Cutting the corpus callosum

I remember one of my graduate school teachers, Eric R. Wolf, describing anthropology, the discipline I was studying, as ‘the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the social sciences’ (this was a recurring theme in his writing).  I always identified with this characterisation, refusing a strong boundary between the sciences and the humanities, and believing that both were underpinned by common principles of intellectual discipline involving commitment to empirical evidence, reasoned argument, and conceptual precision.  I have always felt that middle ground to be the heart of the entire intellectual enterprise, a meeting ground, but it is disappearing, and I am becoming homeless. 

My experience in the university in recent years is that this middle ground is eroding.  The pressures are increasing to make research ‘scientific’ in a very narrow sense of the term, as involving sophisticated quantificational and computational methods.  At the same time, some of the more extreme philosophical tendencies towards seeing all reality as ‘socially constructed’ have been promoted in the humanities and ‘softer’ social sciences, such that the value of evidence and reason themselves seem to be in question, somehow suspect.  On this side, from the classic scientific position that all truth-claims are provisional and subject to questioning, some have moved towards a view that there is no shared underlying truth that we all seek, but rather merely contesting truth claims that can only be validated by their corresponding claims to moral superiority.  There is a competition of ideas, but no shared framework in which it can operate, no ‘rules of the game’.  The middle ground in which I have always worked is being whittled away by narrow scientism on the one side, and zealous moralism on the other

The claim that there is a fundamental tension between the sciences and the humanities is hardly new.  The German debates of the late 19th century Methodenstreit (‘struggle over methods’) pitched ‘natural’ and ‘human’ sciences against one another, and C. P. Snow’s famous complaint from the 1950s, that there were two conflicting cultures in intellectual and academic life, one of science and one of literary humanism, has generated debate ever since.   I think this tension is unavoidable, and that we have to live with it.  I think the middle ground provides a necessary bridge between very different sets of human concerns.  However, we are confronted neither by science nor by humanism taking over the whole show.  Instead, academic institutions are being balkanised, carved up by these two factions.  The ‘corpus callosum’ between the two hemispheres, which allows them to communicate and work together, is being cut.

The tension in question here has at least two aspects.  First, our curiosity, and ‘need to know’ about the world comes in two forms.  On the one hand we need stable generalisations, or rules of thumb, about how the world works, so that new circumstances remain tractable.  This new virus will have many features of viruses we already know, this military coup follows a familiar pattern, and so on ad infinitum.  For many this building up of sound generalisation is what we mean by the work of science, discarding generalisations that fail to hold up, holding on to those that do.  But on the other hand, we frequently want to know the explanations of very particular events—why did the international financial system almost collapse in 2008? Why did Hitler come to power?  Why did the Atlantic slave trade grow to such a terrible scale?  This interest is what Dennis H. Wrong called The Persistence of the Particular (2005, Transaction).  We don’t just want to know generalities, we want to know how one-off, particular facts, converge to create such momentous consequences.  And sometimes we ask these particular questions on smaller scales—e.g. how did Jane Austin become a great writer?  This particularism, sometimes called the ‘ideographic approach’ is characteristic of the humanities, especially fields such as history, literature and anthropology, that often focus on unique cases, persons and events, placing them in wider contexts. 

Of course, lots of research and writing tries to find a balance between both generalising and particularising, but they are fundamentally different modes of inquiry, that cannot be perfectly synthesised.  Generalisations can never adequately get at the particular, and the particular is not an adequate basis for generalisation.  We must move back and forth to create a more holistic understanding.  But the second pole, of particularisation, has a peculiar relationship to morality, because we understand moral matters, matters of justice, in terms of harm or help done to concrete people.  Ultimately, we evaluate human conduct in terms of actual acts done by actual people, not in terms of aggregate trends of behaviour.  It’s not that we don’t evaluate such trends as good or bad, but we attach moral judgments to particular persons, who are agents.

This points us to another aspect of the science/humanities dichotomy.  Sciences, characteristically in their relationship to the advancement of technology, are oriented to the future.  They take the status quo of knowledge in a field, and try to improve on it, rendering the status quo obsolete.  In this way they drive forward technical and scientific innovation.  They operate in a relatively timeless present, which they are always trying to exceed.  The humanities, on the other hand, are oriented to the past.  Not just in the mundane sense of history being about the past, but in the deeper sense that they are self-conscious traditions of thought, that constantly refer to their pasts, building up and revising particular traditions of ideas.  Especially in fields such as political and moral philosophy, the problems are ancient and enduring, and the tradition is a constant circling around those problems, not a steady march away from them into the future.  From ancient Greece, Galen’s idea of the balance of bodily humors is a scientific curiosity, Aristotle’s politics and ethics still speak to people today, as part of a living tradition.

Various fields in the social sciences and humanities gravitate toward one pole or the other.  Economics tends toward the scientific, with its concern for the impacts of technological innovation, its mathematicised modes of analysis, and its stripped-down moral assumptions about the rational individual chooser.  Law on the other hand, tends towards the humanities, being concerned with how society justifies and enforces its moral codes, and the historical development of its moral assumptions.  So the wider point, is that the humanities end of the spectrum has a doubly strong connection to moral reflection, both because it evokes the moral situations of concrete particulars, and because moral reflection itself is an intrinsically historical activity that must look backward, and cannot rely on experiment and invention for its insights.  This also creates a problem for those who would like to use the humanities and social sciences as a basis to moralise, but would like to reject large swathes of intellectual tradition and precedent because it is biased towards colonisers, Europeans, whites, men, and so on.  There is a contradiction, or at least a strong tension, between the inherent traditionalism of humanist thought, and the goal of a radical break with the past.

Jonathan Haidt has argued that universities must determine their own telos, their ultimate guiding purpose, and must choose between ‘Truth’ and ‘Justice’ (i.e. moral claims)[1].  In effect he argues that no university ‘can serve two masters’, one must either pursue truth, regardless of moral implications, or justice, regardless of unwelcome truths.  I have sympathy for this distinction, and forcing the choice.  However, I think the strong trend in universities today is to split the difference, to institutionalise a division of labour, with the ‘hard’ sciences seeking truth, and the humanities representing justice.   There are strong practical pressures in this direction.   As universities have grown, taking in more tuition and research funds, the question comes back from government and the business community—what are you doing for us?  And the response has generally been that universities are here to apply science to solve social problems, stimulate the economy, and so on.  On the other hand, young people, potential students, are often in search of a moral home, that will sanction and guide their moral view of the world.  The universities increasingly offer this, not just an opportunity to study and develop the mind, but a place and a way to be on the side of justice.   The tendency of universities is to try to satisfy both constituencies, but to do so by severing the connections that run from the sciences to the humanities.  If the university is to reflect the complexity of human beings, as both practical problem solvers and moral agents, it needs to maintain the bridge between these polarising tendencies.  It needs to preserve space for those in the middle ground who bring the attitude of rational, evidence-based generalisation to materials that are particular, historical and morally charged.  Otherwise we will cut the ‘corpus callosum’, undermining an integrative vision of human knowledge.

[1] See:

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

One thought on “Cutting the corpus callosum

  1. Made breakfast more interesting, please let me have a print copy as I always lose things in fb. You made the corpus callousum more useful,trying brushing your teeth with the other hand to delay dementia.!


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