Can Science and the Humanities Inform One Another

Two opposing viewpoints.

Folksonomies: two cultures

How Science Can Progress the Humanities

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

Similar opportunities are there for the exploring. The visual arts could avail themselves of the explosion of knowledge in vision science, including the perception of color, shape, texture, and lighting, and the evolutionary aesthetics of faces and landscapes. Music scholars have much to discuss with the scientists who study the perception of speech and the brain’s analysis of the auditory world.

As for literary scholarship, where to begin? John Dryden wrote that a work of fiction is “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.” Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot.

And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo.


Science has many tools for looking deeper into texts and providing new perspectives and insights.

Folksonomies: science two cultures humanities digital humanities


The Humanities are About "Inwardness"

It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness. Pinker’s condescension to the humanities is endless. He proposes for the humanities “a consilience with science,” but the only apparent beneficiary of such an arrangement would be the humanities, since they have nothing much to offer the sciences, which obviously occupy a higher place in the hierarchy of knowledge. Or more precisely, “the humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences ... [and] the sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.” I am not sure I understand the latter compliment. He seems to be saying that scientists think well and humanists write well. “Consilience” is a word that should get humanists’ backs up: the convergence of which it dreams is not so much a convergence of the sciences with the humanities as a convergence of the sciences upon the humanities. Pinker’s program puts me in mind of the definition of scientism that a British philosopher offered years ago: “the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning” and “the view that it is always good for subjects that do not belong to science to be placed on a scientific footing.” It is a more candid and more accurate definition than Pinker’s casuistry about intelligibility and difficulty. Pinker impugns humanists for inventing a straw man called scientism, and then he goes and covers himself in straw.


Argument for why they cannot be reconciled with science.

Folksonomies: science two cultures humanities