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.