Saturday, March 8, 2008

A random, speculative hypothesis regarding the humanities

The requirement of regular accurate feedback for the development of expertize that I mentioned in my previous post made me think (read: speculate wildly)...

Maybe the manifest uselessness of some of those in the humanities can be explained by the fact that they never, or rarely, get suitable feedback. When a surgeon makes a (serious) mistake, a patient dies. When a civil engineer fouls up a calculation, a bridge comes tumbling down. When a vulcanologist prophecies falsely, the volcano shows her up. When a physicist hypothesizes wrongly, the experimental data exposes it. In contrast, an English professor (say), gets no feedback whatsoever from his materials, his subject matter - only from colleagues. And colleagues - unlike erupting volcanoes or a dead patient - can be argued with, dismissed or (seemingly reasonably) rationalized away. As a result, thinking in the humanities can become totally untethered - free to drift capriciously like fads or fashions. The result? Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luca Luce Irigaray...

Anyway, don't take this too seriously.


  1. Ahh, it would therefore appear that the only solution to this problem is to indroduce some serious deterrents to the production of bad scholarship in the humanities. Death penalties for those studying English literature, whippings for Classicists...

  2. Lyds, I'm for ANYTHING that involves whippings for Classicists. You guys NEED it! :-)

  3. I'm reminded of an E.O. Wilson quote, which I know from a Dennett piece, "Scientists, being held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful."


  4. That seems reasonable. There are scientific bits of various humanities fields (bits of archaeology, etc.) but in general they're not in the explanation / prediction business, and so can't get punished for getting either wrong. Of course, there are influential theories about that, arguing it's essential to how they do what they do.

    I'm all for spanking Classicists, though. When do we start?

  5. Also, as (I strongly suspect) the only person in this discussion to have punched a Classicist in the kisser (although not *for* being a Classicist, I admit), my practical credentials are in top shape. Perhaps I could provide training for the naturalist army...