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The Humanities are not your Enemy!

A reply to Steven Pinker’s Scientistic Manifesto


by Gloria Origgi

Steven Pinker has written an “impassioned plea” for science ad usum literatorum in The New Republic. He claims that humanists should be more intrigued by science and deplores the downward spiral of the humanities being strangled by postmodern ‘theory’, especially in the United States: “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”

I could not agree more regarding the perverse effects that postmodernism has had on the humanities: tons of crappy theories, bad arguments, superficial historical recollections, paranoid political interpretations of major novels, untenable positions on basic biological facts, etc., all of which have been produced over the past 25 years or so in the name of a dubious  ideological agenda of “debunking” the deeply concealed motivations of the ‘truth-producers’, whose shameful aim is to serve the interests of powerful groups.

But the humanities are not just that. It is difficult to define exactly what a scholar in the humanities – or an “intellectual” (at least in the French and Italian sense) – is in contrast to a scientist, but it is clearly a different job. Let us try to identify some of the differences, a bit like in those ‘spot the difference’ puzzles, where kids have to find a number of variations between two images that initially seem exactly the same.

Steven Pinker at Goettingen University (Photo: G Ambrus, Source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CCA3.0 GNU Unported Licence)

Consider this first difference, which is well illustrated by the starting point  of Pinker’s article: He says that modern philosophers such as Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Kant were in fact cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists and social psychologists who just didn’t have the right theories yet: They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms. And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together”. If this is so, then why is it that most contemporary neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists do not read a single line by these authors (apart from some erudite pop scientists who take the time to Google some quotations from Descartes for their new bestseller), whereas philosophers do? Does Pinker seriously think that philosophers and humanities scholars still read Kant or Hobbes because they have not been informed that new results in science are available? Are they just dumb idiots who read Hobbes instead of von Neumann and Morgenstern because they did not update their reading list on game theory? The mere suggestion is ludicrous.

Second difference: Philosophers and humanists in general are interested in the place of ideas within the broader context of the unfolding of a civilization or a mainstream Weltanschauung, a word so dear to philosophical inquiry and completely useless in science. Scientists are not.

Third difference: Philosophers, historians and most literary scholars make big efforts to get things right, that is, knowing exactly what Descartes was saying by reading the manuscripts, and speaking his language. They invest an enormous amount of time in studying ancient and modern languages and comparing different versions of the same text. (This hard work, by the way, is what makes it easy for the pop-scientist to go to Google and pick up a quotation that is at least related with what was originally written.) Of course scientists are also interested in getting things right, but their methods and techniques of searching for the truth are clearly not the same. 

Fourth difference: Philosophers and humanists are interested in what has been called, in  20th-century continental philosophy, the human condition, that is, a sense of uneasiness that human beings may feel about their own existence and the reality that confronts them (as in the case of modernity with all its changes in the proximate environment of humans and corresponding changes in their modes of existence). Scientists are more interested in human nature. If they discover that human nature doesn’t exist and human beings are, like cells, merely parts of a bigger aggregate, to whose survival they contribute, and all they feel and think is just a matter of illusion (a sort of Matrix scenario), then, as far as science is concerned, that’s it, and science should go on investigating humans by considering this new fact about their nature. I think that Pinker makes a “slip of the tongue” in his article when he writes: This is an extraordinary time for the understanding of the human condition. He clearly means human nature and he moves back and forth between these two expressions in his article when they should be kept distinct. 

Fifth difference: Philosophers and other scholars in the humanities think that a basic task of their work is to act as critical thinkers. To be critical is to recognize that concepts and tools of thoughts have a history and do not exist as building blocks of a mind-independent reality. Take, as a masterful example of this attitude, the work of Ian Hacking (who can hardly be accused of being a post-modernist!).

Scientists are not interested in this dimension. I remember once I was invited to a discussion with two eminent American scientists on the evolution of altruism. I asked them the simple question of whether they knew when the word altruism was first invented and used. They stared at me as though I was saying something incoherent, given that for them “altruism” was simply a basic biological notion that applied independently of both its etymology and its ordinary uses. So, when was it invented? The word was coined by Auguste Comte in his Cours de Philosophie Positive (1848).

This does not mean that science can’t be used in order to awaken a critical consciousness about some received views of the world. But philosophers and scientists do this by moving in opposite directions. Philosophers want to raise awareness about the historical/contextual dimension of scientific concepts and thus contribute to producing minds that are not saturated with certitudes and ask themselves where the very categories of their thinking come from.

Scientists challenge the received views by producing facts that demand to be taken at face value once confirmed. Both contribute to raising awareness and both develop a critical stance, but they do so in very different ways. (In this respect, the two schools of thought that contributed most to the development of a critical stance at the beginning of the 20th century, that is, The Frankfurt School and The Vienna Circle, while representing opposite directions of thought, had the same aim: to foster a critical stance. Incidentally, it is worth noting that both were independent, privately funded structures, and not at the service of public universities and governments.) 

Sixth difference: Philosophers, historians and other humanities scholars are interested in the way in which knowledge is connected to the virtues of people, to use the wonderful expression by historian of science Steven Shapin. For scientists this is not a concern. Should it turn out in experiments that people are selfish, that is simply one more empirical fact about us. (By contrast, in the social science there is clearly an evaluative/normative/constructive dimension that is not present in natural science: that is, the theories you produce are connected to the virtues you value.) 

This list of significant differences could go on for much longer, but let me stop here and make two final points, one personal, the other political.

Personal interlude: I am myself a very interdisciplinary scholar: I have worked with philosophers, cognitive scientists, sociologists, economists and linguists. I also write novels and have translated into Italian Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. I work at Institut Nicod, an interdisciplinary research centre in Paris, where philosophers coexist peacefully and even collaborate with cognitive and social scientists. Still, I know that the aim of my research is not exactly the same as the aim of my fellow scientists. That is why I consider myself more of a humanist, even if I feel comfortable with scientific jargon and accept the advancements of science as the discovery of “facts” that we have to take into account in order to make sense of the world.

I think we should stop this useless war between the ‘two cultures’ and see the scope of the two domains – science and humanities –  as part of a continuum, with different weights and different emphases given to different questions.

Political caveat: while discussing the benefits of science to the humanities, we cannot ignore a much greater crisis that is unfolding everywhere in the world of education, namely a development that Martha Nussbaum has rightly denounced in her brilliant 2010 essay Not for Profit: “the humanities and the arts are being cut away in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world”. 

And this is as solid a fact as any scientific fact, which can be amply confirmed by data. I do not think that the decline of humanities in the standard education curriculum of a 21st-century citizen has to do only with the bad quality of the field as such. Post-modernism studies are being relegated to specialized departments, and a certain post-modernist touch in the titles of research projects (e.g., “Gender biases and the Peloponnesian War: Deconstructing Spartan identity after the battle of Notium”) was simply a matter of survival for departments that were no longer able to get grants by simply stating their aim clearly: to study Ancient Greece just for the sake of understanding it better.

So, the “bad quality” of some research in the humanities has also been driven by the political agenda of policymakers, their vision of what should be investigated, and their perception of most of the humanities as “useless frills” at times of economic crisis in which nations have to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Anyway, the decline of the arts and humanities is a much greater disaster than tolerating a handful of post-modernist thinkers, who may be intellectually weak, but – at some point in the past decades – had perhaps at least the positive effect of giving access to “high culture” to a much more culturally diverse audience of students who used to stay away from the Parnassus because of an understandable resentment towards a canon that included only Western white males among its major thinkers, artists and writers.

Given that we are truly facing this disaster in liberal education, I can’t see the point of Pinker’s article, apart from a very local or personal quarrel with, perhaps, some post-modern professors in the United States. Furthermore, I do not share his point about the alleged fact that science is ‘difficult’, hence serious, and humanities are ‘easy’. Studying ancient and modern languages is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Accessing manuscripts and reading and decoding them is also difficult. Thinking that humanists are lazy is just accepting the mainstream Weltanschauung these days, that is, that people who do not do economically useful things are lazy. The way in which science has changed these days is more in the modes of production (which have become more ‘business-oriented’) than in the production of interesting results (technology is these days much more spectacular than science). There may simply be more resistance among humanities departments towards accepting the “Project-Tasks-Deliverables” model of production. Fair enough. But I find this a laudable attitude that makes me feel closer to my fellow humanists than to the testosterone-poisoned competitive young scientists who may crack under the pressure and end up cheating in experiments. (Marc Hauser’s case at Harvard some years ago is an example of the ‘misfires’ created by this overly competitive and success oriented model.) Yes, there are people, like philosophers and humanists, who are not driven by money and easily quantifiable success in their life. Should we consider this a major character flaw? Should we get rid of them because they do not take part in the Social Darwinism of the contemporary scientific life? Surely not. As Don Giovanni says, there is room for everybody and for very different lives and workstyles: “Venite pure avanti, è aperto a tutti quanti, viva la libertà”

And, as a conclusion, let me offer a suggestion how to merge the efforts between the two communities of researchers. What can we jointly do to improve the human condition? I think that our common aim should not only be to make the world more intelligible, but also to make it more intelligent.


Gloria Origgi is a philosopher and a researcher at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris (Institut Nicod). She is the author of numerous articles on the theory of mind, epistemology and cognitive sciences, including its applications to new technology; her most recent book is on the issue of trust as a philosophical problem (Qu’est-que la confiance? Vrin, Paris 2008).
(c) 2013 The Berlin Review of Books.
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