Friday, September 13, 2013

Humanists and Scientists: Asymmetrical Knowledge

In response to my post, Humanists & Scientists – Get a Life!, Margaret Freeman made this observation:
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.
Why should they?

That’s not the response I made in the comment thread, but it’s one that occurs to me after thinking about the question.

We (humanists) study cognitive science (and other disciplines) because we think it will help us in our study of literature. Cognitive scientists, by and large, are not interested in studying literature (or film, whatever). It’s just too difficult and complex for their techniques and theories. They may appreciate literature as private citizens, but they don’t need to read academic literary criticism in order get pleasure out of reading Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace, or, for that matter, Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Just as one can drive a car without knowing anything about the physics of internal combustion engines, so one can read The Left Hand of Darkness without knowing anything about literary criticism much less immersing oneself in it.

The trouble comes when these folks, whether Steven Pinker, Dan Dennett, or whomever, start criticizing humanists.

To begin, humanists have a history of making ill-informed critical comments about science; this practice long predates postmodernism. Given this, ill-tempered return volleys are to be expected. These volleys may not be directed at the work Freeman does, or that other cognitive critics do, but it’s hard not to see them as directed at the humanities in general and to respond in kind, if only in one’s mind.

Still, while Steven Pinker is certainly taking a few return potshots, he’s doing more as well. I don’t know how much cognitive criticism he’s read (he did blurb Patrick Hogan’s The Mind and Its Stories), but that’s not what he’s criticizing. He wants mainstream critics – whatever whoever they are – to change their ways. He believes that these critics are employing outdated theories in their work. Psychoanalysis in any of its varieties, for example, simply isn’t intellectually creditable in his view, so why should he even bother to read Lacanian literary criticism?

The interesting, and most important situation is what happens when people in other disciplines decide that they want to take on humanistic materials as objects of investigation. There, it seems to me, we have a hard slog. Just as it is difficult, first to become expert in some variety of literary study, and then to take-on cognitive science, so the reverse is true. Someone like Keith Oatley, it seems to me, has done an exemplary job in this regard. Dan Dennett’s work on memetics, however, is problematic. He simply hasn’t undertaken the detailed study of any aspect of culture. He just takes the theory of biological evolution and cuts and trims culture to fit it.

And then we have the so-called digital humanities. I won’t comment on that now (though I have done so in the past), but note that there’s a discussion going on at Language Log about computational linguistics (aka NLP: natural language processing) and literary scholarship. I fully expect that something interesting will come out of these efforts, though it’s going to be hard slogging in the cross-disciplinary trenches.

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