Sunday, September 29, 2013

Basman On Dennett on Wieseltier And Pinker In The New Republic

Part 1

Me to another guy on Dennett on Wieseltier linked to below:

Dennett....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....

Me.....But it's "true enough" says Dennett. He may not have liked how W gets to the point, how he merely asserts it, whatever, but it's his whole case in a microcosm. It's a (self evident?) premise his argument is built on.

Dennett..... 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....

Me....Don't we need to distinguish between the social science part of the humanities, which W doesn't do, and the arts part of the humanities? And while accumulated knowledge likely, I don't know enough to comment, leads I guess to progress in the social science, it surely doesn't for literature, art, music, dance, film, etc. or for philosophy. And that's his point here.

Dennett...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.....

Me....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?

Part 2

Dennett.....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....

Me.....I'm just not following this in relation to W nor simply in what some of it says. For example, and to start, what is the meaning of the first sentence. I'm struggling with it. I understand the first part, I think: philosophical conclusions, or reasoning along the way, must be capable of withstanding any fair attack from any vantage point--"all things considered." It's the part that follows in that sentence that confuses me. So if one, say, wants to address philosophically the idea, W's main point, that the sciences and the humanities proceed incompatibly in approaching reality, neither having much to offer the other, then a quantitative psychologist would have to do what to address W's point: suspend his discipline's operating/enabling assumptions?

I'm lost.

But what does any of that, whatever it means, have to do with W's argument?

Dennett takes W's argument that what comprises the place and limits of science is not the province of science as such but of philosophy as such:

....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...

to mean that only in the cloistered precincts of philosophy can science's limits and place be defined and that scientists have nothing to add to it.

....That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it...

But that's, I think, a nonsensical, off stride view of what W is saying. He's saying, rather, that when scientists speak of the limits and place of science they aren't *necessarily* in virtue of being scientists in a better position to pronounce on them than any others, as they necessarily are when they speak scientifically about things, that the limits and place of science is a philosophical question not a scientific one. (And Dennett, you'll recall, begins by agreeing, dismissively mind you, that W is right: ...This is true enough...)

Part 3

Dennett....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.

Me:....I used to study English literature up to getting an MA. I have kept up a little in the trends in academic literary criticism, albeit increasingly as an amateur, a layman, someone increasingly distanced from the field. I know slightly there has been some movement in it to read neuro-science and cognitive into the critical reading of texts.

My academic friends don't think much of it. I really can't comment but remain skeptical and report that reaction for what it is worth.

Here the best eaten pudding for proof is made up of the examples Pinker offers as evidence for how applying science enriches the study of the arts. I can't think of any examples that are in the least persuasive and, going from memory, recall W decimating his example of the learning of psychology deepening  our understanding of the beginning of Anna Karenina on the sameness of happy families and the singularity of unhappy families.

There's another point to be made here that shows why Dennett is off base. Literature, other arts,  remain to be studied in their own terms. I can't tell you how many essays I've read, for example, about Keats's two lines about truth and beauty, which essays became an extended discussion, in the way of philosophy, of those lines wrenched from poetic context.

They're nonsense as a matter of a proper, as the academy would have it, critical appreciation of the poem, the nonsense stemming from the disjuncture between the understanding those lines as part of and integrally connected to the poem and the essays' philosophical excursions.

Northrop Frye wrote correctly in The Anatomy of Criticism, paraphrase, that critical emphasis should bear proportion to the emphasis in the text. A corollary of that proposition is art that should be critically understood by reference to the artistic use of the artistic materials being considered, language and its usage, paint and its usage, etc. I'd venture the thought that neuro science or psychology, other sciences, have not much to tell us about the critical appreciation of texts unless the author incorporates that content into his work.

Dennett concluding .......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.

Me.....Dennett  here misreads W and distorts his argument. (A circumstantial indicator is that W wouldn't use the word "problematics" and disdains those who do, just as he disdains Pomo as jargon ridden distraction.)

W has no fear of thinkers from the outside invading protected turf and I'd ask for textual evidence of this in his essay. Nor, in the same vein, does W want to "defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs." This distortion, as noted, runs through Dennett's short piece.

W isn't in the academy and he has no territorial turf to defend as such. He is concerned to stand against wrong claims that science has something to offer the "internal" study of the arts, I.E. not the sociology of them, the economics of them, the neuro-cognitive nature of our responses to them, and so on, but the critical appreciation of the arts on their terms.

Behind W's position lies his confrontation with Pinker's claim that Stephen Jay Gould was wrong, (as was C.P. Snow), that the sciences and the humanities are not distinct realms of experience, do not approach experience fundamentally differently. These themes are different from what Dennett ascribes to W.

 I'll end this by repeating a just made point. Let Pinker or Dennett give good examples to support how the insights of science aid us in the critical appreciation of the arts, and then we'd have something more fruitful to discuss.

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