Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Neurohumanities, into the gap?

The Nation has an article on "neurohumanities" which is more or less about neuro-, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology in this humanities. Here's an excerpt:
Neuroscience appears to be filling a vacuum where a single dominant mode of thought and criticism once existed. That plinth has been held in the American academy by critical theory, neo-Marxism and psychoanalysis. Alva Noë, a University of California, Berkeley, philosopher who might be called a “neuro doubter,” sees neurohumanities as a reaction to the previous postmodern moment. “The pre-eminence of neuroscience” has legitimated an “anti-theory stance” within the humanities, says Noë, the author of Out of Our Heads.

Noë argues that neurohumanities is the ultimate response to—and rejection of—critical theory, a mixture of literary theory, linguistics and anthropology that dominated the American humanities through the 1990s. Critical theory’s current decline was somewhat inevitable, as all intellectual movements erode over time. ... But as critical theory’s power—along with that of Marxism and Freudianism—fades within the humanities, neurohumanities and literary Darwinism are stepping up, ready to explain how we live, love art and read a novel (or rather, how the cortex absorbs text). And while much was gained as “the brain” replaced “individual psychology” or social class readings, much has also been lost.

Critical theory offered us the fantasy that we have no control, making a fetish of haze and ambiguity and exhibiting what Noë terms “an allergy to anything essentialist.” In neurohumanities, by contrast, we do have mastery and concrete, empirical ends, which has proved more appealing, even as (or perhaps because) it is highly reductive.
Well, yes, no, maybe.


  1. Great article. I would love to hear you expand on your "yes, no, maybe" comment.

  2. Well, I suppose that much of this blog is such an expansion. Yes, we need new approaches, but much of the cited work seems a bit too much like old wine in new bottles. For example, somewhere on this blog there's a longish review of Brian Boyd's The Origin of Stories, which is, conceptually, a combination of cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology. The first half of the book lays how the psychology, and is an excellent primer. The second half of the book contains detailed commentary on two texts, Homer's Odyssey and Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!. It's rather dull. Except for the terminology it could have been written 50 years ago.