Yesterday, The New Republic published a big article by bestselling Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. The title says it all: “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Or does it? After all: whose enemy is science supposed to be? Pinker’s answer is there in his subtitle: the targets of his “impassioned plea” are “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.”
Humanists: according to Pinker, science isn’t your enemy—it’s your friend. Or your extremely successful younger sibling. Its methods and results are yours if you want them—all you have to do is ask. The problem is: you don’t want them—you shy away from science, or reject it outright.
Pinker’s got a solution, and he’s calling it “scientism.”
As Pinker points out, “scientism” is a term of abuse. It’s usually hurled at “reductionist” efforts to pose scientific solutions to all sorts of problems. And, as a barb, it’s often hitched to times when bad politics wore a scientific mask—Social Darwinism, say, or eugenics. According to Pinker, this is how some people paper over ignorance and fear of the sciences.
By appropriating the term, Pinker hopes to wipe the slate clean (sorry). He sees the new “scientism” as a campaign to both “export” scientific ideals to “the rest of intellectual life” and add scientific ideas to the stock of existing “tools of humanistic scholarship.” I’ll come back to both this idea of exportability and the metaphor of the toolkit in a bit.
But first: why all the fuss? Pinker’s “scientism” is supposed to help solve the widespread (if perhaps unwarranted) sense that “something is wrong” with the humanities. As Pinker points out, “anti-intellectual trends” and “the commercialization of our universities” are part of the problem. But so is “postmodernism”—in a sense, the humanities have made their own bed.
John Brockman—a self-described “cultural impresario” about whom I’ve written before—shares Pinker’s sense of what’s wrong. In the preamble to a re-posting of Pinker’s piece, Brockman is even more polemical: “the official culture” has “kicked [science] out” and “elite universities” have “nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum.” He sees scientific intellectuals—bestselling authors, MacArthur fellows, TED talkers—as a sort of renegade “subculture.”
Does this sound right? It seems to me that, even within the academy, work that spans “the two cultures” is consistently rewarded—most obviously, with prizes and grants. The cutting edge is often that which is most engaged with the sciences. Say what you want about the digital humanities or experimental philosophy—they seem to be doing alright for themselves.
Interestingly, what Pinker points out as quintessentially humanistic modes of inquiry—”close reading” and “thick description”—stemmed from precisely this sort of engagement. Stefan Collini and John Guillory have revealed the roots of “close reading” in interactions between literary critics and scientific psychologists in the 1910s and ’20s. And we owe “thick description” to Clifford Geertz and the cross-pollination of anthropological field-work and cultural history in the 1960s and ’70s.
It could be that something similar—a new paradigm, even—is emerging from the adoption of digital tools, statistical methods, and fMRI scans by humanists today. Or not. The point is that such engagement is going on, and has a legacy that spans the twentieth-century—on either side of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” diagnosis fifty years ago.
But I don’t want to rest on rejecting Pinker’s premise. Whether or not the humanities are in crisis, lots of people think they are—and many agree with Pinker that the sciences might offer a way out. What I want to highlight is the consequences of imagining this interaction in the terms I noted above: the “export” of ideals or the “toolkit” approach to rapprochement.
This view of intellectual life is a common one, well-illustrated by the title of a recent book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. It’s no accident that Dennett is a leading philosopher of evolution: this view of cognition as tool-using is profoundly Darwinian. As a result, it represents, all by itself, the success of a particular scientific “export.”
This model of human agents—as embedded bricoleurs doing their best with the cultural resources (“tools”) at hand—is something we’ve argued about on this blog before. And it might well be the correct view. It’s certainly a very compelling one. Pinker, Dennett, and many of their peers in cognitive science and human evolution adhere to it.
And so do humanists—or at least historians. Limiting ourselves just to the history of science, let’s think over how the human agents at the heart of recent works are characterized. For the most part, I’d argue, they’re painted in a light very similar to the Pinker-Dennett-evolutionary model.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Time was, there were earnest efforts by historians to cast human actors in Marxist or Freudian—rather than a Darwinian—roles. In the last half-century, however, such accounts have gone the way of the Dodo, leaving us with one that’s extremely assimilable to reigning scientific views.
Here’s the rub. Pinker might be right about “two cultures” angst. But in adopting the toolkit model, he’s also put his finger on a prevailing assumption that ties the two sides together. This might explain both the promise and the peril perceived in the sort of “scientism” he’s proposing. Such shared assumptions are essential for bridge-building. But if humanists are uncomfortable with them, then the theory of agency underlying our accounts might merit further scrutiny.