A second defense of the humanities

Following on the heels of my first post dedicated to neglected defenses of the humanities, here’s a second defense. Another extremely valuable activity that by definition belongs exclusively to the humanities, and not the social sciences, is thematic reading.

What I mean by thematic reading is analyzing a text, typically a work of literature, to extract some meaningful idea from it. We imagine that the text was created as a result of choices involving form and content, and that these choices were motivated at least partly by the writer’s desire to convey the thematic meanings that we take from the work. What the actual author actually intended isn’t necessarily relevant. For the most part, the thematic reader doesn’t really care about what motivated the historical person Herman Melville, as a historical fact, to make the choices of form and content that resulted in Billy Budd; we care about the useful meanings that we can get from the work, whether the actual author intended them or not.

In other words, thematic reading is the kind of ordinary, run-of-the-mill literary analysis that a lot of American high school students have been forced to do ever since New Critical “close reading” took over college English departments after World War II and began to filter down through the secondary education system. It’s something that you can teach high school and college students to do with a novel or play or poem, without much prior training: make sense of why everything is the way it is in the text by assuming the writer chose every aspect of the form and content in order to say something, to convey significant statements about the way things are or should be. A very simple example of thematic reading would be the “analysis” that appears after every chapter of plot summary in Cliffs Notes; a very complex example would be Helen Vendler’s analysis of the way Wallace Stevens conveys through his poetry a model of “plenary desire” metamorphosing into “wasted despair” and then being rearoused into “affluent desire” again, in a “recurrent and unbiddable cycle.”

So that’s what I mean by thematic reading. You analyze the choices that apparently went into a written work in order to extract some statement of what the work says, some theme that could be rephrased as a claim or series of claims about something. Toss a poem into the thematic-analysis mill, and out comes an interesting thought or two. Reach into a play and extract an intriguing claim about jealousy. And the work you analyze doesn’t even have to be literary. It could be a work of philosophy or narrative history. It could be a meaning-rich but less literally textual object like a film or a painting. The work doesn’t even have to consist of words. You can play the thematic interpretation game with license plates or children’s picture books or conceivably even things that were created without intention, like clouds, although in my experience you’re less likely to find thematic meanings there that will be interesting or valuable to anyone.

Alternatives to thematic reading would include: analyzing a text as a cultural object, and asking what economic or cultural or ideological forces shaped its creation; aesthetically evaluating a text, or even simply appreciating its beauty or sublimity by, for example, reading a poem out loud; locating a text within the history of literature by, for example, evaluating its innovations and distinctive features and its significance to later works; and so on. Usually, good thematic readings end up containing a little of all of this – a little authorial biography or cultural history to make the laborious unearthing of a deeply buried meaning more plausible, a little aesthetic or literary-historical evaluation interspersed with the thematic interpretation, and all of it blended together without distinct labels.

At this point, I should note my awareness that a defense of the value of thematic reading, especially in the terms laid out above, will probably sound hopelessly, embarrassingly crude and naive to nearly anyone with a professional involvement in the humanities, such as graduate students and professors of literature.

This is a large part of the problem.

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A defense of the humanities

Continuing from where my earlier post on the humanities left off:

One of the sources of the crisis in the humanities – maybe the primary source – is the unprecedented success of science over the last several hundred years in expanding our understanding of the world. “The sciences” are the primary opposing term to “the humanities” when we talk about a crisis in the humanities, as the recent debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier illustrated.

So one challenge for defenders of the humanities is to show valuable things that humanistic study can do that can’t be done by the natural or social sciences. I think there are a lot of such things, but I rarely hear defenders of the humanities stating what they are in clear and accessible terms — in language that might persuade someone who is not already convinced of the humanities’ value. This post is a first attempt at describing at least one very valuable thing that the humanities, and the humanities alone, can do.

As an initial note, I should say I’m a big fan of science. I don’t have much sympathy for the adoption of a skeptical attitude toward science generally, rather than a critical attitude toward various aspects of how various sciences happen to be conducted today. There’s always room for improvement, refinement, and reform, as any good scientist would agree. Maybe some esoteric branches of theoretical physics will turn out to have been making unfalsifiable claims; the funding mechanisms for research obviously shape what gets studied, as do other institutional factors that may be flawed, such as academic hiring and publication procedures; and certainly there are a number of obvious problems with the social sciences today, such as the bias toward publishing surprising psychological findings that turn out to be impossible to replicate, and the much-lamented fixation of mainstream economics on beautiful but useless or worse-than-useless mathematical models. Also, reasonable questions can be raised about the effects of our ever-expanding technologies on the ways we live and think. Despite all of this, can anyone seriously doubt that the natural sciences, and increasingly the social sciences, have for the last few centuries been responsible for an incalculable expansion of our ability to predict and control what happens in our world, and that this is a pretty good sign that they’ve incalculably expanded our understanding of the world as well? The point really shouldn’t need stating. But sometimes in a conversation about the sciences and the humanities, you come across anti-technologism, primitivism, or metaphysical mysticism that attempts to defend the value of the humanities by denying or downplaying the ability of science to help us understand and explain.

So let’s give credit to the natural sciences, and even the social sciences, where credit is due. Much of psychology may consist of weak experimental verification of obvious and trivial observations about common human traits, and economics may often go astray when attempting to become a physics where no physics is possible – but psychologists have also proven a number of significant and arguably surprising hypotheses, such as the widespread persistence of latent racial bias; and we’re certainly better off having contemporary economic modeling tools such as the IS/LM curve, rather than having no way at all to predict the likely effects of lowering interest rates in the wake of a housing bubble and financial crisis like the ones we have just experienced. I’m as frustrated as the next person when I come across a physicist making inept philosophical claims about how science has finally discovered why there is something rather than nothing; or when I read an unfalsifiable “explanation” of some psychological or cultural trait based on a just-so story about our evolutionary history; or when I come across yet another botched attempt to use neuroscience to answer questions that neuroscience cannot yet answer, or – worse – questions for which neuroscience can by definition contribute nothing, because they are questions about the meanings of things, or about what should be the case and not what is; or when someone makes a clumsy attempt to apply the latest technology (such as “big data”) to the humanities, and in the process only shows that they fail to understand the most important questions that the humanities address.

Yes, I’m as frustrated as the next person with all of these examples of social scientists overreaching. But it’s not enough to criticize what is wrong in some social scientists’ imperialistic forays into the humanities. It’s equally important to say – clearly, explicitly – what the humanities do right.

So here is one thing the humanities do right:

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