Radical differences in the humanities and sciences haven’t gone away — they’ve intensified

Steven Klein in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The relationship between the humanities and the sciences, including some quarters of the social sciences, has become strained, to put it mildly. Developments in cognitive neuroscience and other fields — from sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to increasingly detailed knowledge of human genetics — promise to revolutionize our knowledge of human behavior. And these changes have propelled a new, more hard-edged round in the science wars. In 2002, Steven Pinker, in his best-selling The Blank Slate, chastised the humanities for presenting culture as a malleable product of human will. While the first science wars, fought in the 1990s, focused on broad questions regarding the basis of scientific knowledge, today science warriors accuse the humanities of ignoring human nature, and especially natural human differences.

These controversies could potentially illuminate core moral and political questions about the nature of scholarship, humanistic and otherwise. Yet, as with so many dysfunctional relationships, partisans of each side think they are having a conversation without really talking to each other at all. Take the dust-up that began when Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, wrote about the historical connection between race and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Bouie was responding to recent critics of the humanities, most notably Pinker, whose Enlightenment Now provides a rousing call for us to use science to improve the human condition. Against Pinker’s idea of the Enlightenment as a model for rational problem-solving today, Bouie pointed out that many Enlightenment thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, helped forge modern notions of racial classification and hierarchy. It’s not so simple a task, then, to just draw on the Enlightenment ideal of rational progress. We must also, Bouie argued, confront Enlightenment ideals’ continued entanglement with racism and European imperial ideology.

More here.

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