Category Archives: humanities


The World According to Whorf

A member of the Hopi tribe (Robert Alexander, Archive Photos, Getty Images)

In 1938 a chemical engineer and amateur linguist named Benjamin Whorf visited a Hopi reservation in Arizona and concluded that the residents there had no words for time. No “was” or “will”; only “is.” For Whorf, and for many descriptive linguists who followed him, the supposed lack of past and future tenses in the Hopi language was more than just a grammatical curiosity. It revealed something deep and meaning…


Here Come the Neurothugs! Run!

One of Francis Bacon's self portraits

In this New Atlantis essay about art and science, Roger Scruton coins a word: neurothugs.

Neurothugs are researchers who believe that, when it comes to beauty, there is “such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame.”

As thugs go, the neuro-variety are among the least threatening. At most they might try to convince you that a brain scan means more than it does. They probably won’t rough you up in an alley.

Scruton, a visiting professor of p…


A Deaf Linguist Explores Black American Sign Language


Students were required to wear hearing-assistance devices in schools like the Southern School for the Colored Deaf and Blind, in Scotlandville, La. The school was established in 1938. (Image courtesy of Joseph Hill, Black ASL Project)

Joseph Hill, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, believes he is the only black, deaf, Ph.D. linguist in America, and maybe in the world. “Just me,” he told an audience of about 40 people on Sunday at the Linguistic Society …


‘The Strangest Conference I Ever Attended’

David Birnbaum believes he has unified the fields of religion and science. He told me so in an e-mail. A book he wrote, Summa Metaphysica, Volumes I and II, “unifies the two fields—elegantly—and seemlessly” (sic).

In April of last year, Bard College devoted a three-day* conference to the role of metaphysics in science and religion, prompted by the “reflections flowing” from Birnbaum’s books, according to a program e-mailed to participants from prestigious institutions including Dartmouth, Grinn…


Historians, Dabbling in Science Fiction, Evoke a Climate Collapse

Prepare yourselves, dear readers: The United States of North America is coming.

Writing in the newest issue of Dædalus, two historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have taken on a quixotic task: imagining a future historian looking back at our time, in an effort to tease out how we failed to avert a climate-caused collapse. Or, as they put it, how it came to be that “a second Dark Age” fell “on Western civilization, in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fi…


Maybe You Should Have a Baby



When you’re about to have your first child, parents of actual, free-from-the-womb kids will chuckle knowingly and warn that you have no idea what you’re in for. Read all the books, attend every class, but you can’t really anticipate the wonder and the challenge. I found this to be annoying and untrue. Turns out it’s a lot like what the books say, and pretty much what I’d imagined. In a good way. But still.

A forthcoming paper, “What Mary Can’t Expect When She Is Expecting,” by L.A. Paul, a pr…


What Happened to Quantitative History? A Scholar Runs the Numbers

Scholars are increasingly taking a quantitative approach to history. You see that in the writing of the Stanford archaeologist-historian Ian Morris, whom I profiled in this week’s Chronicle Review, and in the work of even more radical quantifiers like Peter Turchin, a biologist at the University of Connecticut whose burgeoning discipline of “cliodynamics” is featured in a sidebar to the Morris article.

Yet scholars have experienced earlier infatuations with number-heavy history, notably the 70s-…


The Philosophers That Philosophers Like Best

In a recent podcast, the hosts of Philosophy Bites called up well-known philosophers—people like Martha Nussbaum, Patricia Churchland, Michael Sandel—and asked them to name their favorite philosopher.

Many laughed at first, perhaps because it’s odd to talk about philosophers as if they were football teams or pizza places. Others complained good-naturedly that they wished the question could have been submitted in advance so they would have had more time to think about it, which is exactly what y…


Has Philosophy Really Lost Its Bite?

The physicist Freeman Dyson is stirring up trouble again.

Freeman Dyson doesn’t think much of philosophy, at least not how it’s practiced at universities these days. The physicist and mathematician is known for taking unorthodox stands, and he’s more than willing to wade into matters outside his bailiwick. In a recent review of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, Dyson wonders: “When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of pas…


The Lessons of Jesus’ Wife

Karen King


In the past two weeks, thousands of words have been published about these six: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …”

That bit of dialogue comes from a papyrus fragment written in Coptic and thought to date from the fourth century. Its existence was revealed by Karen L. King, a professor of divinity at Harvard, at the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, in Rome. Even though King cautioned early and repeatedly that the fragment did not prove that Jesus had a wife, that immediate…