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Edward Slingerland begins What Science Offers the Humanities with the statement that 'it is something of a commonplace these days that the humanities are facing a crisis' (p. 1). As the remainder of the book makes clear, Slingerland agrees with that view: 'Enrollments in the humanities are down, funding levels from external agencies have fallen, and the work of humanists themselves has become increasingly insular and unrelated to the normal canons of intelligibility' (p. 2). Students motivated by love of art, literature or language are put off the academic study of these fields by militant theoretical indoctrination; humanities academics are locked into self-perpetuating games of linguistic theorization that have no engagement with the real world; the humanities have shut themselves away both from the world of everyday life and the realm of other disciplines of human knowledge, above all the natural sciences. Why is this, and what is to be done?
As the summary above suggests, the opening sections of the book might seem to give the impression that postmodernism is the destructive force to blame for the decline of the humanities. Postmodernism, though, is for Slingerland a symptom of the disease rather than the disease itself. The ailment afflicting the humanities is dualism, the conviction that there are minds and there are bodies – which leads to the conviction that the world of human meaning is separate from the world of existing reality, and must be approached in a different way and studied using different tools. It is this conviction that has led to the humanities turning their backs on the one way forward for their disciplines that would lead them out of their current morass of meaninglessness and irrelevance: an acceptance of the unity of human knowledge, which would mean a union with the natural sciences.
The main body of What Science Offers the Humanities is divided into three parts. The first, 'exorcising the ghost in the machine', deals in detail with the objection to mind/body dualism. For Slingerland there are only bodies. To be more specific, we are only bodies. This involves him in a dismissal of both objectivism and, at rather more length, postmodernism, for he sees both as essentially dualistic. Objectivism relies on the notion that there is a world out there that is rationally structured and consistent, and which can be correctly perceived through rational understanding and description. This 'objectivist-rationalist' model is, for Slingerland, rooted in a mind/body distinction that has no basis. Postmodernism suffers from the same difficulty, and thus, for all its claims about freeing human perception from outmoded hierarchical and inherited modes of thought, is incapable of engaging with the reality of the existing, material, world. Postmodernism ultimately posits a universe of texts, which 'means that there is no way out of the closed circle of endless human conversation, which – by virtue of being utterly cut off from the world of things – can never achieve even partial or provisional conclusions' (p. 78). In this section, and elsewhere in the book, Slingerland has a great deal of entertaining fun with the nonsenses and inconsistencies of postmodern theorizing in the academy – the world may be just a chaos of texts, yet postmodernist academics continue to eat, drink, and draw their salaries – but his essential point is not so much that postmodernism is wrong, a blind intellectual alley, but that it is an expression of a more fundamental wrongness in the contemporary scholarly approach to understanding the world.
This argument is expanded upon and deepened in the second section of the book, 'embodying culture'. In the preceding section Slingerland stressed the importance of the undeniable universals of human existence, here he addresses the appearance of the culturally specific, the fluid as distinct from the fixed, and seeks to demonstrate that there is a continuum that links them and anchors them in a reality that can be studied and understood -- and which provides the humanities with a realm distinctive in character from but united with that explored by the sciences. Studies of cognitive mechanisms in human beings and other primates provide some of the most interesting evidence upon which he erects his arguments. The fundamental argument is one of fluidity: the human ability to link together unlike things and make something new from the connections: it is complex and often hard to follow, but its consequence is, for Slingerland, quite clear: cultural variations are written in our neurons, inscribed in biologically-determined cultural practices, are in short rooted in our embodied selves.
The third and final section, 'defending the empirical: commonsense realism and pragmatic truth', argues for a vertical integration of human knowledge uniting the humanities and the sciences on the basis that all human existence and meaning rests on embodied reality. Slingerland's model is of a hierarchy of fields of study, not in the sense that each ascending layer is of greater intrinsic value than those at the lower levels, but rather that each is dependent upon what lies below. Higher-order levels of explanation are erected upon lower-order levels, with the humanities as the highest levels of all. The natural sciences have arranged themselves 'in a rough explanatory hierarchy, with the lower levels of explanation (such as physics) setting limits on the sorts of explanations that can be entertained at the higher levels (such as biology)', and the humanities 'need to plug themselves into their proper place at the top of this explanatory hierarchy' because 'Human-level meaning emerges organically out of the workings of the physical world' (p. 261). The main change he is arguing for here is in the mind-set that now dominates many areas of humanities scholarship: the default setting of extreme skepticism and relativism that denies any one 'mode of discourse' any more validity than any other.
Slingerland has much of interest to say about the ways in which, if naïve objectivism is abandoned, humanists can accept the essential positivist claims of scientific knowledge without doing violence to their concerns with what might be considered the less materialist, more intuitive world of human meaning and culture. There is no simplistic progressive narrative behind scientific development, but we can, argues Slingerland, accept the idea that our paradigms for understanding the world are getting better. We can detect that they are better because evolution has equipped us with perceptual apparatus that enables us to process information about the world around us in certain ways, to understand things, predict things, and manipulate things: 'Even if we cannot literally see the laws of aerodynamics, we can see the performance of things built according to those principles -- heavier-than-air metal tubes fly through the air' (p. 248). This is why we like science: it works and we can see that it works. The same principles should apply to the humanities.
© 2009 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://www.greycat.org