Series: “The Importance of the Humanities” Post #3: Crimes Against Humanities

Screenshot 2015-10-04 09.03.18The third post in our ongoing series on The Importance of the Humanities opens a debate between The New Republic‘s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, and Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Wieseltier’s position is that science is wonderful, but it plays within certain boundaries of knowledge. Pinker’s position is that we must not fear science because, after all, the sciences and the humanities are inextricably linked. Wieseltier’s article appears in excerpt below. The full text can be found here.


Crimes Against Humanities

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.

None of these strictures about the limitations of science, about its position in nonscientific or extra-scientific contexts, in any way impugns the integrity or the legitimacy or the necessity or the beauty of science. Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more. In recent years, however, this much has been too little for certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe. In a world increasingly organized around the dazzling new breakthroughs in science and technology, they feel oddly besieged.

They claim that science is under attack, and from two sides…the second line of attack to which the scientizers claim to have fallen victim comes from the humanities. This is a little startling, since it is the humanities that are declining in America, not least as a result of the exaggerated glamour of science. But some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose. It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them. The idea of the autonomy of the humanities, the notion that thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding, fills them with a profound anxiety. It throws their totalizing mentality into crisis. And so they respond with a strange mixture of defensiveness and aggression. As people used to say about the Soviet Union, they expand because they feel encircled.

A few weeks ago this magazine published a small masterpiece of scientizing apologetics by Steven Pinker, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Pinker utters all kinds of sentimental declarations about the humanities, which “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Nobody wants to set himself against sensibility, which is anyway a feature of scientific work, too. Pinker ranges over a wide variety of thinkers and disciplines, scientific and humanistic, and he gives the impression of being a tolerant and cultivated man, which no doubt he is. But the diversity of his analysis stays at the surface. His interest in many things is finally an interest in one thing. He is a foxy hedgehog. His essay, a defense of “scientism,” is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.

Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures … are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion.

If Pinker believes that scientific clarity is the only clarity there is, he should make the argument for such a belief. He should also acknowledge its narrowness (though within the realm of science it is very wide), and its straitening effect upon the investigation of human affairs. Instead he simply conflates scientific knowledge with knowledge as such. In his view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist. It does not matter that they approached the phenomena with different methods and different vocabularies. If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists avant la lettre. Pinker’s essay opens with the absurd, but immensely revealing, contention that Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith were scientists. It is true that once upon a time a self-respecting intellectual had to be scientifically literate, or even attempt a modest contribution to the study of the natural world. It is also true that Kant, to choose but one of Pinker’s heroes of science, made some astronomical discoveries in his early work; but Kant’s significant contributions to our understanding of mind and morality were plainly philosophical, and philosophy is not, and was certainly not for Kant, a science. Perhaps one can be a scientist without being aware that one is a scientist. What else could these thinkers have been, for Pinker? If they contributed to knowledge, then they must have been scientists, because what other type of knowledge is there? For all its geniality, Pinker’s translation of nonscientific thinking into science is no less strident a constriction than, say, Carnap’s colossally parochial dictum that “there is no question whose answer is in principle unattainable by science.” His ravenous intellectual appetite notwithstanding, Pinker is finally in the same reductionist racket. (The R-word!) He sees many locks but only one key.

The translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central objective of scientism. It is also the source of its intellectual perfunctoriness. Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.

The scientistic reading of literary texts is similarly uninstructive, and often quite risible. I will give two examples. In 1951, Richard von Mises, an Austrian scientist and mathematician who fled the Nazis and found sanctuary at Harvard, published Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding, one of the classics of scientism, in which he argued that “a basic contrast between natural sciences and the humanities, with respect to either method or subject matter, cannot be constructed.” Such a separation, he said, would “require that between the intellectual behavior of a man and his physical organism no direct connection exists.” If we are partially explicable by science, in other words, then we must be totally explicable by science. Von Mises was a devoted reader of Rilke, and assembled an important collection of Rilke materials, which is now in Harvard’s library. In his book he included a discussion of poetry. “What the poet reports …” he contended, “are experiences about vital interrelations between observable phenomena.” Not only narrative and dramatic verse, but also lyrical or “pure” verse, “expresses only experiences about observable facts.” As his proof-text for this scientistic understanding of poetry, von Mises cites his beloved Rilke: “For the sake of a single verse one must see many cities, men, and things; one must know the animals; one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open up in the morning.” He believed that Rilke, of all writers, was recommending empiricism! Von Mises aridly instructed that “every poem, except in rare extreme cases, contains judgments and implicit propositions and thus becomes subject to logical analysis.” He deserved to be barred from Duino’s door.

In 1997, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel, another scientistic theory of everything. In one of its less charming passages, Diamond proposes “the Anna Karenina principle” for the understanding of the domestication of animals: “domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.” He is mimicking the renowned opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel: “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The adage is rather overrated, since all happy families are not alike; but here is how Diamond explicates it: “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.” This is a fine instance of the incomprehension, and the buzzkill, that often attends the extension of the scientistic temperament to literature and art. Of course Tolstoy had no such sociology or self-help in mind. His proposition was a caution against generalizations about the human heart, and a strike against facile illusions of intelligibility, and an affirmation of the incommensurability, the radical particularity, of individual experience. In-laws!

The inundation of historical and humanistic scholarship by patterns will also broach the question of the explanatory power of patterns. (The question occurred to me as Jakobson diligently collated all the r’s in Baudelaire’s poem.) As even some partisans of big data have noted, the massive identification of regularities and irregularities can speak to “what” but not to “why.”

I do not mean to be altogether churlish about the possibilities, or to confine the humanities to ghostly paleographers in the Bodleian reading room. The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations. But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities, as it has mutilated and damaged many disciplines and vocations. My point is only that shilling for the revolution is not what we need now. The responsibility of the intellectual toward the technologies is no longer (if it ever was) mere enthusiasm. The magnitude of the changes wrought by the new machines calls for the revival of a critical temper. Too much is at stake to make do with that cool vanguard feeling. But Pinker is just another enthusiast, just another cutting-edge man, waxing on like everybody else about how “this is an extraordinary time” because “powerful tools have been developed” and so on. It is more of the general inebriation. We get it, we get it. With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems. If there was one thing for which the humanities, the old humanities, the wearyingly traditional humanities, could be counted on, it was to introduce us also to the darkness and prepare us also for the worst.


Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.


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