Theory and Knowledge

Too many of us in the Humanities have a sneaky suspicion that we are involved only with kitsch, that we are far removed from the avant-garde which, deep in our hearts, we worry may only be reserved for scientists. I wrote something about this ten days ago, linking our worries to a misunderstanding of the two-cultures argument of C. P. Snow and (though I didn’t say so) by the inferiority complex that grew in the wake of Sputnik.

One result was the peculiar devotion to “Theory” that grew up in the Humanities starting in the 1970s and that threatened to sidetrack almost any discussion into its arcane and scholastic mazes. Film Studies, David Bordwell and Noel Carroll’s collection Post-Theory notwithstanding, is still mired in pointless arguments over the primacy of one theoretical point in relation to another–or in dancing on the head of a pin. So are many Literature departments.

But we in the Humanities aren’t the only ones suffering from this peculiar disease. In today’s The New York Times, Political Science professors Kevin Clarke and David Primo point out that the Social Sciences struggle with the same malady. They call it “science envy.”

They point out a couple of significant and related things.

First, the ‘scientific method’ or, as they call it, ‘hypothetico-deductivism,’ isn’t the only way to attain, prove, and present knowledge. Not everything, after all, can be reduced to quantifiable data–precisely the problem we are facing in our educational systems today as we rely more and more on testing, forgetting that the testable isn’t the totality of either education or knowledge (Clarke and Primo don’t go into this–I’m simply extrapolating from their piece).

Second, we rely on all sorts of ‘information’ that comes to use through paths other than ‘hypothetico-deductivism.’ Clarke and Primo use examples from their field, but almost anyone could find others. It’s reductive and confining to look to a single methodology only, especially when we judge the others through the lens of that one.

And third, any method is useful as long as it helps one get somewhere. A map, for example, can do this, sure–but it doesn’t do the actual driving. And asking at a gas station works, too. Both are only tools or methods, and ones of many–all of which are held together by thought, not theory.

Clarke and Primo end their article by saying that “social scientists would be better off doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.”

The same could be said for the Humanities.

2 thoughts on “Theory and Knowledge

  1. Meh, if the one percenters are supposed to be society's job creators, they aren't doing their jobs. If the academic equivalent are supposed to be the STEM meritocracy, they aren't either, and I'm too young to have Sputnik envy, and am its victim with the horrible teaching of the New Math and reading as a skill from SRA, read the passage and answer the questions.

    The humanities doesn't suffer so much from Sputnik/science envy stop much business envy. We're not poisoned by competing methodology as much as careerism, branding, the invention of the newest jargon direct from last decade's business models. Students are now clients and we have to consider stakeholders. With the brands, post-post-structuralism(s), neopostgender film studies are the independent consultant's ticket the kind of career we see touted in the pages of business press, formerly what the Japanese have over us, then what Microsoft did right, then what Google did collaboration and creativity, now whatever hokum we're supposed to believe have Apple the edge that can be imported by business gurus into every un-Apple sweating its bottom line.

    You just did what humanities is supposed to do, which is, not necessarily in order of importance, (1) provoke thought, (2) capture the human experience, (3) question received wisdom, and (4) call bullshit where you see it.

    If there is some truth or other in method, very well. But in the humanities we can glorify and celebrate, smash idols, weep for humanity, and seek truth without having to sell snake oil, seek corporate sponsors, or promise the moon or Mars. I wouldn't trade the scientific method where it delivers science, but I wouldn't pretend it answers all human questions. It can help shape the questions, but so do the social sciences and the humanities.


  2. You are so right about business envy–but I was limiting my topic to the insides of the university (and probably should have made that clear).

    Again, you are right, so right–especially in your second paragraph. Students as stakeholders? How we went from Jerry Farber's “The Student as Nigger” to the student as customer, client, or stakeholder deserves far more attention than it has been given so far.


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