Literature, Philosophy, Science

Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Decline of the Literary Humanities

Free Photo: Man With an Artificial Arm, Welding in 1919

It seems hard to believe, from our current vantage point in which the academic study of literature appears to be in a state of perpetual crisis, that there was a time, not so long ago, when the literary humanities reigned over an expanding scholarly empire — one that was not unlike the empire of the quantitative social sciences, and especially economics, today. Instead of literary academics feeling tempted or obligated to apply quantitative methods to the study of literature — as, for example, Franco Moretti has done, with results of (predictably, it seems to me) real but limited value — non-literary scholars felt tempted or obligated to become conversant in literary theory.

I was reminded of this while reading some essays by Jerome Bruner, an academic psychologist who died in 2016. In works like “Life as Narrative” (1987), Bruner found it useful to draw on literary theory about the structure of narratives as a source of ideas for understanding his own field, and even for designing empirical experiments. He cites Vladimir Propp, Frank Kermode, and Paul de Man, among many others.

Who outside of literary academia reads the works of literary academics today? What happened?

I would like to propose, a little controversially, that the literary humanities finds itself in its current state of isolation in part because of its rejection of structuralism. By “structuralism,” I do not mean only what Lévi-Strauss meant when he introduced the term. I mean something more broad: arguments that attempt to reduce complex, unwieldy human phenomena into relatively simple structures that can then be used to make predictions. The kind of models that the structuralist anthropologist Mary Douglas developed, for example. In its turn to poststructuralism, American literary academia developed a profound antipathy toward this kind of thought — an antipathy, I would argue, that has discouraged literary scholars from developing insights and models that might be of use outside of academic literary studies.

When literary scholarship turned against structuralism, it also implicitly turned against modeling. But models are a large part of what we use to make sense of our worlds, and they are one of the primary ways that ideas move between academic disciplines. To reject the search for predictively useful models is to invite the kind of intellectual isolation in which literary academia currently finds itself.

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Literature

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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