Thursday, June 4, 2015

Iain McGilchrist to Steven Pinker on the Humanities

I'm on a bipoetics psych list serve that also includes Ellen Dissanayake. She just informed the group of Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), which seems to have been something of a hit in various intellectual circles. McGilchrist has a website, and that website has a long reply he wrote to Steven Pinker's last jeremiad on how the humanities really need to pay more attention to science.

Such things (as Pinker's complaint), as you may know, drive me batty. On the one hand, I took Pinker's advice long before he was giving it and it cost me a career. So, yeah, I wish humanists would pay more attention to science. On the other hand, when scientific types start thinking about the arts and literature and such, well, it's not the sort of thing you'd want to tell your mother about.

Anyhow, I've been reading around in McGilchrist's reply and…yes and no. Yes:
In all couple relations it is useful to attend to the boundaries. Boundaries need to be flexible and semi-permeable, and are hard to define – all the imprecise stuff that Professor Pinker deplores. But they are none the less important for that. They are not to be treated as barriers that keep things apart, but on the contrary as the mutually respected markers that make co-operation possible. They are what enable the relationship to function at all.

With this in mind, Professor Pinker’s opening strategy is revealing. He starts by re-describing all the philosophers he admires – Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith – as cognitive neuroscientists or evolutionary and social psychologists. If you are later going to claim that science can answer the big philosophical questions it is, of course, a smart move to have philosophers in your team. But for someone who wants to reassure that he is not engaged in ‘an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities’, it is perhaps a little ill-judged. Anyway, was Kant – or Hume, who denied the reality of cause and effect – really a ‘cognitive neuroscientist’? I think the only polite response is: ‘Er, no’.
The psychiatric framing is a bit cloying – I note the McGhilchrist is a psychiatrist as well as a literary scholar and so comes by such framing honestly – but I think this point a fair one.

But the piece does strike me as a bit dated and so I've not been able to bring myself to attend to it in any detail. Skipping ahead, McGhilchrist is going off the rails here:
One of the failings of the humanities has been a lack of self-belief and a failure to stand up for what they represent. I also agree wholeheartedly that there was a lot of time lost in the wastelands of structuralism, in some (though by no means all) forms of post-modernism, and so forth. But in my view this was symptomatic, precisely, of this loss of nerve by the humanities in the face of science. They felt they needed their own mystique, guarded by technical language and involving arcane conceptual systems.
On the one hand, I don't think structuralism was a wasteland (see some of my posts on Lévi-Strauss) and this trope of needing technical language and arcane conceptual systems in order to ape science is just lame. It's not that I think "post-modernism and so forth" is just fine, but that pseudo-rationale is nonsense.

On the whole, I'm thinking that McGhilchrist hasn't got it.


  1. "On the whole, I'm thinking that McGhilchrist hasn't got it."

    It's crystal-clear that, on the whole. you are the one who hasn't got it. It would help actually to read the entire McGilchrist piece, or even to engage your brain with respect to the parts you did read. If you had, for instance, then you would have noticed that McGilchrist does not decry Levi-Strauss' structural anthropology, per se, but rather its encroachment into the humanities, literary criticism, and the like. But it's apparent that you've made up your mind about the matter already, and therefore there's no need actually to read the piece to verify that your arrogant dismissal of it is justified.

  2. "...its encroachment into the humanities..."

    But that's the problem. He thinks it's "enchroachment". I don't. I think it's fine and that humanists erred by not thinking deeply enough about Lévi-Strauss.