Another Terrible Defense of "The Humanities"

Somebody in my social media feeds passed along a link to this interview with Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin about "the humanities," at NPR's science-y blog. This is, of course, relevant to my interests, but sadly, but while it's a short piece, it contains a lot to hate.

For one thing, after the dismissive one-two of "so-called 'scientific methods'" (Scare quotes! "So-called"! Two great tastes that taste great together!) in the process of trying to re-brand "the humanities" as "the human sciences," Boyarin offers the following on methodology:

The primary method for the study of humans through the investigation of their cultural products is interpretation. Any discipline, including, obviously, anthropology and history (frequently, as at Berkeley, listed as social sciences) may have significant truck with interpretation as well, and then form part of this formation of "the sciences of the human" that we propose. I would say that the greatest difference, as far as I understand scientific method, is that for us hypotheses emerge from the data as we study and interpret, and are constantly being modified and corrected, while the natural sciences seem to begin with hypotheses that they test.

That's a misunderstanding of scientific practice that ought to embarrass an undergraduate, let alone a distinguished professor claiming to offer a useful perspective on the grand sweep of human knowledge. Science is all about hypotheses that emerge from the data, and going where the data lead. Nobody just sat down and said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if electrons had wave nature?" They were led to that idea because it emerged from a long chain of odd experiments. Nobody said "Wouldn't it be cool if the universe were full of stuff we can't detect?" The notion of dark matter emerged from careful observations of galaxies.

If I were to spout equivalent nonsense about "the humanities"-- "Literary scholarship is about reading dusty old books and identifying the symbolism in them,"-- I'd get ripped apart, and deservedly so. There's no excuse for a scholar of the "human sciences" to be working off the model of science you would use for a fifth-grade science fair.

The other infuriating thing about this is the last three questions, which are really different angles on the same question, which Boyarin dances away from each time, closing with another cheap shot at science:

So what would you say to persuade someone who is skeptical of the value of basic research in the humanities?

Simply that the understanding of humans by humans is as important an endeavor as understanding the physics of distant star systems.

Again, this is exactly the kind of grandly dismissive arrogance that scholars in "the humanities" bristle at when it's directed their way. If I wrote "Understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe is more important than learning to read poetry in dead languages," my colleagues on the other side of campus would jump all over me. And rightly so, because I'd be a condescending dick. It's no less offensive coming the other way.

I wouldn't be where I am and doing what I do if I didn't find value in the study of art and literature. But it absolutely drives me nuts when people who do this stuff for a living offer defenses of their field that are just smugly elitist platitudes and soaring vagueness. Again and again, I read these supposedly stirring defenses of "the humanities" and come away with the impression that their principal virtue is teaching you how to sound smart while avoiding answering a direct question. And that's a skill set we could stand to have a lot less of.

Categories

I thoroughly enjoy your blog posts; however, they frequently raise questions to which I can't seem to find answers, although I doggedly (pun intended) read other blogs too. There doesn't seem to be a place for the hoi polloi like me to ask a question and get an answer, on, say, the contradictions between dark energy (makes more of itself) and the principle of energy conservation. Do you have a suggestion where I may post?

the natural sciences seem to begin with hypotheses that they test

The Dunning-Kruger is strong in this one. Berkeley is famous for the quality of its scientists, so Prof. Boyarin has ample opportunity to study this (to him) strange species in the wild. Even if he doesn't personally know any scientists, surely he knows people who do. (Yes, I know, I shouldn't call you Shirley.)

I award Prof. Boykin no points, and may God have mercy on his soul.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 27 Oct 2015 #permalink

a bit if trivia tangential to this thread but not wholly unrelated to science and humanities .... Note related to Forbes article on magic and mystery of glorys:

Sometimes standing in a steamy bathroom with strong diffuse natural backlighting, the eyes in the reflection have glories that look exactly like mesoamerican rain god "spectacles." Mirrors were common in Mesoamerica. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/20/52/a0/2052a02620688e9f417d…

zounds! edit: sometimes standing in front of mirror

I was an English major. In fact, I got my MA, and I currently teach writing. I also took art classes, history class--and lots of science classes. It was delightful. Science is the bee's knees. So what's everyone in the humanities wigging out about science for? I'd rather read Steven Pinker than Stephen King any day.

While I agree with you on the whole, I do have one quibble. Your rejoinder, “Understanding the fundamental laws governing our universe is more important ..." is not equivalent to the statement of Boyarin's that it was referring to. He didn't say "the understanding of humans by humans" was more important, he said "as important", which is at least fair, and arguably true.

In the context of Boyarin's article (which, I admit, I haven't read yet), it's possible that that statement came across as implying "more important", but here, outside of that context, it doesn't.

However, the rest of what you said is spot on. It is not okay for anyone in any field to be dismissive of any other field, especially when they display a demonstrable lack of understanding of the other field.

Perhaps your publisher would be willing to send him a copy of Eureka! with a kind note from you. : )

"Simply that the understanding of humans by humans is as important an endeavor as understanding the physics of distant star systems"

How terra-centric this guy is. Science doesn't care if it's humans or Alpha Centaurians making and testing the hypotheses.

Funny enough, this might be part of the problem: it seems like he's arguing humanities are important because studying humans requires things be filtered from a human perspective first, which opens up all sorts of ugly post-modernist nonsense that would keep those in the humanities very, very busy for a very long time.

By Miguelito (not verified) on 27 Oct 2015 #permalink

Amen, he says from the choir.

Scientists who got an undergrad degree in a liberal arts residential context, where the humanities are viewed as a significant part of a well-rounded education, have often taken the same sophomore level classes as persons like Prof Boyarin. What are the odds that he has taken the same level sophomore physics and math classes that I did? Zero.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 27 Oct 2015 #permalink

I'm with Wilson, and I'd go further, to say that it's entirely reasonable (if not exactly diplomatic) for someone to feel that their work is more important to the world than someone else's. There are musicians and artists who think that music or art are the most important thing we can teach our kids, and they say so, and we don't bristle at that. (Although they're certainly the underdogs at this point.) And saying that humanities are AS important as astrophysics seems pretty tame.

I have heard this kind of line a lot, always with condescension. The speaker is never making the comparison because they think that astrophysics is important, but because they view it as something abstract and alien that's overly popular and well-funded.

It's conceivable that given this history, I'm reading more dickish condescension into that sentence than was there. But the contrast between "physics of distant star systems" (remote and pointless) and "understanding of humans by humans" (close to home and obviously relevant) makes me fairly comfortable with my level of annoyance.

Tom, I have to side with Chad here. If the line stating that humanities is as important as astrophysics were taken in isolation, it wouldn't necessarily be condescending. But it comes just one paragraph after Boyarin rather condescendingly points out that "even MIT" has liberal arts in its undergraduate curriculum. (He does not note the absence of mathematics in the core curriculum of most liberal arts colleges, despite mathematics being one of the seven classical "liberal arts".) Add in the egregious blooper about the scientific method (if he thinks scientists do not interpret their data, then he does not know any practicing scientists), and it is clear that he is building up humanities at the expense of hard sciences.

It's possible to make a valid defense of the humanities. Point out one or more problems that your humanities discipline can help solve, and explain why, and I'll listen. It isn't even that hard to do: for example, one reason for understanding history is to recognize mistakes that societies have made in the past, which might help other societies avoid repeating those same mistakes in the future. Or in the case of music and art, the objective might be little more than entertainment--and we know that every society needs diversions of one kind or another. So why aren't these professors of humanities defending themselves along these lines? They should be able to make the arguments, at least for their specialty, much better than I just did. But those aren't the kind of arguments Boyakin makes.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Oct 2015 #permalink

I thought there must be more to it than I was seeing, because you're generally much more reasonable than the bit I mentioned. Thanks for providing the further context.

I think that Boyarin is making a valid distinction in an unfortunately awkward way. The underlying unity across humanistic disciplines, such as it is, is that their methodology is essentially hermeneutic, that is, they seek to reveal meaning through the analysis of texts in relation to one another and to their broader context. Many, though not all, of the natural sciences are experimental. This, of course, does not mean that they first develop a hypothesis and then impose it on the data. Instead, they study the data, look for patterns (a process not unlike humanistic textual exegesis, by the way), and then develop a hypothesis consistent with the data and construct experiments to prove or disprove the data. The experimental method has shown itself to be a powerful engine for the advancement of knowledge. The point, however, is that not all subjects worthy of study can be approached in this way. One cannot, for example, travel back in time to eighteenth century France, change one or more of the factors that many historians claim were causes of the French Revolution, and then observe whether this changes the outcome. Of course, historians and scholars in related disciplines do make use of comparative case studies to make arguments, but there are so many extraneous variables and each case is so unique that one cannot hope to achieve mathematical certainty. And, of course, we do not encounter the past directly, but through the mediation of textual sources. Therefore, historical argumentation involves comparing textual sources against one another, developing a causal argument, and checking to see if it fits the body of evidence. One can't hope to achieve absolute certainty, but wrong interpretations are falsifiable, if they manifestly contradict the evidence available. As one of my professors once said, there are multiple possible interpretations of Macbeth, but if you think it's a comedy, you've got it all wrong.

In the broader issue, I absolutely agree that it is self defeating to put one area of study against another, or to try to build one field up by tearing another down. Instead, we should argue that different problems require different tools to solve, and a well rounded person should have as varied a conceptual toolkit as possible.

I don't fully agree with this, though there's something to it. The big problem is that experimental science is not the only kind of science-- there are large and highly successful sciences like geology and astronomy that are just as constrained in terms of needing to look at already-existing works.

I would also say that my from my very-much-an-outsider perspective, the "humanities" seem just as prone as the sciences to developing particular theories in advance and then going looking for ways to use them. This is why you get Marxist, feminist, and whatever-else-ist readings of the exact same works-- people who favor one of those interpretative schools go out and apply that theory to whatever they find lying around. At least, that's how it looks from the outside.

Of course, historians and scholars in related disciplines do make use of comparative case studies to make arguments, but there are so many extraneous variables and each case is so unique that one cannot hope to achieve mathematical certainty.

This is exactly how geophysics works. You can't do a lab experiment that will tell you you will have an earthquake or a hurricane or an aurora borealis of a specific magnitude in a specific location at a specific time. You can develop simulations that attempt to predict these things, but you have to test your models against actual historical data to make sure that they retrodict things that have already occurred. If the models don't predict past events, you may be missing some essential physics. Or you may not have measurements everywhere you would like--data collection budgets are finite, and lots of weather phenomena have scale sizes smaller than the distance between neighboring airports (not to mention the lack of data coverage in many parts of the ocean).

Boyarin is at UC Berkeley, which has world-class research programs in several of these areas. All he would have to do to find out how real geophysicists work is to walk across campus and talk to a few of them. It's evident from the article that he hasn't bothered to do this.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Nov 2015 #permalink

Dear Chad,

I'd like to respond to this, as a literary scholar and humanist: "I would also say that my from my very-much-an-outsider perspective, the “humanities” seem just as prone as the sciences to developing particular theories in advance and then going looking for ways to use them. This is why you get Marxist, feminist, and whatever-else-ist readings of the exact same works– people who favor one of those interpretative schools go out and apply that theory to whatever they find lying around. At least, that’s how it looks from the outside."

Here's how it looks from the inside: Humanists get interested in certain big questions or problems, and then ask how those problems manifest themselves in, or are exacerbated by, or might be addressed by, particular texts or historical phenomena. Often, someone before us has addressed these big questions/problems already -- Marx, for example, or Freud, or Simone de Beauvoir, and they have fundamentally changed how people think and talk about these problems, so we refer to their language and ideas as we try to understand the text or piece of art or historical event or whatever our object of study may be. The best humanist scholarship doesn't just blindly accept the terms and ideas of the big thinkers -- it interrogates them, too. I am sure the same is true in science: Einstein isn't the final word in relativity, right?

And yes, this means that, for example, the same literary work may yield totally different insights when viewed through different (Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist) lenses. Just as the author did not write in a cultural vacuum, neither do the acts of reading and interpretation take place in a cultural vacuum. If I may quote an exceptionally well-written recent blog post about the humanities: "We have to do our work within the world as it is... To do that, it’s essential to know something about how the world works and how it got the way it is." To a humanist, this is the reason why the various "isms" exist. Likewise, because "what really matters is not what you intend to say, but how the person on the other end receives your message," there can be no such thing as one final, universal, complete understanding of a text.

Like you, I have no patience with the kind of humanities scholarship that treats the object of study merely as a means to promote a certain theory, or the kind of scholarship that is so cloaked in technical jargon as to be virtually inaccessible even to specialists in the field, let alone intelligent non-specialist readers. (I will womanfully refrain here from commenting on writing in science journals.) But most humanists are as genuinely interested in trying to answer their particular big questions as most scientists are passionate about discovering how the world works.

I suspect that you knew all of this, even as you were blowing off steam. But you have reach. I wish you wouldn't tar us all so publicly with the same dismissive brush.

And thank you very much for this: http://www.forbes.com/sites/chadorzel/2015/10/28/why-scientists-should-….

Kara

By Kara Doyle (not verified) on 04 Nov 2015 #permalink

You write, in your commentary at Forbes,

"Literature can help with this. Not because any of the books you read will provide a perfect analogue for any of the people you meet, but because it’s good practice. If you read a wide range of literature, and study it carefully, you’ll gain experience in seeing how the world looks to other people. Which makes it that much easier the next time you have to deal with somebody– another scientist, a student, a manager or politician– whose perspective you need to understand to accomplish something you want to do."

Another utilitarian defense--simply slighted adjusted from the usual forms which you've (rightly) deplored in the very same commentary.

Why suppose--as you seem to do--that scientists are special forms of human beings and that, as such, they typically don't find in humanities the same meaning-giving, self-exploring-and-understanding benefits which "non-scientists" (another supposed special human life-form distinct from scientists or scientists-in-the-making, by the way!) are more readily understood to find appealing and for which basic motive they pursue these studies in the first place?

After all, the typical non-science-oriented student does not focus his study in the humanities because he or she wants to
" seeing how the world looks to other people or so that he or she can "makes it that much easier the next time you have to deal with somebody– another scientist, a student, a manager or politician– whose perspective you need to understand to accomplish something you want to do" but, generally, rather to help better understand one's self and one's place in the world--which are tasks which are complementary.

By proximity1 (not verified) on 10 Nov 2015 #permalink

I framed the argument the way I did because I have had numerous conversations with students and even other scientists who don't find the "meaning-giving, self-exploring-and-understanding" argument remotely convincing. If I thought that worked, I would totally use it; my experience in dealing with students and other scientists is that when you start talking about "what it means to be human" and so on, they roll their eyes and tune out. With good reason, in my opinion, because a large fraction of arguments in that vein are just pompous gibberish.

" I would totally use it; my experience in dealing with students and other scientists is that when you start talking about “what it means to be human” and so on, they roll their eyes and tune out. With good reason, in my opinion,..."

Well, this helps me a little bit to better understand your point of view, Bear in mind, however, that I referred not to a motivation springing from a grandiose desire to know "what it means to be human" ( those are your words to characterize my point, not mine) but, rather, a desire to better know and understand one's self.

To anyone who'd ask, "What's the use of a scientist's or a college science-major's studying and reading--throughout his or her life--in the non-STEM-humanities?" I'd recommend he read the introduction and first chapter of research scientist Jean-Jacques Kupiec's book (originally in French, L'origine des l'individus ( 2008, Editions Fayard, Paris) in its English translation, from World Scientific Publishers, The Origin of Individuals not because the intent is to answer this query but because Kupiec's brilliant exposition is a striking example of what can result from an astute scientist's actually having done so.

http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/6359

[ One could also take Bertrand Russell's (1950 Nobel Prize in Literature) writings as another fine example of the potential of such a varied knowledge in an already-remarkable intellectual. ]

By proximity1 (not verified) on 11 Nov 2015 #permalink