TNR BEST OF 2013 SEPTEMBER 3, 2013
Before 2014, catch up on the best of 2013. For the next few weeks, we'll be re-posting a selection of our most thought-provoking pieces of the year.
The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.
None of these strictures about the limitations of science, about its position in nonscientific or extra-scientific contexts, in any way impugns the integrity or the legitimacy or the necessity or the beauty of science. Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more. In recent years, however, this much has been too little for certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe. In a world increasingly organized around the dazzling new breakthroughs in science and technology, they feel oddly besieged.
They claim that science is under attack, and from two sides. The first is the fundamentalist strain of Christianity, which does indeed deny the truth of certain proven scientific findings and more generally prefers the subjective gains of personal rapture to the objective gains of scientific method. Against this line of attack, even those who are skeptical about the scientizing enterprise must stand with the scientists, though it is important to point out that the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion. Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally. When they read, most believers, like most nonbelievers, interpret. When the Bible declares that the world was created in seven days, it broaches the question of what a day might mean. When the Bible declares that God has an arm and a nose, it broaches the question of what an arm and a nose might mean. Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, a day cannot mean 24 hours, at least not for the intellectually serious believer; and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine, this arm and this nose cannot refer to God, because that would be stupid.
Interpretation is what ensues when a literal meaning conflicts with what is known to be true from other sources of knowledge. As the ancient rabbis taught, accept the truth from whoever utters it. Religious people, or many of them, are not idiots. They have always availed themselves of many sources of knowledge. They know about philosophical argument and figurative language. Medieval and modern religious thinking often relied upon the science of its day. Rationalist currents flourished alongside anti-rationalist currents, and sometimes became the theological norm. What was Jewish and Christian and Muslim theology without Aristotle? When a dissonance was experienced, the dissonance was honestly explored. So science must be defended against nonsense, but not every disagreement with science, or with the scientific worldview, is nonsense. The alternative to obscurantism is not that science be all there is.
The second line of attack to which the scientizers claim to have fallen victim comes from the humanities. This is a little startling, since it is the humanities that are declining in America, not least as a result of the exaggerated glamour of science. But some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose. It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them. The idea of the autonomy of the humanities, the notion that thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding, fills them with a profound anxiety. It throws their totalizing mentality into crisis. And so they respond with a strange mixture of defensiveness and aggression. As people used to say about the Soviet Union, they expand because they feel encircled.
A few weeks ago this magazine published a small masterpiece of scientizing apologetics by Steven Pinker, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Pinker utters all kinds of sentimental declarations about the humanities, which “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Nobody wants to set himself against sensibility, which is anyway a feature of scientific work, too. Pinker ranges over a wide variety of thinkers and disciplines, scientific and humanistic, and he gives the impression of being a tolerant and cultivated man, which no doubt he is. But the diversity of his analysis stays at the surface. His interest in many things is finally an interest in one thing. He is a foxy hedgehog. His essay, a defense of “scientism,” is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.
Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures ... are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion.
Yet the purpose of Pinker’s essay is not chiefly to denounce religion. It is to praise scientism. Rejecting the various definitions of scientism—“it is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities,” it is not “reductionism,” it is not “naïve”—Pinker proposes his own characterization of scientism, which he defends as an attempt “to export to the rest of intellectual life” the two ideals that in his view are the hallmarks of science. The first of those ideals is that “the world is intelligible.” The second of those ideals is that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science? This is either ignorant or tendentious. Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world, and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas and Al-Farabi, and so did Poussin and Bach and Goethe and Austen and Tolstoy and Proust. They all share Pinker’s denial of the opacity of the world, of its impermeability to the mind. They all join in his desire to “explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles.” They all concur with him that “in making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.’ ” But of course Pinker is not referring to their ideals of intelligibility. The ideal that he has in mind is a very particular one. It is the ideal of scientific intelligibility, which he disguises, by means of an inoffensive general formulation, as the whole of intelligibility itself.
If Pinker believes that scientific clarity is the only clarity there is, he should make the argument for such a belief. He should also acknowledge its narrowness (though within the realm of science it is very wide), and its straitening effect upon the investigation of human affairs. Instead he simply conflates scientific knowledge with knowledge as such. In his view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist. It does not matter that they approached the phenomena with different methods and different vocabularies. If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists avant la lettre. Pinker’s essay opens with the absurd, but immensely revealing, contention that Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith were scientists. It is true that once upon a time a self-respecting intellectual had to be scientifically literate, or even attempt a modest contribution to the study of the natural world. It is also true that Kant, to choose but one of Pinker’s heroes of science, made some astronomical discoveries in his early work; but Kant’s significant contributions to our understanding of mind and morality were plainly philosophical, and philosophy is not, and was certainly not for Kant, a science. Perhaps one can be a scientist without being aware that one is a scientist. What else could these thinkers have been, for Pinker? If they contributed to knowledge, then they must have been scientists, because what other type of knowledge is there? For all its geniality, Pinker’s translation of nonscientific thinking into science is no less strident a constriction than, say, Carnap’s colossally parochial dictum that “there is no question whose answer is in principle unattainable by science.” His ravenous intellectual appetite notwithstanding, Pinker is finally in the same reductionist racket. (The R-word!) He sees many locks but only one key.
The translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central objective of scientism. It is also the source of its intellectual perfunctoriness. Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.
The scientistic reading of literary texts is similarly uninstructive, and often quite risible. I will give two examples. In 1951, Richard von Mises, an Austrian scientist and mathematician who fled the Nazis and found sanctuary at Harvard, published Positivism: A Study in Human Understanding, one of the classics of scientism, in which he argued that “a basic contrast between natural sciences and the humanities, with respect to either method or subject matter, cannot be constructed.” Such a separation, he said, would “require that between the intellectual behavior of a man and his physical organism no direct connection exists.” If we are partially explicable by science, in other words, then we must be totally explicable by science. Von Mises was a devoted reader of Rilke, and assembled an important collection of Rilke materials, which is now in Harvard’s library. In his book he included a discussion of poetry. “What the poet reports ...” he contended, “are experiences about vital interrelations between observable phenomena.” Not only narrative and dramatic verse, but also lyrical or “pure” verse, “expresses only experiences about observable facts.” As his proof-text for this scientistic understanding of poetry, von Mises cites his beloved Rilke: “For the sake of a single verse one must see many cities, men, and things; one must know the animals; one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open up in the morning.” He believed that Rilke, of all writers, was recommending empiricism! Von Mises aridly instructed that “every poem, except in rare extreme cases, contains judgments and implicit propositions and thus becomes subject to logical analysis.” He deserved to be barred from Duino’s door.
In 1997, Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs, and Steel, another scientistic theory of everything. In one of its less charming passages, Diamond proposes “the Anna Karenina principle” for the understanding of the domestication of animals: “domesticable animals are all alike; every undomesticable animal is undomesticable in its own way.” He is mimicking the renowned opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel: “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The adage is rather overrated, since all happy families are not alike; but here is how Diamond explicates it: “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.” This is a fine instance of the incomprehension, and the buzzkill, that often attends the extension of the scientistic temperament to literature and art. Of course Tolstoy had no such sociology or self-help in mind. His proposition was a caution against generalizations about the human heart, and a strike against facile illusions of intelligibility, and an affirmation of the incommensurability, the radical particularity, of individual experience. In-laws!
What von Mises and Diamond—and Pinker—deny is that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final. For these scientizers, they are not differences in kind; they are differences only in appearance, whereas a deeper explanation, a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness. The underlying sameness is the presumption of scientism. The scientizers do not respect the borders between the realms; they transgress the borders so as to absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm. They are not pluralists. With his uniform notion of intelligibility, Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world, as it was developed by thinkers from Vico and Dilthey to Isaiah Berlin and Bernard Williams. Here is Dilthey, in 1883: “The impossibility of deriving mental or spiritual facts from those of the mechanical order of nature—an impossibility based on the difference of their sources—does not preclude their inclusion within the system of nature. But there comes a point where the relations among the facts of the world of human spirit show themselves to be incommensurate with the uniformities of natural processes in that the facts of the human world cannot be subordinated to those established by the mechanistic conception of nature. Only then do we witness ... the boundary where knowledge of nature ends and an independent human science, shaped by its own central concerns, begins.” Some of Dilthey’s language is archaic—we no longer think of the natural universe mechanistically, and we would call his “human science” history and the humanities, and we would likely refer to “human spirit” as consciousness—but his cartography of knowledge, and the principles that justify its demarcations, remains valid. The boundary is porous, of course: whatever else we are, we are also animals, and the impact upon us of material causes is indisputable. But we are animals who live in culture; which is to say, the biological or psychological or economic elements of our constitution do not operate in sovereign independence of “the human spirit.” They are inflected and interpreted in meanings and intentions. We do not only receive material causes, we also act upon them. For this reason, we cannot be explained only in terms of our externalities. Not even our externalities can be explained only externally.
It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness. Pinker’s condescension to the humanities is endless. He proposes for the humanities “a consilience with science,” but the only apparent beneficiary of such an arrangement would be the humanities, since they have nothing much to offer the sciences, which obviously occupy a higher place in the hierarchy of knowledge. Or more precisely, “the humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences ... [and] the sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.” I am not sure I understand the latter compliment. He seems to be saying that scientists think well and humanists write well. “Consilience” is a word that should get humanists’ backs up: the convergence of which it dreams is not so much a convergence of the sciences with the humanities as a convergence of the sciences upon the humanities. Pinker’s program puts me in mind of the definition of scientism that a British philosopher offered years ago: “the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning” and “the view that it is always good for subjects that do not belong to science to be placed on a scientific footing.” It is a more candid and more accurate definition than Pinker’s casuistry about intelligibility and difficulty. Pinker impugns humanists for inventing a straw man called scientism, and then he goes and covers himself in straw.
Pinker’s condescension to the humanities is nicely illustrated by the second of what he advertises as science’s two virtues—his criterion of difficulty: “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” He continues: “The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” Science, by contrast, teaches “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests,” as indeed it does. Pinker seems to be saying that reason is essentially scientific. This is another one of his definitional tricks. Reason is larger than science. Reason is not scientific; science is rational. Moreover, science is not all that is rational. Philosophy and literature and history and critical scholarship also espouse skepticism, open debate, formal precision (though not of the mathematical kind), and—at the higher reaches of humanistic labor—even empirical tests. What is a novel if not the representation of simultaneous non-omniscient perspectives—skepticism in the form of narrative? In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined; and the imagination has rigors of its own. What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge. Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.
Pinker’s self-congratulatory suggestion that only science recognizes the complexity and the obscurity of the world—his implication that in the nonscientific disciplines the acquisition of knowledge, if knowledge is even acquired, is easy—is very unimpressive. It betrays a contempt for humanistic exertion, even as he accuses the liberal arts in many universities of “cultivat[ing] a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt.” The superiority of the sciences to the humanities in Pinker’s account is made clear by his proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities: “an infusion of new ideas,” which turns out to be an infusion of scientific ideas. There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix. Pinker is correct to hold the humanities partly complicit in their own decline, referring appositely to “the disaster of postmodernism” and “suffocating political correctness”; but he does not summon the humanities to recover their greatness and their pride. Instead he summons them to a process of scientization. The humanities, he charges, “have failed to define a progressive agenda.” There follows this unforgettable observation: “Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.” Why can’t the humanities be more like the sciences, and “appeal to deans and donors”?
How lamentable for the humanities, that Pinker and the other big shots in the faculty club no longer find them sexy. Some of us, by contrast, cannot open a page of Sophocles and Tacitus and Augustine and Milton and Gibbon and Keats and Tocqueville and Emerson and Mill and Dickens and Mann and Stevens and Auerbach and Camus and Panofsky and Miłosz without a quickening in our blood. (We are the same benighted people who receive quite calmly the latest bulletins from the frontiers of neuroscience.) There is something callow about Pinker’s insistence that the humanities get with it, that they learn to keep up. He reminds me of C. P. Snow—we have been here before—and his sneering characterization of “literary intellectuals” as “the traditional culture”: “If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” Snow did not grasp that “the traditional culture,” or modern literature and thought, was in many respects revolutionary, a grand project of skepticism and subversion, and that “the future” owes a great deal, for better and for worse (but the same may be said of the influence of science), to the direction in which writers and artists and philosophers and historians and critics lead the culture. Pinker is similarly blinkered; for him, too, scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
It is important to point out, therefore, that it was the imperative to keep up, to be “progressive,” which led to “the disaster of postmodernism” and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades. More importantly, the humanities do not advance the way the sciences advance. Once again Pinker has imposed a scientistic framework upon a nonscientistic discussion. The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences. The sciences were never riven by a querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, because modern scientists have no need to study ancient scientists, at least for the purposes of scientific work. The history of science is a history of errors corrected and discarded. But the vexations of philosophy and the obsessions of literature are not retired in this way. In these fields, the forward-looking cast backward glances. The history of old art and thought fuels the production of young art and thought. Scientists no longer consult Aristotle’s scientific writings, but philosophers still consult Aristotle’s philosophical writings. In this sense, the humanities, unlike the sciences, constitute a tradition, which is (in Gershom Scholem’s words) “a process that creates productivity through receptivity.” The present has the power of life and death over the past. It can choose to erase vast regions of it. Tradition is what the present calls those regions of the past that it retains, that it cherishes and needs. Contrary to the progressivist caricature, tradition is not the domination of the present by the past. It is the domination of the past by the present—the choice that we make to preserve and to love old things because we have discovered in them resources for contemporary sustenance and up-to-the-minute illumination.
It makes no sense to denounce a tradition for demanding “respect for the way things have always been done.” The humanities should make no apologies for making such a demand. It is not the dreary reactionary intercession that Pinker makes it out to be—unless, of course, there really is nothing more to be learned from the way things have always been done. Where is the man who can honestly say that this is so? Scientizers—and presidents and provosts and deans and donors—may regard such a release from custom as a liberation, but for humanists it represents a calamity, a terrible self-inflicted wound on the self and the culture. There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished. A threat to what one values cannot be met by a desire for something else. In his opposition to postmodernist theories of science, for example, and to other misappropriations of the mantle of science, Pinker is correct to be unswayed by the rustle of the new and to speak for conformity to the established understandings. Sometimes wisdom is conventional. The denigration of conventional wisdom is itself a convention.
In demanding respect for the way things have always been done, one is not demanding an end to new ways of doing things. Tradition is a body of accumulated innovations, some of them evolving smoothly from precedent, some of them more of a rupture with earlier methods and conclusions. The chronicle of the humanities is the chronicle of different techniques for interpreting the humanities. They do not all go together, like the canon itself; and the internecine tensions, which result from the workings of originality in even the most hidebound pursuits, provide many of the thrills of humanistic learning. Pinker concedes that “there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works,” but really he is bored by all those old practices and wants the humanities to move on. They need to be saved; they need to be saved by something other than themselves; they need to be saved by science. “A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding.” There follows the usual breathless list of contemporary scientific excitements: neuroscience, since “art, culture, and society are products of human brains”; and linguistics, cognitive psychology, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology; and data science, or “big data.”
Pinker justifiably deplores the dogmatic resistance of certain humanists to the encounter of their fields with these sciences. The search for knowledge is catch as catch can; accept the truth from whoever utters it. Yet his examples of particular humanities rescued by particular sciences are rather underwhelming. “Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience.” But those are technical matters, not matters of meaning. How art works is not the most penetrating question that can be asked about it. Many years ago I attended a lecture by Roman Jakobson on patterns of consonant placement in Baudelaire’s “Le Chat,” and it was the least enlightening discussion of a poem I ever heard. “Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir.” Profound? I think not. Whatever its genetic roots, a man’s experience of his father is his experience of his father, and the representation of that relationship in a biography or a memoir demands empathy and probity more than a hunt for phenotypes. “Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot.” How is Madame Bovary more deeply explicated by the suggestion that an interest in adultery by a writer in Croisset in the 1850s was not common to his contemporaries in Africa? Can Pinker really believe that these “drivers of plot” were hidden from readers and scholars until evolutionary psychology came along? Or is it that we did not really know them until our paltry comp-lit intuitions were provided with scientistic foundations? And surely the evolutionary dimensions of Middlemarch and In Search of Lost Time and Herzog are their least significant dimensions—a distraction from the real challenge of such books, which is the exploration of subjectivity and what is lived. What makes “conflicts and confluences” interesting in a work of art is that they are intentions formed by values and desires, not outcomes fixed by chromosomes. The scientific reading of a novel’s plot may thus be both true and marginal. This condemns scientizers who meddle in the humanities to a permanent condition of bafflement.
Pinker concludes his inventory of all the favors that the sciences can do for the humanities with a paean to “an expansive new ‘digital humanities,’ ” in which “the possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo.” Those were all familiar subjects for the pre-digital humanities, though there is no doubt that those subjects are about to enjoy, or endure, a quantitative windfall. The problem, of course, is what to make of the role of quantification. It is certainly the case that the more scholars know, the better for scholarship. But “allatonceness”—McLuhan’s term has been adopted by advocates of the digital humanities—brings its own anxieties. All data points are not equally instructive or equally valuable, intellectually and historically. Judgments will still have to be made; frameworks for evaluation will still have to be readied against the informational deluge. Those judgments and those frameworks will be modified and refined by the data, but they cannot be dictated by the data. Search, search, search, but reflect. If the digital humanities depend heavily on crowd-sourcing, somebody will have to vouch for the reliability of the crowd. Or will the validations also be crowd-sourced? Surely the republic of letters cannot be wiki’ed. Learning is a collective endeavor and requires communities, but I am not prepared to renounce the romance of scholarly solitude or the gains that accrue to erudition from the lone erudit.
The inundation of historical and humanistic scholarship by patterns will also broach the question of the explanatory power of patterns. (The question occurred to me as Jakobson diligently collated all the r’s in Baudelaire’s poem.) As even some partisans of big data have noted, the massive identification of regularities and irregularities can speak to “what” but not to “why”: they cannot recognize causes and reasons, which are essential elements of humanistic research. And in some agitators for the digital humanities I detect a certain mischievousness that does not inspire confidence: they speak exaltedly of “versioning,” for instance, which is “favored over definitive editions and research silos”: “there is space to iterate and test, to create precarious experiments that are speculative, ludic, or even impossible.” This sounds like a lot of fun. I am not sure what it has to do with the expansion of scholarship.
I do not mean to be altogether churlish about the possibilities, or to confine the humanities to ghostly paleographers in the Bodleian reading room. The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations. But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities, as it has mutilated and damaged many disciplines and vocations. My point is only that shilling for the revolution is not what we need now. The responsibility of the intellectual toward the technologies is no longer (if it ever was) mere enthusiasm. The magnitude of the changes wrought by the new machines calls for the revival of a critical temper. Too much is at stake to make do with that cool vanguard feeling. But Pinker is just another enthusiast, just another cutting-edge man, waxing on like everybody else about how “this is an extraordinary time” because “powerful tools have been developed” and so on. It is more of the general inebriation. We get it, we get it. With his dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading, Pinker shows no trace of the skepticism whose absence he deplores in others. His sunny scientizing blurs distinctions and buries problems. If there was one thing for which the humanities, the old humanities, the wearyingly traditional humanities, could be counted on, it was to introduce us also to the darkness and prepare us also for the worst.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.