Don’t Caricature the Humanities

Steven Pinker wants to save the humanities from themselves. In a bracing manifesto in The New Republic, he laments that humanists have consigned themselves to intellectual stagnation, departmental downsizing, and unemployment by ignoring advances in the natural sciences that could revolutionize their disciplines. He contends that humanist resistance to applications of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to the study of history, art, and literature evinces a retrograde hostility to science and indeed the Enlightenment project.

Amidst a barrage of recent obituaries for the humanities, some wistful and some perversely gleeful, it is reassuring to hear Pinker declare that “there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite [humanist] scholars can apply” and that the humanities “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Yet curiously, in an article that proposes a rapprochement between “the two cultures,” Pinker characterizes the existing humanities in unrelentingly antagonistic terms. According to him, “the liberal-arts programs of many universities … cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt.”  The source of antiscience sentiment among humanists, he tells us, is “the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” Pinker’s conciliatory message gets lost amid such denunciations.

Pinker offers scant evidence to support his caricature of the contemporary humanities. To illustrate the claim about “philistine indifference to science,” he observes that “students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science,” as if humanities departments were exclusively responsible for determining distribution requirements. To exemplify the “demonization campaign” waged by humanists against science, Pinker notes that the preliminary task force on Harvard’s general-education requirement (a body presumably not entirely drawn from humanities departments) mentions “nuclear weapons, biological-warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment” among the effects of science and technology, while failing to give “good reasons to prefer science and know-how over ignorance and superstition.” (As an aside: Does one of the world’s most important institutions of learning and research really need to spell out its preference for knowledge over ignorance?)

Now were Pinker to wander Harvard’s lecture halls long enough, no doubt he would eventually find a literature professor denouncing the complicity of modern biology in racism and imperialism. But were he to examine broader disciplinary trends, he would also find that many humanists are already doing more or less what he exhorts. The “digital humanities,” a phrase Pinker places in quotation marks as if he has just coined it, is one of the major current buzzwords in the discipline, and many institutions are creating faculty positions and research centers dedicated to it. The introduction of data mining and statistical analysis to literary studies, as encouraged by Pinker, is being put into practice with significant fanfare by Franco Moretti and his colleagues at the Stanford Literary Lab. Even when we turn to Jonathan Kramnick’s “Against Literary Darwinism,” a widely read 2011 review essay in Critical Inquiry that criticizes attempts to introduce the ideas and methods of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to literary studies, we find the following conciliatory statement: “My point is not, however, that literary studies should be kept apart from exciting developments in cognitive science. Far from it. Literary Darwinism fails to make its case because it does not take the relation between the humanities and the sciences seriously enough.”

While there is already much more room for collaboration than Pinker’s diagnosis suggests, those in the humanities also have legitimate reasons to be wary of the language of “consilience.” Beneath the “both sides win” rhetoric of Pinker’s argument, it is hard not to glimpse an effort to subject the humanities to the sciences institutionally and intellectually, to turn them into ancillary disciplines reliant on the sciences for the production of theory. This effort ominously resembles recent proposals by state governments to definance the study of the humanities because they allegedly offer no economic benefits. For many humanities scholars, to concede the superiority of the data-driven and results-oriented methods Pinker advocates would be to surrender to the quantitative, economistic biases of the culture at large.

It is in the struggle against these biases, though, that the humanities and the sciences truly need to join forces. American higher education is moving away from the liberal arts and toward a professional training model. Pundits and politicians assert that the future of education is not in degree-granting institutions but in for-profit online-education companies that impart skills for specific jobs. As the liquidation of philosophy, theater, and foreign-language departments makes clear, the humanities face immediate existential peril. But the sciences must confront moral and philosophical risks. Under the new regime, will they be able to perpetuate the disinterested, open-ended research that should characterize them, or will they become training centers for private industry, their every endeavor subjugated to the profit motives of corporate sponsors? Can the Enlightenment project Pinker celebrates be continued under such conditions?

I will conclude with my own plea. Instead of caricaturing the humanities as behind the times, Pinker should join forces with humanists in the struggle against what he all too briefly refers to as the “commercialization of our universities.” Contrary to Pinker’s insinuation that the forms of reasoning specific to the humanities belong, with religion, to the superseded intellectual past, they are in fact fundamentally modern and secular disciplines based on ideals of disinterested inquiry and reasoned dialogue, ideals now under threat from an economic totalism that is indeed philistine, indifferent to the knowledge cultivated in the humanities and determined to turn science into a handmaiden of capitalist enterprise. While the humanities may well face extinction in a future dominated by this agenda, the sciences may thrive only at the cost of their soul.


Geoff Shullenberger is an adjunct instructor in the English department at Monterey Peninsula College.

Return to Top