DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC

Let's Start With A Respect For Truth Daniel C. Dennett [9.10.13]
Topic:
Introduction By: John Brockman

Introduction

"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." (From The Emerging Third Culture", 1991) 

Last month, The New Republic published Steven Pinker's article "Science Is Not The Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historian" (August 6, 2013). A link to a  3-minute video attacking the article  was inserted in the middle of Pinker's text—"WATCH: Leon Wieseltier's rejoinder: Science doesn't have all the answers". Billed as one of "An irregular video-interview series with New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier", the video was conveniently ready for posting within minutes of the publication of Pinker's article.
 
Now, a month later, Wieseltier is back with a 5,650-word attack in the magazine entitled "Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen." (September 3, 2013).
 

This is not a new debate. In my 1991 essay "The Emerging Third Culture", I wrote:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? ... 

In a second edition of "The Two Cultures", published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public.  ...

Given Wieseltier's screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn't know, and doesn't even know that he doesn't know. It's no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their "World's Greatest Thinkers 2013" poll ("a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age"). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world's smartest website

Edge is pleased to publish the following response to Wieseltier from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett.

 

DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University. Among his books are Intuition Pumps; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; and Consciousness Explained.

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio page 

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Further Reading on Edge:  "The Emerging Third Culture" (1991); "The New Humanists" (2000), "The Expanding Third Culture" (2006).


DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC

Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law:

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.  

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities.

Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism. Consider, for instance, this obiter dictum from Wieseltier:

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.

In what sense irreducible? What inwardness, exactly, are we discussing? How has its autonomy as a category been established? In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope. And notice the ambiguity: is the study of those many expressions itself a matter governed by the rules of empirical research, or is it just another set of expressions of inwardness, interpretations of interpretations of interpretations? 


In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope


Philosophical matters are those that demand answers that can stand up to all things considered and hence cannot be addressed without suspending the enabling assumptions of any more specific field of science or inquiry. Wieseltier seems to believe that these matters are the exclusive province of philosophers, professionals who have been licensed to hold forth on them because of some advanced training in the humanities that qualifies them to do this important work. That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it, but the plain fact is that every discipline generates philosophical issues as it advances, and they cannot be responsibly addressed by thinkers ignorant of the facts (the findings, the methods, the problems) encountered in those disciplines.

A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn't read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments.


Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. 


Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.