This article is in response to Russell Blackford’s piece, “Will science put the humanities out of business?”
I can’t agree with Mr. Blackford any more than to say, hurrah. The idea that the “sciences” will, somehow, destroy the humanities stems from a few misunderstandings in the roles of the two great branches of learning in the academy (the arts and sciences). Mr. Blackford rightly locates the crux with the tricky business of discriminating an “ought” from an “is.”
It is a fact of nature that my nearsightedness has worsened, quite rapidly, in the last few years, but no one I know suggests I ought to walk around squinting at street signs. Glasses thus are good, in normal parlance. This sort of naturalistic example is uncomplicated; however, higher order ethical questions, as well as the entire practice of humanistic hermeneutics, resists such simple reductions.
When someone can prove that Shakespeare is a “good” writer through a Whewellian hypothetico-deductive method or a Baconian induction that has been fully modeled, vetted, and reproduced, I’ll tip my hat. Until then, thinkers in the humanities will engage the hermeneutic impulse to provide readings that, often, tell us more about the consumption of Shakespeare than it does about his texts.”¨
But the conversation about the role of the two great branches of learning is important, and still topical. C.P. Snow crystallized this debate in the mid-twentieth century with his suggestion that two cultures existed in the British academy, the literary and the scientific, and that they were at odds.
In his quest to argue that science will solve global social problems, why, Snow asked, should one be held responsible for knowing the works of Shakespeare, but not understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics? His insight gave steam to an internecine intellectual fight that had surfaced a number of times in the past. (Today, one can chart the most recent “science wars” all the way back through Snow to Arnold and Huxley, on to the Romantic critiques of the Enlightenment Project, to the debate between the Ancients and Moderns, which revolved around the new science’s assault on both Aristotelianism and Renaissance Humanism.)
However, what shouldn’t be forgotten in the admission that the humanities will resist ultimate reduction is that there are those in the humanities who suffer from science envy. This envy was given impetus by entomologist and evolutionary theorist E.O. Wilson in his monograph, Consilience, wherein Wilson suggests that the humanities must move toward the methods of the sciences to remain relevant.
While this gentle shimmy sounds harmless enough, there are those in humanistic disciplines like literary studies who have taken such a move to heart. For example, any cursory examination into the nascent approach called Literary Darwinism reveals a loose confederacy of individuals who think literary texts are best read within Darwinian contexts (think, reading Jane Austen to understand how her characters represent universals in human behavior related to, say, their inclusive fitness).
In particular, Joseph’s Carroll’s Literary Darwinism clearly articulates this strong form, while the anthology The Literary Animal takes a less polemic approach, while still championing a Wilsonesque project of using the methods of the life sciences in the interrogation of texts. (For my critique of Literary Darwinism, see this article: PDF)
One can dismiss Carroll’s approach as simply that of a Victorian studies thinker who reacted against the most extreme forms of critical theory (e.g., blends of poststructuralism and postmodern culture popular in the eighties) by misusing Darwin, but the effects of a third culture are proving to be unavoidable.
That term, -third culture’, was popularized by literary agent and Edge founder John Brockman in a response to Snow to suggest that a new culture is emerging that is displacing the traditional, literary intellectual with thinkers in the sciences who are addressing key concepts and categories found in the humanities; Richard Dawkins writing about religion or Carl Sagan expounding about the awe of the cosmos both come to mind as quintessential examples. One need only browse through the science section of the book store to see that a bridge between the two cultures has been built, with much of the traffic in the popular sphere going one way.
Regardless, as Blackford notes, this emergence of a third culture does not mean the humanities are in jeopardy. The academy has always drawn disciplinary lines, and these will continue to move about. Yet Dilthey’s distinction between geist and natur still prove helpful, even as they are being problematized in highly complex interdisciplinary endeavors.
One can pick and chose any number of academic conversations in which both the sciences and the humanities are involved in a healthy engagement. In particular, the current conversation revolving around the idea of the transhuman and posthuman, so evident in this publication, as well as detailed in popular magazines like Wired or Seed, speak to the fact both branches are being utilized. ”¨
Ultimately, the fact that the developed world is infused with technoscience in all its varied, mangled forms does not mean core aspects of what it means to be a human being aren’t still up for grabs. One fruitful gap in modern science is that “the human” is still, at its base, a mystery. And while the championing to reduce this mystery through such endeavors as those under the umbrella of neuroscience should be encouraged, as long as there are still active agents who must navigate a world of social complexity, we will have expressions of how to do this. And we will discuss these artistic and literary expressions. And the humanities will continue, even if the discussion is, one day, between a carbon based intelligence and, say, a silicon or virtual one.