Friday, March 6, 2015

Rooting The Humanities In Reasoned Argument

Reading Literature

Tree Uprooted: Like a tree that has been uprooted from its fertile source, so are the Humanities uprooted (déraciner)  from its source when critical theories are applied dogmatically, without thought and for political reasons, to its reading and understanding. Novels are important in their own right and suffer from suffocation when restrictive theory is applied, Morson argues: “For what are realist novels but extended case studies? Novels show the overwhelming intricacy of things: contingencies eluding any pattern, idiosyncrasies baffling all psychological theories, and moral subtleties beyond the reach of any ideology. If the hero of a realist novel should embrace a theory as the key to ethics or politics, he is sure to find himself in a situation more complicated than his theory allows.”
Photo Credit
: Karen Arnold
Source: Public Domain

One of the beauties of literature is that it is not science. That is, literature, as a branch of the Humanities, has an important place in our civilization for reasons that differ from science. The humanities are supposed to teach us everything that makes us human; science does this, of course, but from a different view than literature. The strength of literature is a narrative; the strength of science is fact. If I am being simple, it is for a good reason; it is to direct an argument to a certain place.

An article (“The tyranny of theory”; February 2015), by Gary Saul Morson, in The New Criterion argues that modern critical  theory has made reasoned argument and differences of opinion almost impossible today in many departments devoted to the humanities. In many respects these academic disciplines have become repressive and hostile, and not open and tolerant. This leads to the type of absolutism, and the application of universal truth, found in Plato’s philosophical theories on justice and happiness, most notably in The Republic. (Plato defends the just or noble lie as necessity for happiness; see here for an essay by Prof. George Jochnowitz.)

The problem, and it is very much a problem, is that the Humanities has lost its first love, chiefly, looking for the human understanding of human beings, which can be fickle and ever-changing, and replacing it with an application of theory (imitating the sciences) as a means to find emulate certainty and gain prestige. It is a mistake, and a rather large and humbling one.

The British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who taught in the United States for many years, has written about this mistake, Morson writes:
Toulmin and I were initially drawn together by two shared interests. Each of us regarded Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as our favorite novel, and we twice co-taught a class on it. In addition, as confirmed contrarians, we both deplored recent developments in “critical theory” endorsing absolute relativism. That puerile conclusion was invariably reached by presuming that unless knowledge could be absolutely certain, it was not knowledge at all. Without unshakeable “foundations,” everything was at best a matter of taste but more likely an expression of hegemonic power. As we liked to joke, such reasoning was not only shallow but deeply shallow.
In our view, this post-structuralism was simply dogmatism stood on its head. It leaves no room for reasoned argument, which can thrive only where certainty is not to be had but some positions are better than others. Doctors can offer no guarantees, but we do not therefore conclude that medical treatment is just a matter of taste.

Where there is reasoned argument, there is room for what Toulmin calls “honest and conscientious difference of opinion.” Intellectuals, no less than religious fundamentalists, have a tendency to shut down debate by insisting that only one point of view could possibly be moral. And so I remember the thrill I felt at the opening pages of The Abuse of Casuistry, directed at “the fanatics on both sides” of the abortion debate. “In former times,” the authors observed,
there were always those who could discuss the morality of abortion temperately and with discrimination: acknowledging that here, as in other agonizing human situations, conflicting considerations are involved and that a just, if sometimes painful, balance has to be struck.
As Toulmin was well aware, the very idea of legitimate disagreement about abortion had long been taboo in university circles.

For Toulmin, opinion pertains to some fields by their very nature. One can arrange disciplines along a spectrum, with mathematics at one end, where opinion plays no role at all, and literary criticism at the other. Somewhere in the middle we find clinical medicine, which depends on biological science but cannot be reduced to it.
Such is an important point to understand; as someone who has a deep respect and appreciation for science, I can honestly and sincerely say that science has its place, and its limits. This is no shame, since science is informed by facts. Literature is not, but by a narrative, a story. I also find it important to say rather emphatically that literature, and its strength in telling stories of ourselves, can and does teach us important moral thoughts and ideas about ourselves.

This is why people today continue to read novels, notably the classics. It is about human understanding in a world that seems more complicated and confusing than a few decades ago. This is why the reasoned argument is not less important, but more important than previously thought. Such leads to a better understanding of human nature from a humanistic view.

Scientists tend to hold an inflated view about their knowledge, and this is understandable (many are brilliant), but it is a hubris formed by an absence, in particular, an ignorance of the importance of the Humanities in the pantheon of knowledge and human understanding. If scientists want to save themselves from dogmatism and dryness, I would recommend they start by reading a few Russian classics; they might surprise themselves by rethinking what they know about the human condition and what makes them (us) moral beings. The answer might not be found completely in our biology.

For more, go to [NewCriterion]

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