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The difference between science and the humanities

By William Deresiewicz

December 9, 2012


 

I wrote a post a few months ago about the excessive deference the media pays to “studies”: scientific, or more often, pseudo-scientific or social-scientific research (the distinction between these last two not always being sharp) that purports to demonstrate some truth or another about human experience—living in cities is stressful, reading fiction makes you more empathetic, etc. The arts, I suggested, are a much better place to seek that kind of information.

Some readers took the post as anti-scientific. It was not; it was anti-scientistic. Science is science: empirical, objective, quantifiable. Scientism is the belief that science is the only valid form of knowledge and that other modes of inquiry are valuable only insofar as they approximate its methods. Scientism is as much the property of laypeople as it is of scientists. It seems to be especially the property of journalists, who are always happy to find an “expert” to rest their story on. It is also, unfortunately, the property of academics. Science has long been the pattern of knowledge in the universities, so that first the social sciences (the social sciences), then the humanities, contorted themselves to fit it.

I say this with no prejudice against science. I come from a family of scientists. My father was a professor of engineering; my older siblings were science majors and health professionals, in one case a research physician. I was a science major, believe it or not (biology-psychology; I thought I was going to be a cognitive psychologist) before I realized there was a better way, for me, of getting to the mind. But having done both science and the humanities, I understand the difference.

Scientific knowledge pertains to external reality, to that which lies outside us and is available for objective observation. Humanistic knowledge pertains to inner reality, to our experience of the world, to what reality feels like. Humanistic knowledge is subjective. It is not verifiable, or quantifiable, or reproducible. It cannot be expressed in terms of equations or general laws. It changes from culture to culture and person to person. It offers no settled answers. The questions it raises are ones we each respond to in our own way. It is a matter not of calculation but interpretation. When we engage in humanistic inquiry—or in plainer language, when we read a poem or look at a painting or listen to a piece of music—we ask, not how big is it, or how hot is it, or what does it consist of, but what does it mean. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?” But of a proposition in the humanities we ask, “Is it true for me?”

I remember telling my brother the doctor that as a literary critic I was interested in questions of space and time. He looked at me as if I’d said that as a literary critic I was interested in performing brain surgery. But the space and time I was talking about were not those of the physicist, they were the experience of space and time as represented by the novelist (think of time in Proust or space in Dickens). To borrow a term from Stephen Jay Gould—one scientist who understood the independent value of the arts—science and the humanities are “nonoverlapping magisteria,” different forms of teaching that are each appropriate to their own domain.

There’s a reason they’re called the humanities. What’s at stake, in recognizing their claim to validity as an independent form of understanding, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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