We’ve lately been hearing a great deal, including at this year’s GA Summer Conference, about the struggle of the humanities to keep up with the sciences, or “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) as they tend to be called in ed circles. As readers of theseChronicles know, our idea of a “new way of thinking” can be understood as a way of defending the uniqueness of the human, and as a consequence, defending the humanities as not simply a product of human activity but, including the supremely human phenomenon of religion, as humanity’s principal way, distinct from that of natural science, of understanding itself. GA defends religion, in the great tradition of Durkheim and Girard, as providing a fundamental understanding of the human scene; the paradoxical side of religion, which philistines like to denigrate as counterfactual (six days? virgin birth? God speaking to Moses?), expresses the paradoxical aspect of the human community, which is founded on the scene of representationand its fundamentally paradoxical structure (the sign designates its referent as already possessing the significance it only acquires by being designated by the sign).
The MSM of the intellectual world are not yet ready to appreciate that GA’s contribution to these debates goes beyond the boring old clichés. Yet although the clichés remain much the same, their focus changes with intellectual fashions that in turn reflect focal points of tension between humanistic and scientific thought. And in the current pseudo-controversy over the humanities, those who take an interest in our way of thinking may be able to find grounds for a glimmer of hope.
Recently the New Republic hosted an exchange between Steven Pinker, representing the sciences (“Science is Not the Enemy,” August 18, 2013), and TNR‘s own Leon Wieseltier on the side of the humanities (“The Plot Against the Humanities,” Septermber 16, 2013). It is notable that Wieseltier, an old-fashioned liberal who is something of a hawk and a strong supporter of Israel, also defended Thomas Nagel in his dissent from the “Darwinism” of the natural-philosophical establishment (see Chronicle 444). Which is to say that Wieseltier is sympathetic to religion both in itself and in its connection to the humanities, a connection he in fact draws in his article, defending religious discourse forcefully, albeit in the standard post-Enlightenment mode, as not literally true but requiring “interpretation”: God’s six days are not our days. But if Wieseltier fails to grasp the connection between the Creation and GA’s originary hypothesis, he is not alone.
The reader may recall that a few years ago, in reaction partly to the increasingly religious cast of American conservatism, partly also to the post-9/11 salience of the “fundamentalism” of Islamic terrorists, a number of writers (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens…) produced “atheism” screeds attacking religion with arguments mostly familiar to readers of Voltaire. Religion’s defenders, in response, repeated the usual clichés about spiritual values, the mystery of Creation, etc. As the continual rationalization of the technico-economic world since the Early Modern era (a development Pinker feels obliged to defend against pathetic attacks from “embattled English professors” and “tenure-less historians”) has opened our minds to the virtues of the scientific method, in compensation it has made the thinking class less tolerant of religious discourse.
The current debate over the “humanities” covers much the same terrain. One might even consider Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, referred to above, as a transitional piece; Nagel defends the need-for-something-other-than Darwinian rationality without, however, proposing an alternative beyond vague speculations about “teleology,” while treating with a certain respect, although ultimately rejecting, the “theistic” alternative. No doubt there is nothing in Nagel about the “humanities,” but it is significant that his argument takes the opposing perspective from the previous spate of attacks on and defenses of religion. In the earlier intellectual environment, religion was presented as a powerful social reality that posed a threat to the Enlightened intellectual world. In Nagel’s world, in contrast, it is positivist rationality—”scientism” if you like—that constitutes the danger; the “Darwinist” uniformity of his peers strikes him as an unsatisfying dogma that stifles creative thinking about the fundamental ontology of the universe.
Nagel’s work and the (to be charitable) dubious intellectual enterprises of Creationism and Intelligent Design (although the latter’s pseudo-scientific apparatus makes dealing with it much more tedious) have from a GA perspective the same interest: they point up not simply the spiritual aridity of the natural-science approach to anthropology but its fundamental inadequacy as a human ontology. My readers will forgive my reiterating that the virtue of the religious pseudo-sciences is to give, albeit in an unsatisfactory framework, intellectual respectability to the key religious intuition of humanity’s scenic origin. However naively Creationism apes scientific modes of thought, it expresses the valuable intuition, inaccessible to positive science, that religion’s insights into the human condition are constitutive of our understanding and cannot be dismissed as God-of-the-gaps “spiritual” suppléments of our ignorance concerning “ultimate” questions. This understanding is not “scientific” in the sense of being reducible to empirically decidable hypotheses. Nor is the minimal originary hypothesis of GA testable or verifiable. There is no need to declare such verification impossible in principle and for all time; the point GA shares with religion, and more broadly, with the humanities in general, is that we need to understand the foundational configuration of the human, the scene of representation with its sacred center, now. We cannot wait for some hypothetical future means of verification/falsification; we need a heuristic.
Hence we may say that Nagel’s critique of the naturalist-Darwinian doxa expresses the same intuition as Creationism, but in a more intellectually responsible, if more sterile way. Yet the great interest aroused by Nagel’s disillusionment with naturalist dogma suggests that the valence of the debate has changed. The atheist critics complained that there was too much irrational, or let us rather say, paradoxical, humanistic thinking; for Nagel (although no doubt he would not put it that way), there is not enough.
The current controversy over the humanities reflects this changed valence. Wieseltier’s response to Pinker turns the tables on his attacker in a way that the defenders of religion, given their weak foothold in the American intellectual class, were unable to do. Although his arguments are no more rigorous than those of the defenders of religion, the esthetic domain, which makes no claim on “reality,” is not vulnerably “counter-factual” and its fundamental importance to humanity is consequently, unlike that of religion, not subject to controversy. It comes as no surprise that the recent “attack on the humanities” has not produced titles like Art is Not Good or The Esthetic Delusion.
Instead, what we have is more an academic discussion than a polemic. Pinker’s expressions of respect for the humanities may be “condescending” but they are certainly an improvement over the atheists’ diatribes. No doubt Wieseltier has some reason to be offended by Pinker’s suggestion that the humanities tend to be taught in an uncreatively “traditional” manner. For Pinker, the “digital humanities” (humanities research projects using computers) alone bear the promise of arousing renewed interest in their subject matter. Pinker makes the bald claim that “several university presidents and provosts” have complained to him that, in contrast to scientists who typically request funds to pursue an “exciting new research opportunity,” humanities scholars just ask for “respect for the way things have always been done.” Maybe this is because the latter’s budgets, unlike the former’s, have been cut—the real crux of the “plot against the humanities”—and they are unable to replace retiring faculty with young scholars working on “exciting new” projects. In any case, the real scandal of humanities teaching today, surely the main source of the decline of the old ideal of “liberal arts” education and the funding that goes with it, is neither old-fashioned scholarship and teaching nor the “scientism” of the still highly marginal “digital” domain, but the rampant victimary (“PC”) trend that has undermined the literary canon and subordinated esthetic judgment to identity politics. (I suspect Wieseltier would largely agree with me on this point, but it is not one raised, if only for diplomatic reasons, in this particular exchange.)
What is really at stake in this debate? Pinker’s conceit that the sciences are under attack from humanists is no more than a rhetorical device. As he well knows, universities today are largely financed by the grant money attracted by their science faculties. Indeed, the consescending reference to “embattled English professors” makes clear that he is less defending “scientism” than attempting to throw a lifeline to humanities departments to help them get back some of their lost budgets via “exciting new research opportunit[ies].” For unlike religion in the previous debate, the very existence of the high culture of the humanities, let alone the arts as a whole, is not at stake. Nor is there any danger that literary and similar scholarship will diminish to the point that the culture of the past will be irrevocably lost. No doubt popular art needs the counterweight of high art if it is to remain authentic, but there is no reason to assume that the drive to esthetic transcendence is preserved only in university departments. In comparison to the atheism-religion controversy, the stakes of the present debate are far lower (although it may in fact have more effect on the fate of the weaker side in contributing to the raising or lowering of university humanities budgets) and the debate far more civilized.
The world of the humanities (as any count of Anthropoetics articles makes clear) is far more welcoming to the ideas of GA than that of religion and even philosophy. Although I think GA reaches its sharpest focus in the domain of “first things” as a minimal originary hypothesis, there is little common ground between believers (who often participate in religious rites) and unbelievers (who often denounce such participation as superstitious). In contrast, like Pinker and Wieseltier, we all “believe in” the humanities; the “battle for/against the humanities” is essentially about its relative importance in university budgets. But once one accepts that the humanities are essential, one is open in principle to the argument that their very existence tells us something more fundamental about the human than the individual details of the works themselves. This is, in simple terms, the argument for “theory,” but it can only be put in rational terms if “theory” is given a basis in human reality, that is, not as a mode of the “deconstruction of metaphysics,” but as an anthropology—and as all good GAers know, anthropology, properly conceived, is in itself the deconstruction of metaphysics.
Clearly Wieseltier has a point in remarking that efforts at the “scientific” study of the humanities are mechanical and at best peripherally informative, whereas “humanistic” interpretation has the potential to articulate the (always paradoxical) knowledge of the human contained in artworks, thereby enhancing our respect for them as well as our enjoyment of them. On this point I would not claim that GA offers a magic key to interpretation. It is less a “research program” or a “method” than a basis on which the understanding of artworks can be built. The scene of esthetic representation evolves throughout history in ways that in the small are unpredictable but whose overall patterns reflect (not always in obvious ways) the evolving organization of society itself. In The End of Culture and Originary Thinking, I sketched a history of this scene, from the classical era to the postmodern; in The Scenic Imagination I drew a similar outline for those thinkers, beginning with Hobbes, who anticipated GA in attempting to provide, in however abstract a fashion, originary, scenic models of the social order (Hobbes, Rousseau, Freud) or of originary language (Condillac, Herder). This work, whatever its flaws and limitations, demonstrates the power of an open-ended yet universal theory of the human, a humanistic anthropology, to articulate principles of comparison among the different modes of human interaction.
Grasping in theory the unity of the human scene allows GA to do more than merely accept the existence of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures.” Whatever science discovers about the neurology of the esthetic experience, not to speak of the circulation of books or the chemistry of medieval pigments, it is limited by the same thing that limits its discussions of religion: its inability to theorize the collective, scenic origin of these phenomena, which is also the origin of the human. To say this is by no means to impose limitations on the discoveries of human evolution, or for that matter on the sociological analysis of religion and art. GA is a minimal originary hypothesis, not a historical doctrine. But in beginning from the premise that the fundamental characteristics of humanity emerge in a scene, a self-conscious mode of interaction wherein the exchange of signs defers potential mimetic violence, it provides the student of art as of religion with a simple but powerful anthropological framework for the understanding of cultural creation.
Art is not, cannot be “straighforward” like a rational argument that abolishes itself in its conclusion. For if the deferral of violence is the “end” of culture, then it follows that this end must never be explicitly present. We desire the end, yet enjoy the interval, and are obliged to admit that it was the interval we “really” desired; as Pascal put it, it is the hunt the hunter desires, not the quarry. The atemporal version of this description of the esthetic is that, whether “fictional” personages or gods, language and other representational signs always designate as already existing objects that they themselves create. If art does this less “naively” than religion, it is in turn more naïve about the origin of its very possibility: yes, we paint pictures and “make up” stories, but whence comes our ability, unique in the universe, to do such things?
Understood at the outset of our interaction with the works of culture, these principles provide humanists with an abstract common ground for understanding—one on which new debates will always be free to arise. The deferral of violence must take ever new forms if humanity is to survive its fateful invention of “weapons of mass destruction.” Is it a coincidence that Pinker recently devoted a book (The Better Angels of our Nature: Viking, 2011) to demonstrating how much more peaceful life has grown over the centuries? Science has surely greatly contributed to these positive developments. Yet I think Wieseltier as a fellow humanist would be likely to agree that deferring violence, as Europe did with some success from 1815 to 1914—a period that students of colonialism find less pacific—always risks becoming, as in 1914, a prelude to the reemergence of violence in more terrifying forms.
Both sides must be right: we must always both welcome peace and fear violence. This suggests that both must be right about science and the humanities as well. Just as with religion and atheism, we not only need both, but we need for them to argue about the boundary between them. Let us hope that humanists will increasingly realize the intellectual advantages GA’s model offers their side of the argument.