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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Whoops, there goes humanity!

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/10/06 at 11:34 AM

Geoffrey Harpham, head of the National Humanities Center, has an article in American Scientist entitled “Science and the Theft of Humanity." I find it rather anodyne but, hey! that’s just me. After some run up about disciplinary boundaries and poaching (an invigorating thing) and stuff, he says:

. . . while humanistic scholars have been presuming core facts about human nature, human capacities and human being, scientists have been getting to work. One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology. (Indeed, some of the most suggestive work is being done not just outside the humanities but outside the university, by inventors and innovators in the for-profit sector.)

Aspects of the question of autonomy are being taken up not just by philosophers but by investigators in cognitive science, genomics, biochemistry and the technology of bioinformatics. In all these fields, the presumed autonomy of the free human subject is being interrogated and complicated. The presumption of singularity that informs history is also being pressed hard by those working in computational science, animal intelligence, genetic engineering and evolutionary biology, all of which are making it harder to speak in traditional ways about the splendid self-sufficiency of the human species.

And creativity—the most splendid of all properties of human being, according to the humanities—is now being itself redefined by linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience and even software development, which are assigning new meanings to this term, meanings that do not necessarily funnel back to the individual human being in a state of inspired frenzy.

He concludes:

We stand today at a critical juncture not just in the history of disciplines but of human self-understanding, one that presents remarkable and unprecedented opportunities for thinkers of all descriptions. A rich, deep and extended conversation between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could have implications well beyond the academy. It could result in the rejuvenation of many disciplines, and even in a reconfiguration of disciplines themselves—in short, a new golden age.

No doubt, but first we have to get to it.  The (in)famous structuralism symposium at Hopkins back in the 1960s had similar aims. We’ve got more interdiciplinary centers now than we did back then, but the same old departmental structures still run things. The ground plan is still the one we inherited from 19th century Berlin.

I’d like to see it happen, I’ve been waiting 30 years, I’m not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, a Sept 2005 announcement from the National Humanities Center:

The National Humanities Center seeks scholars in the humanities, as well as those working in biological or computational science, to participate in a three-year project that will gather, synthesize, and promote new knowledge about fundamental human capacities, including such higher-order capacities as communication, imagination, judgment, and creativity. Participants in the project will pursue their own projects, but will also share responsibility for the ongoing initiative, including lectures, symposia, and, at the conclusion of the project, a Web archive of its findings. Interested scholars are encouraged to apply to the Center (see Fellowships on the Center’s homepage).


Comments

Harpham writes that recent scientific work “[makes] it harder to speak in traditional ways about the splendid self-sufficiency of the human species.”

You mean, science has caught up with Heidegger and John Dewey?

Harpham also suggests that work on human creativity questions the notion of “the individual human being in a state of inspired frenzy.”

And the deconstruction of Romantic genius too?

By on 07/10/06 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Humanists are shouted down for not being totally up to date on the latest scientific discoveries (half of which will be thrown out within six months), but scientists don’t have to be up to date on the humanities—in fact, they don’t even have to know anything that has happened in the past 50 years in the humanities.

Yes, scientists are the only possible model for responsible intellectual work!  Yes, only humanists make wrong-headed unfounded statements!  Ah, science—glorious, glorious science!  Save us from our shoddiness!  Lead us into the light!

By Adam Kotsko on 07/10/06 at 04:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, as Proust wrote in *The Guermantes Way*, every time a doctor diagnoses you, you’re subject to the sum of medical error at that moment.

By on 07/10/06 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You can’t blame the scientism in this article on scientists.  The author of it, Harpham, is a literary studies person.

By on 07/10/06 at 07:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K: “Humanists are shouted down for not being totally up to date on the latest scientific discoveries (half of which will be thrown out within six months), but scientists don’t have to be up to date on the humanities—in fact, they don’t even have to know anything that has happened in the past 50 years in the humanities.”

Don’t agree; this doesn’t map onto my experience, and I’m really not sure what ‘... scientists don’t have to be up date...’ implies (that there’s an official body enforcing the rule that humanities students are obliged to be up to date with the sciences or face a shouting down?  ‘Have to be’ in what sense?

In my institution many of my humanities colleagues are not only ignorant of science but stubbornly and rather stupidly proud of their ignorance.  I don’t know any scientists who are like that with the humanities.  Really, none at all.  When I meet up with scientists they almost without exception talk about the novels or poetry they’ve been reading, the films or plays they’ve been to see, the music they’re into.

... the latest scientific discoveries (half of which will be thrown out within six months) ...

As opposed to what?  Reading the latest novels, many more than half of which will be wholly forgotten in six months time?  I wonder if you mean ‘scientific theories’ rather than discoveries, and I wonder if you mean that these theories will be shown to be insufficient at the bar of truth.  Which may well be the case, but which seems to hold science to a much higher standard than eg art, lit, philosophy whilst also denigrating (or: ‘in order thereby to denigrate’?) it.

I don’t mean to be snarky; yours was a more light-hearted than serious comment I’m thinking.

By Adam Roberts on 07/12/06 at 08:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But, it’s one thing to be reading poetry and going to concerts on the regular, it’s another thing to follow scholarship on poetry and music.

By Bill Benzon on 07/12/06 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m not sure the analogy holds.  Scientist who goes to concerts and reads books is equivalent to ... what?  Humanities graduate who performs scientific experiments but doesn’t read the surrounding scientific literature on those experiments?  That can’t be right.

By Adam Roberts on 07/12/06 at 12:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That last comment of mine wasn’t clear; haste, haste, curse my haste.  Permit me to rephrase:

Scientist who goes to concerts and reads books but doesn’t read scholarship on books and music is equivalent to ... what?  Humanities graduate who performs scientific experiments but doesn’t read the surrounding scientific literature on those experiments?  That can’t be right.

By Adam Roberts on 07/12/06 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Adam, I thought that the point of contemporary literary theory is to get away from all that tedious, naive concern with narrative and evaluation and aesthetics.  That’s always what people say when they justify why the general interest in reading literature doesn’t mean that the general public should be able to understand what they write about literature.

By on 07/12/06 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Far be it from me to agree with Rich, but it does seem like “hey, scientists like novels and stuff” is missing the point here.

By Adam Kotsko on 07/12/06 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not be be my usual snotty self, but I think it all depends upon *what* these scientists are reading, viewing, listening to, etc.  A scientist who reads some Billy Collins and *The Atlantic Monthly* fiction issue, goes to see the new Linklater flick, and checks out the local performance of a Bach cantata is not really engaged in the humanities as intellectual disciplines.  I think that’s the point Bill is trying to make.

I don’t think it’s only about middle-brow culture, either.  Literary scholars are often expected by their posivitist critics (at least, around The Valve) to know the most recent professionalized discourses in the sciences, especially biology and cognitive science.  The scientist who digs some plays and concerts and novels is like the lit critic who reads *Popular Science* and watches some cable science programming. 

I’m not even suggesting that this hypothetical scientist needs to be actively engaged in literary criticism, say.  But to be actively engaged in the arts is rare among *most* academic professionals, humanities and science both.  The number of literary scholars who could name five Objectivist poets or name the editor of *The New American Poetry* is scarily small (in my experience).

By on 07/12/06 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Adam, it’s a curious asymmetry. What I find bothersome are scientists who pronounce on how humanists should operate and even on what constitutes valid art but who don’t seem to have much more than a lay knowledge of such things.

On the humanities side, I was thinking of something like humanists who don’t read beyond the science page of a large metropolitan newspaper, or perhaps Discover magazine, but offer authoratative(-sounding) opinions on string theory, behavioral genetics, and whatever. Are there any such? 

I know what you’re saying about your colleages. How far does their well-cultivated ignorance extend? Forget about dipping into the technical literature or even Scientific American, does their austerity extend to the gee-whiz offerings of the MSM as well?

By Bill Benzon on 07/12/06 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m curious to learn exactly what you mean by the term “positivist” and how exactly anyone who posts here fits that description.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 07/12/06 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment


On the humanities side, I was thinking of something like humanists who don’t read beyond the science page of a large metropolitan newspaper, or perhaps Discover magazine, but offer authoratative(-sounding) opinions on string theory, behavioral genetics, and whatever. Are there any such?

I would imagine this is somewhat less common now than in the pre-Sokal period. It was certainly not hard to find examples in that golden age, and many of them are written up (not always very thoroughly, alas) in Sokal-Bricmont.

I’m puzzled that one finds, say, extracts from Kuhn in what look like introductory anthologies of literary criticism (sorry, I can’t remember specific examples). Why is it that literary scholars have to know about this? Is it part of sounding like you know something about science?

By Richard Crew on 07/12/06 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No, it’s more like part of indicating that you know that even scientific knowledge is provisional; paradigms come and paradigms go. Hence, even THERE, of all places, there really isn’t any there there.

Kuhn has been widely influential outside of the history and philosophy of science.

By Bill Benzon on 07/12/06 at 05:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was a part of a conversation two nights ago, during which BiDil came up, and the humanist involved (well, philosopher - she may differ with the categorization) authoritatively stated “there is no genetic basis for race” and that the drug could not have higher efficacy in black people because of this.  Never mind, of course, that it does.

But all of this is not what the article linked above is talking about, namely efforts by science to expand into questions of consciousness and autonomy, and what should the reaction of humanists doing research in those fields be.

How is the Locke-Descartes-Helmholtz theory of Color affected by finding out that birds have four different color-sensitive pigments in their rods, while humans have three; two of those in birds being lost to mammals, and the third in mammals being derived from a mutation of one of the other two?

By on 07/12/06 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment


No, it’s more like part of indicating that you know that even scientific knowledge is provisional; paradigms come and paradigms go. Hence, even THERE, of all places, there really isn’t any there there.

I really don’t see what this has to do with literature.

In physics, for example, a new paradigm has to explain why the old paradigm had to give the correct results, at least up to a certain margin of error, for observations that were available at the time (this is the sort of thing, by the way, that Kuhn tries to gloss over). Quantum mechanics and General Relativity really do build on the results of classical mechanics. Does contemporary criticism build on Samuel Johnson or Matthew Arnold in the same way?

Yes, I know Kuhn was influential outside of the field of philosophy of science. Inside of that field, he’s still pretty controversial.

By Richard Crew on 07/12/06 at 07:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The issue that makes Kuhn interesting to literary criticis isn’t whether or not or how contemporary criticism builds older criticism. It’s about claims to knowledge. If scientific knowledge is, in fact, bound to paradigms, and paradigms inevitably change, then perhaps scientific knowledge is no more objective than humanistic knowledge. Indeed, perhaps scientific discourse is no closer to (or further from) the truth than poetry or fiction.

Note, I’m not claiming this is true and I’m not interested in debating the matter. I’m just saying that Kuhn has been interpreted as an invitation to such ideas and that’s why he’s interesting to (some) literary critics.

By Bill Benzon on 07/12/06 at 08:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jake, I’m quite interested in the implications of the cognitive and neural sciences—and even biology—for literary study and I’ve been working in those areas for three decades. There are new terms of analysis, discussion, and explanation, but I think issues such as consciousness and autonomy and creativity are still wide open. On those issues Harpham thus seems to me beside the point. And, as Luther Bissett pointed out, this business of “the individual human being in a state of inspired frenzy” is rather worn in the tooth even in contemporary humanistic terms. I simply don ‘t think this is where the impact will be. Whatever humanistic position you want to argue on this Big Issues, you can construct suitable versions of it in cognitive and neural terms. I think the impact will be of a different kind—some of the sorts of issues raised by the Moretti-fest:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/archive_asc/C48

I’ve got a longish programmtic article coming online in PsyArt in a week or so that lays out some of my views on the practical implications of the newer psychologies for literary study.

By Bill Benzon on 07/12/06 at 08:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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