Thursday, December 05, 2013

Minding my Ps and Qs

Thanks to my friend Bob Goulet for putting me onto two articles in the New Republic by Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the NR. They are well worth reading, here and here.

It is an old battle, between the sciences and the humanities, here fought by two lefties who are equally smart and articulate.

"The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science," writes Pinker, and one can feel the hair rise on the humanist's neck.

Pinker suggests (among other things) that science is characterized by a commitment to two ideals: the world is intelligible, and the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The first principle is essential for science; less so for the humanities. The second principle is sure to drive any humanist up the wall. No wonder Wieseltier comes out swinging.

"Some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose," growls Wieseltier; "It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them."

"Sophocles and Tacitus and Augustine and Milton and Gibbon and Keats and Tocqueville and Emerson and Mill and Dickens and Mann and Stevens and Auerbach and Camus and Panofsky and MiƂosz" are not made redundant by scientific progress, says Wieseltier. "There are moments when there is nothing more urgent than the defense of what has already been accomplished," he writes.

Ah, this scrap could go on forever. It is probably clear to readers of this blog which contender in the slugfest I lean towards. But I think the best indication of my view is where I sit just now, as I type these words, in my comfy chair in the college library, halfway between the Ps and Qs. Dante and Einstein are equally at hand. I am blissfully unaware of any tension between the sciences and the humanities, and I trust that my posts here have drawn equally from both wells.