Monday, February 2, 2015

"There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished."

In an insightful article called "Crimes Against Humanities," about the need to prevent "science" from "invading the liberal arts," Leon Wieseltier responds to Steven Pinker's essay, "Science Is Not Your Enemy," in The New Republic (this is from last year, back when they were TNR editors):

The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. . . .

Rejecting the various definitions of scientism—“it is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities,” it is not “reductionism,” it is not “na├»ve”—Pinker proposes his own characterization of scientism, which he defends as an attempt “to export to the rest of intellectual life” the two ideals that in his view are the hallmarks of science. The first of those ideals is that “the world is intelligible.” The second of those ideals is that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science? This is either ignorant or tendentious. Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world, and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas and Al-Farabi, and so did Poussin and Bach and Goethe and Austen and Tolstoy and Proust. They all share Pinker’s denial of the opacity of the world, of its impermeability to the mind. They all join in his desire to “explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles.” They all concur with him that “in making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.’”

If Pinker believes that scientific clarity is the only clarity there is, he should make the argument for such a belief. He should also acknowledge its narrowness (though within the realm of science it is very wide), and its straitening effect upon the investigation of human affairs. Instead he simply conflates scientific knowledge with knowledge as such. In his view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist. It does not matter that they approached the phenomena with different methods and different vocabularies. If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists. . . . If they contributed to knowledge, then they must have been scientists, because what other type of knowledge is there? . . .

[I]t was the imperative to keep up, to be “progressive,” which led to “the disaster of postmodernism” and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades. More importantly, the humanities do not advance the way the sciences advance. . . . The history of science is a history of errors corrected and discarded. But the vexations of philosophy and the obsessions of literature are not retired in this way. In these fields, the forward-looking cast backward glances. The history of old art and thought fuels the production of young art and thought. Scientists no longer consult Aristotle’s scientific writings, but philosophers still consult Aristotle’s philosophical writings. The present has the power of life and death over the past. It can choose to erase vast regions of it. Tradition is what the present calls those regions of the past that it retains, that it cherishes and needs. Contrary to the progressivist caricature, tradition is not the domination of the present by the past. It is the domination of the past by the present. . . .

There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished. . . . Sometimes wisdom is conventional. The denigration of conventional wisdom is itself a convention. . . .

The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations. But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities, as it has mutilated and damaged many disciplines and vocations. My point is only that shilling for the revolution is not what we need now. The responsibility of the intellectual toward the technologies is no longer (if it ever was) mere enthusiasm. The magnitude of the changes wrought by the new machines calls for the revival of a critical temper. Too much is at stake to make do with that cool vanguard feeling. But Pinker is just another enthusiast, just another cutting-edge man, waxing on like everybody else about how “this is an extraordinary time” because “powerful tools have been developed” and so on. . . . With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems. If there was one thing for which the humanities, the old humanities, the wearyingly traditional humanities, could be counted on, it was to introduce us also to the darkness and prepare us also for the worst.
(Here's Pinker's response, followed by another response from Wieseltier.)