Sunday, December 18, 2016

I don’t give a crap about consilience!

In the spirit of an old post, I don’t give a crap about science.

In his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson introduced consilience like this (8-9):
The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship. The propositions of the original Enlightenment are increasingly favored by objective evidence, especially from the natural sciences.

Consilience is the key to unification. I prefer this word over "coherence" because its rarity has preserved its precision, whereas coherence has several possible meanings, only one of which is consilience. William Whewell, in his 1840 synthesis The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, was the first to speak of consilience, literally a “jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. He said, “The Consilience of Inductions takes place when an Induction, obtained from one class of facts, coincides with an Induction, obtained from another different class. This Consilience is a test of the truth of the Theory in which it occurs.”
What’s not to like? I’m certainly in favor of “the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines.” I’ve been doing it for my entire career. While I filed my 1978 dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory, with the English Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo, much of it was technical cognitive science, with references from linguistics, psychology, computer science, primate ethology, and neuroscience along with literary criticism. I continue to utilize that range of disciplines – see, for example, my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, which was reviewed in both Science and Nature [1], or my article, Literary Morphology [2], which is a major theoretical and methodological statement.  I’ve got a long track record of linking material across disciplines.

But I’ve not done this out of a desire to “unify” the sciences and humanities. I did it because I wanted to understand how things work. Talk of unity and consilience strikes me as a somewhat more high-minded and less useful enterprise. That’s when I get antsy.

This urge to consilience strikes closest to my own concerns in the form a co-called literary Darwinism, the attempt to ground literary criticism in evolutionary psychology. I have no intention of engaging in further criticism of that dubious enterprise – I’ve done more than a bit of that already [3]. However doubtful I am of the criticism done in the name of literary Darwinism, I would like to think that the critics have undertaken it in the desire to understand how literature works – though I can’t help but thinking that what really interests them is human behavior and they’re using literature as a means of understanding it.

To the extent, however, that they are motivated by a desire for consilience, to that extent are they awarding themselves gold stars prior to undertaking the work needed to earn them – the old cart before the horse. THAT’s the problem with consilience. Its high-mindedness distracts you from hard intellectual labor.


[1] Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books Inc. 2001.
David Juritz. Notes on a cultural theme. Nature 461, 07 March 2002, p. 19.
Josef P. Rauschecker. Where Science Meets the Arts. Science 296 10 May 2002, p. 1032.

[2] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608.

[3] I’ve collected a number of blog posts critical of literary Darwinism into a working paper, On the Poverty of Literary Darwinism. That includes my long essay review, “Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism,” originally published in Entelechy and my review of Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories. You might also look at a relatively recent blog post in which I take Joseph Carroll to task for his incompetent treatment of cognitive science, Tinker Bell and Fairy Dust: Joseph Carroll Doesn’t Know what He Doesn’t Know. Finally, and by way of contrast, read my review of William Flesch, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (2007), which makes more interesting use of evolutionary psychology than the Darwinists do.

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