Culture Magazine

Humanists & Scientists – Get a Life!

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
By now you’ve heard the news: Steven Pinker’s tried to offer some friendly advice to humanists and folks are all in a tizzy. Um, err, guys and gals, his bark is worse than his bite.
Dan Dennett’s weighed in with some sage advice over at John “Super Agent” Brockman’s joint:
Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.
I can’t fault that.
The first half of Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction gives an excellent summary and synthesis of work in the newer psychologies. But the second half, where he examines two texts, Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, is, frankly, dull stuff (my review is HERE). Except for the vocabulary, it could have been written 40 or 50 years ago.
And THAT fact makes it a bit difficult for me to recommend these newer psychologies to my colleagues in literary criticism and related disciplines. Cognitive-evo-neuroscience is fascinating, yes. But it doesn’t have much, if anything, to show by way of intellectually transformative work on actual texts. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. Here, I’m afraid, we’re just spinning wheels, kicking up lots of smoke and roar, but there’s not much forward motion.
As for Dennett himself, I’m sure he’s a cultivated man, has read the classics, goes to the opera, and all that; yet his analytic and descriptive grasp of cultural materials leaves something to be desired. Hence, his memetic investigations are rather thin, as I’ve recently argued at some length. He’s not really brought his science learning home to the humanities in any deep way.
The thing is, if these guys didn't spend so much time hectoring humanists those humanists might be more inclined to do some of the reading and thinking these guys are urging. But with them hovering over Camp Humanist like a micro-managing Den Mother, why the humanist scouts are bound to resist simply on principle.
Meanwhile I just dipped in to that hoary old classic, C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and a Second Look. On page 16 he observes, “It’s bizarre how very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art.” He wrote that in 1959, and it’s still more or less true. Though things ARE beginning to get better. In fact one artist, Shuli Sadé, tells me things are about to pop.
Let’s hope.

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