In honor of the goblinpaladin
's birthday (last month...), here is a review of What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body and Culture by Edward Slingerland, 2008
There's an old Isaac Asimov essay I recall reading where he discusses the implicit social hierarchy of different fields of study. You know, where math is more prestigious than physics, which is in turn 'above' chemistry, which is 'above' biology, et cetera. Asimov then asked (I paraphrase), "What's above mathematics?"
His answer was "the humanities". And he defended the answer with a little story, whose details I've sadly forgotten, but which essentially compared the reactions of the faculty at a school to (a) a student named Cicero failing rhetoric and (b) a student named Gauss failing mathematics. Asimov pointed out that all of them would laugh at the former (being as we all know Cicero was a great orator) but that only the math and science people would be amused at the latter (being as none of the humanities scholars would ever have heard of a mere mathematician, nor cared about his extraordinary influence upon mere math and sciences).
Sociologically, Asimov was probably just about right. Ontology, however, is Professor Slingerland's game, and he proposes just the opposite. And inverting this hierarchy - making the case for humanities as a higher-order level of explanation above neuroscience, psychology, biology, et cetera, the same way chemistry is a higher-order level of explanation above quantum physics, and just as dependent on its substrate - is the purpose of his book. It is so, he explains, because humanities is in desperate need of new life - it is visibly, clearly stagnating, as many scholars have observed, and Slingerland argues that an "embodied" or "vertically integrated" view of the humanities is necessary to move forward. Thus What Sciences Offers the Humanities
seeks to open a new strain of humanities studies in close collaboration with scientific knowledge.
There. Now let us discuss what it does.What Science Offers the Humanities
, between introduction and conclusion, is divided into three parts. The first is a refutation of the objectivist and postmodernist views of humanity, the second his physicalist tertium quid based on modern cognitive science, and the third a defense of his view against a few anticipated objections. It is quite enough of a task for a bookshelf of books, and indeed Slingerland makes reference to at least that many along the way. Further, it is by its very nature difficult reading in many places - Slingerland in this book writes philosophy, and a modern philosopher must blaze a path through some of the harshest terrain in our mental landscapes.
(Incidentally, delicious little metaphors like that are featured prominently in Slingerland's "vertically integrated" model of humanity, described in Part 2. More on that anon.)
First, the refutations. Objectivism (which, in this case, contains a sort of Smullyan-logician theory of the person and the correspondence theory of truth) Slingerland spends comparatively little time with - while it is certainly not unpopular (I have strong inclinations in its direction myself), strong criticisms of it are well-established in the humanities, to whose scholars Slingerland addresses the book. Thus he deals his objections out quickly and competently (though not completely enough for my satisfaction - as I said, strong inclinations) and turns his attention to the other side.
Postmodernism, he explains, is a controversial term to use for what he describes. As he explains in the introduction, "virtually every [modern] postmodernist denies being one". Thus his treatment of postmodernism ends up extended over two chapters, with one dedicated chiefly to showing that, as he defines it, the appellation "postmodernist" still applies to many of the scholars he addresses, and only afterwards establishing the self-refuting nature of postmodernist theories. Naturally, for the non-postmodernist reader, these are among the most difficult chapters in the book - possibly by its very disconnect with experiential reality, postmodernist writing is almost invariably turgid. The density of the material is leavened by Slingerland's well-executed asides and rhetorical flourishes - his discussion of the Sokal hoax particularly struck my fancy - but those with an active disinterest in postmodernism may find it tiring. However, those coming from the humanities would be likely to profit much from these chapters - both by exposure to some basic objections to certain common lines of thought in the works of their peers and, if they share said lines of thought, by exposure to problems with their theoretical frameworks that need resolution or refutation.
Having thus cleared the ground, Slingerland turns to his own theory.
I will not attempt to elaborate his theory for him. The most central element of it is the theory of conceptual blending. This theory (originating, Slingerland says, with Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner) maintains that most (perhaps all) of human thought involves the mixing of properties from various already-existing ideas, as illustrated in expressions like "digging your own financial grave". This sort of combination (in the example, drawing the emotional content of the grave to accent the suggestion that a given financial plan is unsound), Slingerland argues, is a fundamental, universal part of how human beings work with ideas - he demonstrates its generality to analysis of cultural artifacts (a major part of humanities) with an analysis of the fourth-century B.C.E. Chinese Confucian work Mencius
by blending theory.
After introducing his theory, much of the rest of the book deals with probable objections from the humanities tradition. (As a proponent of a minority theory, Slingerland is obliged to spend the main part of his book in its defense.) It is interesting material - defenses of pragmatism, refutations of common fears of reductionism, and the like - and competently presented, but it is certainly a decline from the excitement of the various introductions - of his theory, of postmodernism's weaknesses, of objectivism's weaknesses, and of the book entire.
It is not surprising when a book is exciting at the start and less so towards the end. What struck me in this case, however, is that there is a definite sense of the precise element lacking - and, ironically, that element is science. Slingerland is a fan of science, but he is a sinologist
- student of Chinese culture - not a scientist. He has a breadth of scientific reading that does him great credit, a breadth far in excess of mine own, but his lack of depth in the specific fields shows. He quotes Dawkins and Dennett excellently, but he seems to need to. It is not a fault - he isn't
a scientist - but the difference does make his very real contributions seem a little grayer in contrast.
What is the bottom line?
Slingerland's What Science Offers the Humanities
is an excellent epistle to a world of humanities work in need of new insight - one with the understanding of the Academy whose lack prevents the Sokals, and even the Dawkins and the Dennetts, from engaging
and not antagonizing its audience. It draws from the strength of the sciences to build a vision of a better university - for, as Slingerland points out in the conclusion, the sociological and psychological studies are rapidly approaching territory which requires knowledge of the humanities, just as they are - or should be - transforming the understanding of what the humanities contain.
As a popular science book, it is not
. In its path, it alludes to a spread of important discoveries to understanding of the humanities, and of humanity, but its aim is not to bring true comprehension of these to the reader. Its aim is to show that the social sciences are relevant.
It shows this. That is enough.