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:

Closely reading works of narrative literature can provide a form of rich, detailed, concrete understanding that can only be gained otherwise through actual experience.

I have something very specific in mind here. It is even an empirically testable claim.

Let’s say you want to write a short story about an NCO in the Marine infantry returning home from Iraq around 2005. You want the story to sound plausible to someone who was actually in Iraq around that time. You want them to read the story and think things like “I bet whoever wrote this spent some time in Iraq,” not things like “a First Sergeant would never say that.”

How do you gain the kind of understanding that would allow you to write this story?

Natural science cannot help you at all. Knowing the physics of moving bodies, the chemistry of munitions, the biology and neuroscience of human bodies and brains under stress, will no more help you to represent the feel and meaningful details of the return from Fallujah than knowing the chemical composition of celluloid film will allow you to direct The Godfather.

Social science also cannot help you. No number of academic papers containing experimentally verified conclusions regarding the psychology of combat or the economics of foreign development will tell you that an officer cutting the throat of a wounded insurgent detainee and then announcing “It’s good to kill a man with a knife” is amateur behavior and could appropriately be called “some PFC bullshit.” (By the way, that language comes from the title story in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which seems to be on its way to becoming for the Iraq war what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is for the Vietnam war.)

No, there are really only two ways to gain the understanding that might allow you to write this story, or to be someone who can reliably judge whether a story like this is faithful to the experiences it tries to represent: have the experience, or read enough literature about it that you can tell what rings true and what doesn’t.

Again, this is not a defense of the humanities grounded in some airy appeal to an unspecified “rich form of humanistic understanding.” The kind of understanding I’m describing is testable, if that matters — and for some people, it does.

Here’s an example of the kind of test I have in mind. (By the way, I’m not actually suggesting that such a test be carried out. The point is what the test would almost certainly show about experience, the humanities, and the social sciences.) Take fifteen talented short story writers from the MFA programs of your choice. Randomly choose five of them to receive a stack of narrative literature (fictional or quasi-fictional) written by Iraq veterans and set in Iraq during the war and insurgency. Give five of the other writers a stack of social scientific studies relating to military service, combat, Iraq, or whatever else they want. Give the other five no research materials at all. Then assign them all to write stories set in the Iraq war. Finally, give the stories to a group of Iraq war veterans and ask them to select which five stories were written by people who experienced the war. The results would show some random variation based on the writers’ skills and backgrounds. But is there any doubt that the stories written by those who were able to draw upon narrative literature – resources from the humanities, not the social sciences – would be significantly more likely to be selected than the other stories?

Or imagine a kind of modified Turing test in which someone who has lived through an experience (say, working at a fast food restaurant) is able to ask written questions and receive written responses from various actors, some of whom have prepared using humanistic materials such as narrative literature about the experience, and others of whom have prepared using only social science research. Is there any doubt that the former actors would be more likely to pass the test?

The point is not that the ability of a fiction-writer to fool a veteran, or an actor to fool a fast food worker, is itself such a valuable skill that its cultivation could justify the resources dedicated to the study and development of the humanities. The point is that both of these tests indicate the existence of a specific kind of understanding that can only be gained through humanistic study or through lived experience.

Would anyone argue against the value of expanding the range of one’s experiences? Greater lived experience is one of the main differences between being an adult and being a child.

Yet defenders of the humanities routinely fail to make the case that literature – and especially narrative literature – offers the closest substitute to lived experience, the nearest alternative to meeting the many people and living the many lives that we will never have a chance to meet and live ourselves. A great deal of what can be learned from experience can also be learned from the thoughtful reading of literature; but much of what can be learned through these two avenues cannot be learned from any natural or social science. To neglect humanistic study in favor of an exclusive emphasis on the sciences is to neglect our growth as human beings, to impede the development of the kind of maturity and wisdom that can come with experience — including learning from mistakes, seeing examples of how to live, and being exposed to new voices and new ways of seeing things. It is no coincidence that while the world is full of young prodigies in certain fields, like chess and certain kinds of mathematics, there are few humanities prodigies, much less children who are able to write persuasive narrative literature about, say, the experience of a second marriage. There are no shortcuts to humanistic understanding. It cannot be reduced to the clever manipulation of an algorithm or of abstract patterns that can be mastered by a child.

Of course, there are also many other values provided by studying the humanities, some of which I hope to discuss in future posts. The discussion above was not intended to suggest that realist novels and narrative history or memoir are the only products of the humanities worth studying or even the highest forms of humanistic art, or that the only value of reading such works is their ability to serve as a surrogate for lived experience. But the ability of these works to offer some of the understanding that can otherwise only be gained from experience shows an exceptionally important function of the humanities that can stand up to tough-minded critique, yet is rarely invoked by the humanities’ defenders – a function will not be displaced by the natural or social sciences any time soon, or more realistically, ever.

Anything that can be learned from living can be learned from literature. The same cannot be said of learning based on the sciences, despite their many independent virtues.


9 thoughts on “A defense of the humanities

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  9. The notion that literature may serve as a surrogate for direct experience — or that reading realistic fiction may lend insight into aspects of life we haven’t experienced directly — is actually a standard move in defenses of the humanities. One of its best articulations is offered by Dorothy Walsh in “Literature and Knowledge” (1969), while Martha Nussbaum gave it greater currency in “Cultivating Humanity” (1997). Now, the claim has invited a lot of criticism. In particular, it seems to speak in favor of imaginative literature rather than of literary studies or the humanities as a whole. To some extent it is possible to extend it into a defense of literature courses, where students are encouraged to read books they might otherwise have not read; it is less clear how one can use the claim to defend research in the humanities. Readers may have access to and learn from novels without the institutionalized study of literature.

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