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The Third Culture
Curtis D. Carbonell   Nov 22, 2010   Ethical Technology  

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. ”¨

imageUltimately, 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.


I would place literature with the arts. There’s always going to be a subjective aspect to the study of any art, written, visual or tactile.

But there are other humanities—the so-called social sciences—fields like psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and history, where science has been invited in, but held at arm’s length. It varies from field to field, but in some social sciences, psuedo-science passes for science (Freud anyone?) and in others, say, history or anthropology, science is rejected in favor of postmodern mumbo-jumbo. (Of The Sokol Hoax fame).

I think the real barricade to real science in the social sciences is the lack of rigorous math training…and possibly ability… of the practitioners. The great value of Foucaultian language is that it looks immensely difficult but is incredibly easy, especially for people whose brains are logocentric rather than mathematically inclined.

Tara Maya
Conmergence:// An Anthology of Speculative Fiction

Tara, interesting comment, although I might suggest another barricade is the very nature of society itself. We never found our Newton of the blade of grass, much less of society. And, while many disciplines lean toward the sciences in their attempt at analysis and synthesis, the impulse of the core humanities disciplines (i.e., philosophy, history, literature, the arts, religion) will most likely remain, primarily, hermeneutic. Because knowing ourselves through the humanities is predicated on Kantian conditions of possibilities, the hermeneutic circle will contain us. I am not sure math is a way out of this. Imagine if Foucault had been a statistician. Would we ever have gotten his reading of Las Meninas or his graphic description of an attempted regicide’s execution?

This is an important debate. We have a vast library of skills and data of many sorts available to us today. Yet our individual abilities to encompass it all in one lifetime have long since been overwhelmed. Mastering one, or a few, sets of skills and their data has an opportunity cost - one cannot master other skills and data.

Ideally, all of us would be expected to be able to use all of these skills and data at any time, in new combinations, to produce yet more data and skills, or to overcome the new problems we might encounter. But in practice it is not even presently possible for even a few very unusual persons to achieve this level of proficiency, EVEN WITH all our present intellectual aids, such as our smartphones and the web.

We thus practise a division of labour. But there are some further problems with this. Namely ensuring communication between persons whose skill and data sets do not overlap much. And, more troublingly, there are inconsistencies between the methodologies of the disciplinary trainings that skill and data sets are grouped into. In part these can be approached by instilling into experts as narrowly trained as we (presently) must all be, open mindedness and the appreciation that others’ methodologies do give usefully different perspectives on the same phenomena. We are forced to recognise that none of us have 20-20 vision.

Of course one should be held at fault for not being familiar with Shakespeare, or Confucius, or Greg Egan for that matter. And OF COURSE one should be held at fault for not being familiar with arithmetic, or geometry, or calculus or the mathematics of infinity, statistics, probability theory…ignorance is no excuse for a failure to appreciate another’s contribution or perspective. How can one appreciate if one does not have the required skills and data to even evaluate it against all other contributions though?

To my mind, the spread of science into the understanding of phenomena like the human identification with narrative, or our ability to regenerate our energies from aesthetic enjoyment, is not a threat to artistic creativity or appreciation, but merely another layer of depth of understanding of those processes. Just as an engineer can build more effectively if they can understand why a bridge stays up, or not; so an author, composer, musician or poet may gain insights and inspiration from knowing how her, his or their works achieve such powerful effects in the brains of individuals, or in the collective behaviour of societies.

I see no problem with this spread of science into the arts and humanities. Even speaking as a creative person, I see no problem. Already human creativity and intellectual effort are commodities, as other forms of replicable labour are.

But I do see a problem in our limited ability to individually encompass all we need to know about ourselves and our world. I do see a problem in ensuring that our mechanisms for overcoming this by distributing our knowledge and then communicating about it are functioning effectively enough. I do see a problem in the education of new members of our societies.

We are, I think, pushing up against the boundaries of our distributed knowledge system. So far it has been an evolutionary advantage. But as we know more and want to control more it may become a serious disadvantage. Who or what might be able to take advantage of our vulnerability?

If we are concerned about the long term resilience of our ways of going on we should, with all our powers, be addressing this problem of the incompleteness of the knowledge and skills of any one individual.

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