The Humanities are under assault from the scientific mode of thinking. But they are a vital asset in a human world
By Francois Badenhorst
On the 7th of May, 1959, the influential British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow was a frustrated man. Delivering the famous annual lecture at Cambridge University – known as the Rede lecture – Snow was left exasperated by the development of two cultures in academia.
On one side, sat the scientists and on the other, the Humanities – or, the literary intellectuals as Snow called them. These two poles sat apart and “between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.”
Snow spoke of scientists battling through Dickens and Humanities professors who don’t know the difference between mass and weight. It was a gulf which, in Snow’s opinion, was belittling the standard of academic discourse.
In Snow’s time, there was an interesting dynamic. Humanities had the upper hand; it was seen as a more distinguished intellectual pursuit. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Andrew Huxley left people in the 1930’s aghast by abandoning Classics to Physics. The headmaster of Westminster School derided him, accusing him of “forsaking virtue for pleasure”.
Snow’s lecture was needed in the time it was given. The antipathy of science verged on the worst tendencies of the Luddites. But how saddened would he be by how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction.
In contemporary academia, the Humanities are the red headed stepchild. Entranced by the Natural Sciences, people scoff at it as inconsequential. These people are just as wrong as the literary intellectuals of Snow’s day.
In an article for Slate, Mark O’Connell stated the case much better than I ever could by referring to Richard Dawkins’s selection as the World’s top thinker by the influential Prospect Magazine.
For O’Connell, “[Dawkins’s] popularity and prominence, along with that of the other New Atheism figureheads, illustrate the extent to which science, and the inflexible ideal of reason, has usurped the place of philosophy and the humanities in popular intellectual culture.”
O’Connell certainly isn’t alone. In his book The Science Delusion, Curtis White passionately rejects this new cultural hegemony of science. White rightfully – and as a BA grad, I would say righteously – attacks “the insistence on the scientific method as the only legitimate approach to truth”.
The famous scientist Richard Feynman once said, “There is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made from atoms acting according to the laws of physics.” The human is reduced to mere impulses, the work of neurons – it is utter nonsense.
And as O’Connell – who studied English – points out, “there is no more painful—and painfully obvious—proof of the intellectual hegemony of science than how the disciplines of the humanities have been forced to adopt a language of empiricism in order to talk about their own value”.
A PhD in the Humanities now involves the application of arch empiricism. Scholars and academics are forced down the narrow avenue of scientific calculation. Science has invaded a conversation that should be ipso facto subjective.
As the philosopher Paul Feyerabend stated, “Science should be taught as one view among many and not as the one and only road to truth and reality”.
He is spot on. But that does not mean science is not critically important. I need engineers to build bridges, doctors to heal me – I’m not going to sit here and be wilfully arrogant and ignorant.
But the Humanities are also important, albeit in a less tangible way. They explore the meaningful way in which humans express themselves and try to interpret them.
The “human” in humanities is there for a reason. Art and literature and philosophy – just a handful of disciplines within the Humanities – are present in every corner of the globe where humans are found. We are a cultural – and not necessarily a scientific – species.
But what is most troubling is the effect this denigration of Humanities has had. My BA degree is met with bemused stares by the self-ordained, self-satisfied arch disciples of academia in the natural sciences. And yet those who snicker at the BA students are unable to execute even the most rudimentary piece of writing.
This isn’t good enough. The inability to communicate, to construct an idea in human terms, has seriously damaged the ability of science to achieve its aims. Evolution, for example, struggles to take hold because of scientists seeming inaptitude at communicating empathetically.
“To navigate our world — to be successful as a leader and a contributor to the range of cooperative activities of professional life, to function as an intelligent and compassionate citizen — there are a number of intellectual and emotional skills we need to have,” writes the philosopher Daniel Little in The Huffington Post.
It’s easy to just say that people need to become scientifically literate. And to an extent, that’s a good point (I only found out today what the second law of thermodynamics is, for instance).
But Science doesn’t have the luxury that Humanities has. It doesn’t communicate as readily to people. And its practitioners are unable – or, often unwilling – to communicate what they do in real terms. And this is important because science matters, it affects us.
The art of communication, of expression, has been undermined and done away with. In its place, the citadels of science stand imposingly. And outsiders are left confused; aware of their importance, but unable to comprehend it.