Science, Humanities, and the Mind

Last week, Susanna Siegel and Steven Pinker (both of Harvard) participated in a debate  about the role of the humanities and the sciences in the study of the mind. The debate was videotaped and can be watched here (update: link fixed). Below is Professor Siegel’s summary of the event, the topic of which raises questions about the value of the humanities more generally, as well as the structure of the university.

We were asked to discuss the roles of the sciences and the humanities in the study of the mind. Pinker went first. His own approach to studying to social phenomena (such as violence and gender roles) is evolutionary psychology. His intellectual hero is the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. That comes through in his comments. But his main focus is on the respective roles of the sciences in general and the humanities. You could have guessed it in advance: Pinker chides ‘the Humanities’ for their ‘anti-scientism’ and for being insulated from the sciences (he makes an exception for philosophy, which he thinks – wrongly – is thoroughly and heavily informed by psychology), but he seems deaf to huge swathes of research in politics, literature, and social history which isn’t and couldn’t productively be informed by any ‘science of the mind’ of the sort he envisions.

My goal in my comments was to exhibit some of these areas of the Humanities. Our main disagreement is about what’s continuous and what’s discontinuous between the sciences and the humanities.

I find continuity in the modes of inquiry between the sciences and the humanities, because science is more than just confirming hypotheses. It includes the analysis of problems and to some extent (e.g. in certain types of case studies) detailed descriptions of experiences. The discontinuity is in the subject-matter. I identified three examples in my talk. One of them is about evidentialism and beliefs about social inequality. In another example I mention Chris Lebron’s work on the long strand of American literature aimed at exposing the ‘vast experiential gulf’ between Americans. (I’m thankful to Chris for getting me to read Mat Johnson’s novel *Pym*.)

Pinker thinks the sciences have superior methods, and that those methods can be applied widely in the humanities. So he thinks there ought to be continuity in the subject matter, and that to the extent that actual modes of inquiry are discontinuous, that’s too bad for the humanities. (Philosophy is supposed to be a big hero here. He hasn’t met the many non-naturalists that populate the field!)

I chose not to emphasize explicitly my biggest disagreement with Pinker’s own political and psychological orientation. In a forum like this, that perspective is best met by exhibiting what it has to leave out. (It’d be different if we were charged with discussing sociobiology per se, in which case the perspective Pinker likes could be the main subject of discussion).

I also chose not to emphasize our biggest agreement, which is that philosophy – especially philosophy of mind, but also epistemology – is indeed often better when not conducted in complete intellectual isolation from the sciences. What would be the point of our spending all our time agreeing about that? It would have made the topic too narrow, and obscured the most important differences.

Final point: When you put together Pinker’s own orientation as the intellectual heir to EO Wilson, with his interesting suggestions about reorganizing the university, it’s easy to get the impression that he would in an imperialist manner impose sociobiology on the humanities. That is silly. He’s serious about exploring other ways for the university to be organized, such as getting rid of disciplines altogether. He’s not against fiction or philosophy. (He is after all the husband of the brilliant Rebecca Goldstein, philosopher and novelist). He says he didn’t disagree with anything I said, though when push came to shove, he said we don’t get any deep general or causal explanation of social phenomena or of the mind from the work in literature or history that I mentioned. He says causal generalizations can’t be gotten from ‘mere’ descriptions. –But here’s the part of his suggestion I think is very bad: he suggests selling the Humanities to the highest bidder. He points out in his talk that many donors would fund the Humanities more if there were greater connections to science. That is a poor reason to reorganize the university. You wouldn’t select which novels should be taught by consulting the NYTimes best-seller list either.

(Thanks to Susanna Siegel for sending this my way.)


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