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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keeping the humanities alive - and a bit on "other ways of knowing"

I missed this post by Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True last week. It's a great post, and I'm totally on board with it - except I'm going to add a caveat or a gloss to the very last para. Meanwhile, sample:

I don’t know where I’d be now had I not gone to The College of William and Mary, a liberal arts school that enforced a wide education on everyone, even prospective scientists. It was there that I took a fantastic fine arts course from a charismatic professor who absolutely awakened my interest in art, leading to gazillions of museum visits in the last four decades. I had courses in Old English, Beowulf, Greek tragedy, ethics, Indian (i.e., Asian) art, economics, German scientific literature, and modern American fiction. Every one of these left a residuum in my neurons. I still can’t pass up an article on Beowulf.

Once again, I have to rub in the point that those horrible Gnu Atheists like Jerry, Richard, and Ophelia are not philistines or scientismists, if scientism is supposed to be some kind of devaluing of the humanities and of human experience in general.

But I do need to comment on this:

And I don’t give two hoots for a scientist who cares nothing for music, art, literature—or food! They’re missing a great swath of the world’s wonder. Those other disciplines aren’t really “ways of knowing,” but they’re ways of experiencing, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain.

Absolutely right! And I have to reciprocate by saying that I don't give two hoots for humanities scholars who are ignorant of or hostile to the science disciplines.

But this whole "other ways of knowing" is a pain in the arse. It's a phrase that tends to be used by people who want to devalue scientific knowledge, treating it as just one more interpretation of the world, no more true than that contained in mythology, holy books, reports of mystical experiences, etc., or at least by people who want to be able to say that whatever is contained in mythology, holy books, reports of mystical experiences, etc., may be true, and that human reason cannot check up on it.

I don't believe there are "other ways of knowing" in the sense that is usually intended. What I believe is simply that there are many techniques that are used to find out stuff. All of those techniques are available to scientists, just as they are to everyone else. However, science has refined some techniques to unprecedented levels of precision, control, systematicity, and so on, and has thus made progress with problems that were intractable for thousands of years ... but started to become more tractable around about the beginning of the seventeenth century.

It should also be pointed out that the techniques that science has refined to this extent are also available to humanities scholars, just as those used by humanities scholars are available to scientists. There's just one world and there's no clear demarcation as to what techniques are going to be useful to find out stuff about it.

However, it's important to emphasise that humanities scholars frequently do find out new stuff, or at least stuff that is new to the academy. You won't really discover entirely new stuff in an undergraduate course in the humanities, but I doubt that you will in an undergraduate science course either.

Why did I say "or at least new to the academy"? It's because humanities scholars are generally dealing with human experience on Earth, so the stuff they find out will often be stuff that is or was known to somebody. If textual-historical scholarship on the Bible reveals that the Gospel of Matthew relies heavily on the Gospel of Mark and must have been written later, that is finding out something that was once known (very likely by whoever authored the Gospel of Matthew!). If someone manages to resolve what happened to Queen Zenobia after the fall of Palmyra (was she beheaded, as some sources say, or was she taken back to Rome, led in triumph, but ultimately set free, as other sources say?), that will be finding out something that we don't currently know. Obviously, however, it was once known, for example to the Emperor Aurelian, who defeated her in battle.

I don't think there is any sharp line between the sciences and the humanities, but you can see, I hope, how humanistic scholars are often trying to find out stuff that was once known by human beings who are not around to ask but have left traces, or sometimes by human beings who are still around but have not organised their knowledge in a sufficiently systematic and public way for the purposes of the academy.

That's not all that humanities scholars do, of course: often they are trying to find rich, integrated, convincing ways to interpret such different things that are open to interpretation as novels, paintings, and statutes. But it's a big part of what they do. Scientists are often trying to find out stuff about the non-human world, particularly the workings of phenomena that are too small or too large or too distant for direct observation with our senses. Or about things that happened so long ago that there are no human records that provide a sort of memory of them.

That's not all that scientists do - I'm not forgetting psychology, human physiology, human genetics, etc., and I realise that science also studies human beings. I'm not using it as a definition of science. However, it's a big part of what really got science going in the seventeenth century and of what the sciences are focused on even now. Even when human beings are studied by scientists, it is likely to be different aspects of human beings from those that interest humanities scholars.

However, there's nothing spooky about the fact that humanities scholars and scientists are often trying to find out different things and that different techniques are likely to work for finding out these different things. An advanced knowledge of mathematics may be much more useful to a physicist than to an historian trying to settle what really happened to Zenobia. The latter may need to develop advanced skills in understanding a raft of ancient languages that are used in our conflicting records of poor Zenobia's fate. These languages may be of little use to a physicist.

There are no "other ways of knowing", if this refers to esoteric techniques that get us in touch with a supernatural realm. There are, however, numerous techniques for finding out stuff. Some of these techniques require no unusual training (I can look out the window and find out various things). Others may require advanced training, whether in mathematics, languages, the acquisition of extensive knowledge bases, developing certain ways of thinking about problems (yes, lawyers really are trained to think in a certain way, but there's nothing spooky about it ... it's continuous with how we're all trained in critical thinking), and so on.

A wide variety of techniques that are available as needed for all disciplines, but with different, sometimes dramatically different, disciplinary emphases on which are important? Yes. Spooky "other ways of knowing"? No.


Mike said...

Years ago when I was doing my B.Sc. at Sydney U, I bumped into Julius Sumner Miller, who asked me what courses I had picked along with Physics. When I said "Applied and Pure Mathematics" he pounced on me immediately and said "why not music and literature and ....?"

I did at least swap Applied Maths for Philosophy a few weeks later, but I did regret not being in a system with a bit more wiggle room for liberal arts flavouring at least.

PS Why can't I subscribe to comments on this blog???

Mike said...

Hmmm. The subscription checkbox appears AFTER I post.

josef johann said...

Maybe I'm not remembering too well, but I wish you were a more involved participant in the "other ways of knowing" debate in late 2009 between Josh Rosenau and Ophelia Benson and others. Some of Josh's posts were just agonizing for me to read.

And this is a wonderful response to it. I just wish you had written it then. All in all this has been a great week for Russell Blackford-related readings. Thanks!

Russell Blackford said...

I found that debate frustrating. I thought Josh Rosenau was barking up the wrong tree. In particular, I thought he showed a poor understanding of the humanities. But the debate proceeded with a pace that made it difficult for me to make a thoughtful contribution at the time.

I seem to recall making some comments on Rosenau's blog, but the whole thing needs quite careful unpicking. It's also possible that I was away for some of it. I spent a lot of the second half of 2009 overseas.

Russell Blackford said...

Mike, the ways of Blogger are very mysterious.

Ken said...

The phrase "other ways of knowing" may be hijacked by those who would try to maintain an equivalency between evidence-based knowledge and intuition, what feels good, or so-called 'revelation'. That is of course absurd. But a reasonable meaning of that phrase, and one that is sound, is that one gains a different *kind* of knowledge when using different methodologies. These knowledges are not contradictory; on the contrary they are complementary. I know water in one way, a sensate knowledge, when I dive into a cool lake on a hot day. And I know water in a different way when I read The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. And I know water in yet another way when I know it is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, elements that do not manifest the same properties as water does. These ways of knowing are very different, but there is no problem or contradiction in acknowledging and appreciating all of them. And no way to, or point in trying to, give one dominion over the other. Knowledge attained by one often enriches knowledge obtained by different means. All are fundamentally mysterious and inspire awe.

Ophelia Benson said...

I found that debate frustrating too.

Trebuchet said...

Dr Blackford, I'm going to recommend that my students read this particular post of yours. Thank you very much for the lucid and entertaining way in which you've expressed your thoughts on the subject!

Blake Stacey said...

I've never been able to pin down what people mean when they say that literature, for example, is "another way of knowing". So, Atlas Shrugged is evidence that Objectivism works in real life?

"Oh, not like that — stories evoke feelings in us, you see — they help us discover things about ourselves."

Ah, so fiction provides the emotional illusion of understanding. Stories resonate with the lies we already tell ourselves, or they feed us new ones. I mean, it's not like the sensation I get from personally identifying with the captains of industry in some made-up book actually correlates with how much I contribute to society, does it?

"What do you have against Art, man?"

Nothing. I get joy and aesthetic enrichment from paintings and music and poetry and pyrotechnic romps through hyperspace. I just think that calling that knowledge is foolish and, in some cases, perhaps even dangerous to the intellect. It leads us to forget that those discoveries are of an intensely personal kind. They depend on what the spark which one "can neither define nor dismiss", and that spark burns differently for each living human being. I might read the Odyssey and say to myself, "Yes, this is how people act, this is a deep expression of human desires, there is a definite vibration within my soul" — but should I then dismiss all archaeology which differs with the Homeric picture of Mycenaean Greece? My own reaction to the Folio and Quarto texts of King Lear, my judgement of which variant is more complex or more textured or more evocative, should not bias my arguments about the dating of the available source documents or about the methods of composition employed in typesetting the First Folio. Of course, were I making a movie out of Lear, I'd have to draw on my aesthetic sense to make all my decisions; our personal sparks are hardly without value. Calling aesthetic experiences knowledge vastly miscasts them, even though the empirico-rational aspects of humanistic scholarship are broadly continuous with the sciences.

"Scientism! Scientism!"

OK, if you insist. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get about finding a publisher for my science-fiction murder mystery. . . .

Blake Stacey said...

Wow! My comment showed up — I got a screwy error message when I tried to post it and thought Blogger had eaten it.

Edit: "on what the spark" -> "on the spark". Oops.