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The humanities and the sciences: learning from each other?

Paul Grobstein's picture

I was involved last Thursday in a rich and intriguing conversation in a Humanities Theory Seminar. The objective of the seminar series is "to imagine what a 'theory' course in the humanities might look like." I hadn't participated in earlier meetings in the series, but was attracted by the announced take off point for this particular sesssion, a recently published book in the history of science titled Objectivity. I was interested in finding out how my own recent thinking about "objectivity" and "subjectivity" related to that of humanists. More generally, I was intrigued by the chance to see to what degree humanists share my interest in finding common ground between the humanities and the sciences (cf Two Cultures or One? and Education: Between Two Cultures).

Objectivity uses scientific atlases as an observational foundation for arguing that science has used and continues to use a variety of normative/epistemological standards, with new ones emerging from
concerns about older ones without necessarily replacing them. The point is made by calling attention to an older "true to nature" form of illustration (that actually ignored variablity in the interests of showing generality) which in turn, along with technological advances, provoked a mechanical or photographic ideal that was felt by some to be more "objective." More recently, the latter has been challenged by proponents of
illustrations reflecting professional expertise, and still more recently by an interest in illustration that involves and to a significant degree celebrates the subjective judgements of the illustrator.

There are a number of intriguing features of this portrayal, among them a picture of science as to a significant degree mirroring biological evolution, with existing forms of inquiry reflecting recognition of shortcomings of prior forms ("getting it less wrong") but also with persistance of earlier forms to the extent
they correspond to the needs of particular specific contexts. I'm interested too in the documented pendulum swings with regard to acknowledging the existence and significance of variability.

On a more general level, the book is intriguing, of course, because of the challenge it provides to the notion of "objectivity" as a fixed and eternal feature of science. And, still more generally, the challenge it offers to a contemporary ideal of "objectivity" in the sense of an illustration that is totally devoid of any influence related to distinctive characteristics or perspectives of the illustrator (lacking any "interpretive act"). Along these lines, it was interesting to me that by and large humanists seem to regard challenges to the contemporary ideal of objectivity as largely a problem for scientists, one not particularly of concern for humanists. My own sense, of course, is that all inquiry, humanistic as well as scientific, asserts some claim to one or another form of "objectivity" and so the problem of how to justify such claims is as much a problem for humanists as it is for scientists, and, for that matter, as much a problem for non-academics as it is for academics.

Particularly interesting and challenging to me was a sense that the observations from science that challenge the ideal of a perspective free knowledge (the relativity of velocity, space, and time from physics; the dependence of perception itself on particular, largely unconscious, constructions, from neurobiology) seem to some humanists to carry less weight than others that come from the humanities, such as feminist "standpoint epistemology." The issue, I think, is not only what one is more familiar with but something deeper. Rorty's "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" arguments, for example, seem, despite their humanistic context, to be to many humanists less compelling than those of feminist philosophy.

My sense is that both the scientific observations and Rorty's arguments seem to many too remote from human existence and so more or less irrelvant, whereas feminist philosophy draws its power precisely from common human concerns, moral and otherwise, with which people can more readily identify. If so, there is still in some parts of academia (and in the world at large) a "two cultures" split, a sense that science and the humanities involve parallel and non-overlapping inquiries into distinct realms, one taking as a subject value and meaning laden humanity and the other "natural" phenomena where one can put aside concerns of value and meaning.

While there is clear historical precedent for such a split, my own feeling is that recent history provides compelling reasons to move beyond it. Not only is there common ground in recognition of the ubiquity of interpretative acts (and hence some measure of subjectivity) in both the sciences and the humanities but the rise of scientific inquiry into the nature of humanity itself, of the social and brain sciences, makes it increasingly impossible to sustain the notion that scientists must necessarily ignore value and meaning. There is, for example, no way to adequately inquire into the brain and how it works (nor into economics or history or any other of the "social sciences") if one presumes that the enormous part of human experience involving value and meanings is outside the realm of what is being inquired into.

Humans are of course different from rocks, trees, and frogs and scientific inquiries into humanness must of course acknowledge those differences and adjust its methods of inquiry appropriately. And scientists certainly have things to learn from humanists in this regard (cf Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising and Making the Unconscious Conscious and Vice Versa). Perhaps, though, humanists have something to learn from scientists as well? While there certainly differences between humans and non-human things there are important commonalities as well. Humanness, with its concern for value and meaning, is not actually a distinct and parallel realm but rather one that has evolved from and so continues to reflect in important ways non-human things and an absence of value and meaning (cf. From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond). Just as scientific inquiry can be usefully be informed by the perspectives and understandings of the sciences, so too could inquiry in the humanities be usefully informed by that of the sciences (cf Education: Between Two Cultures).

Its encouraging to see my colleagues in the humanities getting together to talk about the humanities as a whole, and how to teach it. Perhaps there is in thinking about teaching a route to refreshing our approaches to our own scholarship more generally? Perhaps there should be a Sciences Theory Seminar as well? Maybe in fact there should be also an Inquiry Theory Seminar, one that would explore the existing and potential commonalities among all arenas of inquiry?


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Anne Dalke's picture

Inquiring Across and Betwixt the Disciplines

I very much like this idea of a cross-divisional seminar on inquiry, as a way of keeping in play--and enlarging--our conversation in the Humanities Seminar last week. I'd like to pursue the intriguing questions Bharath asked at the end of our seminar regarding the the humanities/science divide, what we'd lose by dissolving it, what we gain by keeping it....

Two weeks ago, the chairman of Bryn Mawr's history department gave a First-Friday Faculty talk. I was very struck by the range of metaphors he used to describe his methodology: trying first to use a “microscope” to understand a phenomenon, switching to a “telescope” to take in a larger view, then learning that some important material could only be seen “peripherally,” caught only by NOT looking @ it directly. I didn’t get an opportunity to ask him my follow-up questions, about what “objectivity” looks like in history (is it about trying to “see it all”?). But I would very much enjoy our group going on--or morphing into another group that would go on--pursuing such questions.

I was particularly intrigued by Bharath's questions regarding the similarity/difference between the epistemological implications of modern physics and feminist standpoint theory, a link that was the organizing principle of a course on Gender and Science I co-taught with Liz McCormack two years ago.

So I'd like to think some more about some of the questions Paul raises above, concerning what humanists might learn from scientists, and vice versa (for example: why do we give weight to similar ideas arising in one arena, but not in another?). I also think that the possibility of a cross-disciplinary capstone seminar, required of all seniors @ the college, could fruitfully be pursued, and prepared for, by a cross-disciplinary faculty seminar. This idea was first proposed last fall (see discussion @ the end of "where, when and how does interdisciplinarity matter"?), and discussed further @ the faculty retreat on curricular revision earlier this week.


Paul Grobstein's picture

science/humanities addendum: emergence

The Emergence Principle

Anything with properties sufficiently interesting to warrant studying in their own right is significantly influenced by things of which it is made that lack those interesting properties.

Paul Grobstein's picture

science/humanities addendum: form and essence

Another intriguing direction for further exploration is the idea that science deals with "forms" (or "matter") while the humanities deal with "essences". The evolutionary perspective implies that there is much less distinction between the two than one might think, that "essences" are a properties of organized matter (as seen by particular observers/interpretors) that are brought into existence and change as the organizations of matter change. Matter cannot be made sense of independent of its forms of organization and, similarly, organiations cannot be made sense of independently of the matter of which they consist.