ideologically-driven wanking and I regard Snow’s Two Cultures and its spawn as children of the Devil.

1 comment:

  1. Read through this a few times over the week. Not sure why, but last night in relation to my own interest started for the first time to properly look at the history of the idea of creativity.

    I have no idea why institutional thought tends to get so rigid other than suspecting its socially important for the survival of its inmates in such a competitive and strange environment.

    I always felt in regard to university i was in the wrong place at the wrong time something I found reflected in yesterdays reading.