Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Humanists & Scientists – Get a Life!

By now you’ve heard the news: Steven Pinker’s tried to offer some friendly advice to humanists and folks are all in a tizzy. Um, err, guys and gals, his bark is worse than his bite.

Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.
I can’t fault that.

Um, err, yes you can. That dig at "problematics" was gratuitous and hence unnecessary.

The first half of Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction gives an excellent summary and synthesis of work in the newer psychologies. But the second half, where he examines two texts, Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, is, frankly, dull stuff (my review is HERE). Except for the vocabulary, it could have been written 40 or 50 years ago.

And THAT fact makes it a bit difficult for me to recommend these newer psychologies to my colleagues in literary criticism and related disciplines. Cognitive-evo-neuroscience is fascinating, yes. But it doesn’t have much, if anything, to show by way of intellectually transformative work on actual texts. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. Here, I’m afraid, we’re just spinning wheels, kicking up lots of smoke and roar, but there’s not much forward motion.

As for Dennett himself, I’m sure he’s a cultivated man, has read the classics, goes to the opera, and all that; yet his analytic and descriptive grasp of cultural materials leaves something to be desired. Hence, his memetic investigations are rather thin, as I’ve recently argued at some length. He’s not really brought his science learning home to the humanities in any deep way.

The thing is, if these guys didn't spend so much time hectoring humanists those humanists might be more inclined to do some of the reading and thinking these guys are urging. But with them hovering over Camp Humanist like a micro-managing Den Mother, why the humanist scouts are bound to resist simply on principle.

Meanwhile I just dipped in to that hoary old classic, C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and a Second Look. On page 16 he observes, “It’s bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art.” He wrote that in 1959, and it’s still more or less true. Though things ARE beginning to get better. In fact one artist, Shuli Sadé, tells me things are about to pop.

Let’s hope.


  1. Bill: Though I agree with much of what you've said, I think it rather the case that while many humanists (I include myself among them) are attempting to educate themselves in cognitive science research, with some success, the reverse tends not to be true. Only infrequently does one come across any attempt on the part of the cognitive scientists to immerse themselves in arts and humanities research.

  2. I think Wiesetlers concern is with people in science who think the same way he does and use the same approach to learning and instruction as he does.

    Its a barbaric approach to learning and teaching, which occurs across the institutional spectrum.

  3. "Only infrequently does one come across any attempt on the part of the cognitive scientists to immerse themselves in arts and humanities research."

    Right, Margaret. That's Dennett's problem, for example. While I certainly have problems with postmodernism etc., I DO know why intelligent scholars follow those lines of thought. Most scientist critics of postmodernism don't have a clue, so I find their criticism a bit tiresome. People who haven't themselves seriously engaged with the problems of humanities research don't know what the problems are.

  4. I agree with Margaret as well, Bill, and enjoyed your piece. I'm especially annoyed with scientists who make claims about "creativity" based on fMRIs of people trying to find a common word that unites a group of five, for example. Seems analytical, not creative to me.

    I'm a literary scholar who is really trying to use recent neuroscience to explore the minds of paranormally inclined dissociative poets. Here's my most recent attempt:



  5. Carole: any thoughts on Coleridge and "Kubla Khan"? Don't know whether he qualifies as dissociative – probably not – but that poem has generated an inordinate body of commentary prompted by his claim of drug-induced paranormal inspiration. I take that claim seriously, but not at face value.

    Some years ago one Roland Fisher wrote a very impressive review article on the cartography of inner space, which was published in a wonderful anthology, Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience, & Therapy, edited by Siegel and West (Wiley 1975).

  6. A very simple observation coming from someone outside academia: when the scholarly circles of the humanities and sciences each have their respective internal
    bodies of agreement/divergence, wouldn't you expect that individual scholars will also speak to a larger group in order to find followers/challengers in order to shore up their standing in their own group? Theory then following the push and pull of internal contractions/yielding/expansiveness with theory sometimes secondary to what is driving the reach for position, power, voice? I am reminded of playing jacks as a child. Small scale to be sure. The risk taking comes into play with a chancier throw of the ball and jacks; a less obvious choice of deciding which of the jacks to scoop all at once in time to get the ball? an obvious group of choices decided on proximity? A few giggles thrown in to hinder the opponent's concentration? How to strategize advancing to pick up all the jacks? (Say it is not so. Is the heat of timing enough to balance the atoms of you, Matter Jacks? the Ball a display? Appearances matter, says The Hand. Making for another Pattern.)

  7. There are a small number of both humanists and scientists who do write for a general audience. But the following you get with a general audience doesn't translate into prestige within the profession, and may even hurt you.

    Though I'm not sure of its application here, your example of ball and jacks is interesting on its own terms. Never having played it, I simply wasn't aware of the strategic aspects you outline. And, of course, I didn't play the game because it's gender typed. Girls play ball and jacks, and boys shoot marbles. So NOW I'm wondering: why the gender typing?