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Humanist Archives: May 1, 2023, 10:02 a.m. Humanist 36.561 - on scientising the humanities, including by digital means

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 561.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2023-05-01 08:53:22+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: on scientising the humanities, including by digital means

Perhaps Barbara Herrnstein Smith's "Scientizing the Humanities: Shifts,
Collisions, Negotiations" (Common Knowledge 22.3, September 2016) is
known to many here. Somehow I missed it until this morning. It is worth
the candle, as we technologically advanced folk like to say to signal
that we know a thing or two.

Anyhow, in this article Herrnstein Smith addresses "efforts on the part
of scholars in humanities disciplines to introduce concepts, methods, or
findings from the natural sciences into their home fields...". She
brings in specific "models of the dynamics of intellectual history",
with particular and important emphasis on Ludwik Fleck's Genesis and
Development of a Scientific Fact (1935 in German, 1979, in English).
Digital humanities gets considerable attention, "clearly a related
development...  not so much to make the humanities more scientific
(though that is often an element) as to attune... practices more closely
to the increasing power and presence of information technologies." Smith
is working at a distance from digital humanities, and so (with some
exceptions) those feature whom an American literary critic and theorist
would tend to see feature, Kathrine Hales in particular.

Herrnstein Smith concludes:

> There is little reason to think the humanities will fold themselves
> into the natural sciences and, I believe, no good reason to think
> they should. But there are reasons to think the new hybrid approaches
> will survive and prosper... Significantly, practitioners have begun
> to respond to external criticism constructively rather than with
> defensive hostility and also to engage in discriminating internal
> criticism rather than indiscriminate mutual puffing. [...]
> There is much in what I have described here to give us pause and
> perhaps to make us weep. Two further considerations, however, can be
> heartening. First, there is good reason to think that, even with the
> attenuation of “print culture” and the flat-out disappearance of
> “classics,” “English,” and even “philosophy,” humans across the globe
> will still be inclined to recall, savor, and ponder what fellow
> humans have done, made, and articulated, no matter how—or via what
> medium—it is transmitted. Second, although desegregations and new
> mixtures typically elicit fears of a homogenized or mongrelized
> future, cultural and biological history remind us that hybrids often
> turn out to be sturdier than their ancestors and, indeed, to be
> especially favored in surprising ways. The traditional Western
> disciplines, both the sciences and the humanities, are being severely
> shaken up by important intellectual and technological developments,
> and the attendant collisions of aims, styles, and perspectives can be
> locally painful. But the disciplines—again, all of them—are also
> being put together in myriad new ways. The new disciplinary
> configurations are not, in my view, moving toward ultimate harmony or
> unity. But they may be opening out to intellectual landscapes more
> interesting than most of us imagine.

For me--perhaps few would agree--what jumps out particularly in 
this article is a quotation from neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee, who 
asks, "When does neuroscience provide deeper descriptive texture to our 
knowledge of aesthetics, and when does it deliver added explanatory 
force?” and comments:

> Knowing that the pleasure of viewing a beautiful painting is
> correlated with activity within the orbito-frontal cortex . . . adds
> biologic texture to our understanding of the rewards of aesthetic
> experiences. However, it is not obvious that it . . . advances our
> understanding of the psychological nature of that reward. For
> neuroscience to make important contributions to aesthetics, the
> possibility of an inner psychophysics has to be taken seriously.

The foregoing is intended only to whet your palate, which I trust it has
by the time you read this. Comments most welcome--after you've read the
thing and digested it inwardly, please.


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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