Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Two Culture Again . . . again

Now this whole thread of writings and counter-writings around the idea of the relationship between the disciplines--science & the humanities, specifically--comes out of a Steven Pinker article in the New Republic. The article is a rambling advocacy piece for science as against the humanities.

Pinker has long been a cheerleader for science and has long had an axe to grind with the humanities. And, in fact, most of his points against the humanities go back twenty years or so. Some of them aren't really very current anymore. But since Pinker has a profitable sideline in attacking things like postmodernism, philosophical anti-science and political correctness, he has no interest in learning that none of these things is really very important anymore.

Is there some hostility to science out there still? Sure. But you'll find most of it attached to environmentalism. Not postmodernism. Some streams of environmentalism is ambivalent about science because science has given man the capability to do a great deal more damage to the Earth than he otherwise could have wrecked. For those who, seemingly, value ecosystem above all, this is a black mark against science--it has given dangerous tools to the baby (Us), with predictable results.

And yes, there is ambivalence in academia and everywhere about science that one doesn't find, say, with history. Why? because history is not powerful. Even if one is inclined to think history is bunk, one doesn't fear it. Science, though, is power, and a lot of people in the humanities think that power needs to be constantly checked and curbed.

This current push for science to, essentially, colonize the humanities is but a case in point. Years ago Pinker wrote a book called the Blank Slate, which as a piece of argumentation is an utter piece of crap. Pinker, or more likely his graduate students assiduously mined social science and humanities texts for evidence that human nature was ignored, Pinker then inserted the quotes, in many cases baldly misinterpreted them, and then railed against the notion that human nature was unimportant,past and especially present.

The story that Pinker doesn't tell you is that the concept "human nature" was a huge impediment to the advancement of the social sciences because it was an empty signifier--it meant whatever the speaker would like it to mean at the moment he (inevitably) spoke it. By dispensing with it, observers were able to move on to observing how social interactions social customs and social institutions actually worked. And they could ask questions about the nature (or possible nature) of social groups as apart from individual human nature. No one ever believed that human beings were infinitely malleable, because that notion is absurd on its very face.

But at some point a radical feminist must have taken Pinker cruelly to task for his "essentialism" and he's been taking his revenge (on us) ever since. Frankly it's long since gotten beyond tiresome. Yes, every social science was said to be essentially an expression of "human nature." That's what thinkers in the 18th Century said pretty much reflexively. And emptily.

Today science has some solid things to say about human nature. But human nature is a big & complex thing, and most of science's observations are narrow and limited. And they often seem to contradict one another as far as their take home message about "human nature." And there seems to be some very sloppy thinking going on in science around this idea--more sloppy and more dangerous than simply bracketing the term--agreeing that we can't agree what the term means, so we can't use it to explain things--which is what the humanities have largely done. (On science's sloppiness around making determinations about human nature see this piece from Jaak and Jules Panksepp and its sequel.)

Using "human nature" as a means to "settle" disputes in the humanities is frankly folly. While science has certainly learned some things about human nature since the 18th century, they are a long way from defining the term. A long, long way. The picture is incomplete. But what Pinker and other advocates of this idea are looking for is to use and expand the authority of science, even where science doesn't really have answers to offer. In fact, so far we've seen little new insight created in these fields by science. That's bound to change, but that's where it stands at the moment.

Mostly because all heuristics and posturing aside the humanistic tradition has never really abandoned the concept of human nature, and the observations of humanists about human nature are at a far better developed and nuanced than science's are at the moment. The notion of human nature is, of course, still deeply fraught with conflicts, but science isn't about to settle those

And special pleading by those who don't know the humanistic tradition--the very best repository of our experience and thinking and knowledge on the question--is no help.