Beyond the Humanities and Sciences

According to many, and popularized by C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture Two Cultures (reissued by Cambridge in 1993), there are two broad types of people, literary intellectuals and scientists, and a university is a place largely made up of persons drawn from one of these two lots. But a typical individual of each type is barely able, if able at all, to communicate with his counterpart, which goes some way to explaining the two distinct cultures one hears referred to as the humanities and the sciences and accounting for the difficulties university administrators have administrating such a group.

Being a scientist and a philosopher, I can testify that there is a grain of truth to Snow’s two-cultures idea. (For instance, a “serious” philosopher would never say ‘a grain of truth’ about anything, while a “serious” scientist would roll his eyes over my bothering to even make this parenthetical remark.) Nevertheless, I have found the experience of working and moving between these two cultures intellectually rewarding, even if also at times maddeningly frustrating. It is very much like living and working abroad, come to think of it.

But while there is something to this two cultures-within-one description of a university, it appears that Snow is wrong about it being due to two different types of people, or even due to two different types of subject matter. Much of what makes the two groups different is simply a consequence of how we organize and fund universities. The difference, in short, is a bureacratic one. Or so is an underlying assumption of Harvard’s governing board of trustees who have, to the best of my knowledge, not backed off one bit from their original goal of reconfiguring the university since the announced resignation of their president. The board wants to move Harvard away from Snow’s picture to something more integrated. It is an exciting proposition to think about, in the way that Plato’s Republic is exciting to think about, but not in the way that Soviet tanks rumbling into Prague is exciting to think about.

Suppose Harvard’s right about Snow being wrong, and that changing from a two-worlds bureaucracy to something less fragmented doesn’t entail a highhanded crackdown. What, then, should one think about changing to? Interdisciplinary is a vague and often maligned term because the distance between claiming to be do it and doing it well is considerably farther than the typical distances between these two points within a single field, and it is also often very difficult for a single department to police or evaluate work that stretches outside of its own boundaries. (But, again, these are bureaucratic concerns.)

An important underlying question is this: if one is to stop following Snow, what would then be helpful to discussions about how to organize a university, particularly if one would like it counter the natural forces of fragmentation that come from building a career within a discipline?

One idea is to find a set of features, each of which is shared to a varying degree by all (or nearly all) areas of study, and then group areas under these features-headings, where membership to each feature-heading is assigned to all and only those areas that strictly prefer the corresponding feature to all others. This would be unwieldy for a large parameter space, but one can get pretty far by using just 3 that Henry Kyburg mentions in Science and Reason (1990, p.16):

One of the difficulties in assessing the relation between science and philosophy stems from construing philosophy as one of the humanities, and therefore as a kind of opposite pole from experimentally based science. One way to alleviate the polar effect is to introduce a three-way distinction to replace the polar distinction. In fact, I think that the following distinction does more, and I commend it to the attention of university administrators.

Let us distinguish academically among formal disciplines, empirical disciplines, and interpretative disciplines. Mathematics is a formal discipline, biology and psychology are empirical disciplines, and literature is an interpretative discipline. It should be immediately clear that every actual discipline embodies aspects of all three types; biology is concerned with formal structures on occasion, and psychology involves interpretation; literary criticism deals with both the formal structure of the poem and the facts about the society that produced it.

In this framework, philosophy, like mathematics, is essentially a formal discipline, and the sciences we are primarily concerned with, like biology and physics, are largely empirical. [Within the philosophy of science -gw] our formal concerns have to do with the structure of scientific knowledge and of scientific theories, the formal relation between experimental or observational results and the acceptance of scientific theories, the formal development of theories of measurement and error, and the like.

We could also attend to an interpretative aspect of both science and philosophy. Scientific theories arise in a certain milieu and against a certain background of philosophical thought. Understanding a unique event in the history of science is a very different matter from analyzing the formal relations that obtain between a newly emerged theory and the experimental data by which it is alleged to be supported.

Both approaches are of interest, and each may well be, in some sense, essential to the success of the other.


Beyond the Humanities and Sciences — 6 Comments

  1. Greg,

    I think there really are different personality types, and people choose to go into a field that best matches their personality. I find it hard to imagine most literary types taking any interest in solving mathematical equations.

    I also think there are reasons for the specialization of academia that administrators probably can’t do anything about. Here are some of the pressures that combine to support hyper-specialization:

    1. Publish or perish: The need to publish to keep your job and to be recognized in your field results in there being a lot of published material out there. This makes it very difficult to be familiar with the literature in more than one field. Indeed, even within, say, philosophy, it is difficult to keep up with more than a few specific problems within epistemology.

    2. The need for originality: One of the criteria for publication is originality. But given the large volume of published material in one’s field, usually the only way to say something original is to focus in on a very specific aspect of some problem.

    3. Exclusion of outsiders: People in a given field tend to not want to listen to those who don’t appear to be one of them. I.e., journals will reject papers whose authors don’t appear to be “familiar with the literature”, and even more so, whose authors don’t sound like the people who write in that field. If a scientist writes a paper in epistemology, it’s not going to sound like something written by an analytic philosopher. It won’t use language in the same way, and the referee will know (whether consciously or unconsciously) that he’s reading something that was not written by one of his colleagues, nor by someone trained by one of the good analytic philosophy programs, etc.

    In view of these points, it is much safer and easier to stick within one’s own narrow area of expertise.

  2. Michael,

    I suspect this remark of yours is more of a symptom than a diagnosis: “I find it hard to imagine most literary types taking any interest in solving mathematical equations.” (Though the word “most” of course makes your argument.)

    Consider this famous literary project:

    You may also want to look at a Hugh Kenner’s collection of short essays, _Mazes_.

    That said, I think the barriers you mention are accurate. I teach a theory of science course in the Master of Business Adminstration and Philosophy Program at the Copenhagen Business School. A colleague and I blog about it here:

    Using Kuhn’s _Structure_ and Foucault’s _Archaeology_ as textbooks (in a manner of speaking) we get them to see precisely how such pressures define their field, i.e., how they become de facto “epistemological” pressures. Since Kuhn and Foucault, the concept of knowledge has increasingly been interpreted in relation to historical factors. (Jason Stanley _Knowledge and Practical Interests_ is a good read on this background, and vice versa.)

    As the name of the degree suggests, there are emerging disciplines that work across the two cultures, the epistemology of these fields, i.e., theory of what they “know”, will be an interesting specialty to watch for in the future.


  3. Greg, I’m not sure exactly what you mean about Harvard wanting to move away from the “two cultures” perspective. As I understood it Harvard wanted to integrate Arts & Sciences more with other schools, or something like that; but Arts & Sciences contains both cultures in their purest form, as you can see by the name. But I haven’t been following the story very closely at all. Still, could you be a little more specific?

    I agree with Mike’s points 1 to 3 about why people specialize. (Though I also agree with Thomas about literary types and equations; my college friend Jordan Ellenberg is a mathematician and a novelist, and authors like Andrea Barrett and Richard Powers are very concerned with science; not to mention a bunch of science fiction writers who are probably more or less concerned with making the equations work out!)

  4. I think that the one thing philosophers are really good at is synthesis of input from a number of fields. So I’m skeptical of a neat fit (for philosophy) into even a three part division. While formal competence has certainly been useful in philosophy, I would doubt that it is distinctive of huge swaths of philosophy. The major achievements in ethics and political philosophy have often made use of various formal techniques to explain their main ideas, but most of the main ideas survive an informal presentation and the arguments do not really depend on the formal presentation. (Think about Rawls’s presentation of his theory as a choice in ignorance of the probabilities of various outcomes for oneself as a way of presenting the idea that a legitimate political system aims to function on principles which are acceptable to each position in the social structure.)

    Metaethics has its formal aspects, but the formalisms are pretty easy to understand even for people like me. I doubt that other parts of philosophy are that much different until you get into the various parts of philosophy most closely tied to logic. I’m not an epistemologist, but my impression is that only certain approaches are all that formal.

    I’m sure I’d object to putting philosophy into either of the other two camps. This ought to be no real surprise, at least for those who tend to think of philosophy of what is left over when various special sciences spin off. Philosophy was always concerned with everything and every way of understanding stuff. When certain fields started to specialize to the point that they developed distinctive methodologies and techniques which require the full concentrated attention of most practitioners those fields spin away from philosophy (to some degree or other) if only due to constraints on a person’s time of the sort that Mike rightly emphasizes above. But on this picture, every way of attacking a problem (whether formal, a posteriori, or interpretive) is at least initially in its less developed versions part of philosophy.

    What this says for the shape of the university, I’m not sure.

  5. >But while there is something to this two cultures-within-one description of a >university, it appears that Snow is wrong about it being due to two different >types of people, or even due to two different types of subject matter. Much of >what makes the two groups different is simply a consequence of how we >organize and fund universities. The difference, in short, is a bureacratic one.

    I do not remember well Snow’s monograph, but it seems to me that there is a way of interpreting what he said that actually agrees with your diagnosis. Snow was both a novelist and a physicist by formation and trade, but perhaps his main ability was certain natural capacity for anthropological insight. Even his cycle of 11 novels collectively titled Strangers and Brothers is mainly a (fictionalized but not very elegant) long meditation about the public life of Britain and the interaction of academy and politics (it follows the different stages of the life of Lewis Eliot, a semi-autobiographical version of Snow himself, from infancy to maturity as a longtime denizen of the `corridors of power’ – a phrase he coined, by the way).

    The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution as it was originally called, can also be seen as an anthropological exercise describing two different systems of cultural rules, including educational patterns, which tends to produce paradigmatic (and typically opposed) cultural types. But from what I remember the book does not want to assert that the division is grounded on two types of subject matter (or people, whatever this could mean). On the contrary Snow seems to think that the cultural gap is or should be only transitory and that there is little that justifies it. Moreover his `solution’ to his own problem was exactly to broaden the educational system. His book with comparative biographies of `great men’ of the past century seems an attempt to demonstrate by example the artificiality of the division.

    All this being said Snow was without much doubt excessively optimistic about the liberating role of science and the moribund and reactionary role played by traditional humanistic disciplines. It true that even important artists of that time (Ionesco is a salient example) were deeply pessimistic about the future of the humanities as well. Things have changed since then and we have Chomsky today declaring that: “It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”

    Interdisciplinary work has been one of the main responses to Snow’s famous gap. Serious interdisciplinary work is fascinating but also very difficult and in some cases it depends importantly on the way the university is organized. Much of my work, for example, in neural models of choice and behavioral decision theory would have been probably considerably more difficult for me to carry in a university with less interdisciplinary resources (CMU is deeply committed to interdisciplinary research and the research environment it has managed to create is probably one of the best in the world in this aspect, but my impression is that a comparable research structure is difficult to find even in otherwise excellent universities of the USA).

    As an aside Snow personality had many pragmatic and optimistic aspects that one can see perhaps as vaguely American. In one of his most British moments, when knighted, he chose for his crest the motto Aut Inveniam Aut Faciam — “I will either find a way or make one.”

  6. Mike: Add (4): new ideas, including reassessments of old ones that a field currently views to be out of fashion, often come from outsiders. Consider epistemology. Psychology impacted the generation of epistemologists forming in the mid-60s to early 70s, when Gettier was still in Detroit, I think. Psychology and Linguistics were taking off. Today it is computer science and biology. These two fields are impacting the generation of epistemologists forming now. The basic formal tools of computer science outstrip the basic toolkit of an analytic philosopher, and the kind of modeling problems tackled in both computer science and in (some parts of) biology directly tackle some of the problems that analytic-minded philosophers face, since both are often working with models of a dynamic target domain that is assume to be discrete. (Yet philosophers tend to downplay the ‘dynamic’ part here.)

    I agree with you that it is safer and easier to stay within the confines of an established discipline.

    Matt, Hi: I remember reading something a few years ago (before the news was taken over by Summers’ infamous conjectures) about how the College should be minting different kinds of graduates. My memory is vague on this, but the gist of one of his remarks that I recall (or the newspaper’s description of the remark) was that he wasn’t talking just about integrating the Arts and Sciences with the professional schools, but of eliminating the chance that someone could graduate from the College knowing everything about Stendhal but nothing about Mendel. (The cute phrase is probably my reductive memory of the press clip.) So, this suggests to me that they have in mind an ambitious change for the College.

    Thomas: My sympathies are with you, which is why I’ll play devil’s advocate. A risk of interdisciplinary work is that while you may see the relationship between the literary practices of tribes in Brazil and the axiom of choice as plain as day, don’t expect everyone else will. In fact, expect that they will think you are just plain crackers. You’ll hear that “A lot of very distinguished scholars have looked at Brazilian tribal literature, and none mention set theory…” or “Really? Quine was in Brazil, liked the country very much, could even speak Portuguese…and he didn’t say anything about ….” You get it from both sides, in other words. And truth be told, most of them are right most of the time. There is a lot of “tribal literature and set theory” to be found under ‘interdisciplinary work’. But they aren’t right all of the time.

    An example that is more closer to (my) home: the kinds of things you’ll see in the introductory setup for many AI articles would make a philosopher’s blood boil, and probably is the main reason most philosophers won’t read the stuff. Yet what passes for precision in many formal philosophy papers drives my M.Sc. students absolutely crazy. (Ah ha! A career opportunity! There is a connection between tribal literature and set theory!)

    MvR: I think philosophy is primarily a formal discipline, which is not to say that it is a branch of mathematics, nor is it to say that historians of philosophy ought not be considered philosophers. We do not, generally, design experiments; nor do we typically analyze data; although we should when considering some questions, and thankfully there is a movement now to address this deficiency.

    I would maintain that we do not, primarily, interpret data or events or other people’s ideas. We read one another, to be sure, and some figures prove a more rewarding read than others and so are worth close study long after they’ve passed.

    But the kind of thing we do, mainly, is study formal structures: relations between, conditions on and functions over items, real and imagined, in attempts to account for things that remain very difficult to articulate or to understand. I think social and political philosophy provide excellent examples, rather than counter-examples: it is much more clear that a mathematical model of some type of social interaction among people (let’s say) is going to be a gross abstraction of salient features of that type of interaction. A philosopher is interested in a theory to account for the structure of that interaction, although not all philosophers may agree on the tools or the level of abstraction required to understand it, nor even think to put it in these terms. But we read and argue with one another (ideally) with hopes of becoming clearer both about methods and the problem(s) at hand, including a better understanding of what we still don’t understand about the methods and problems at hand.

    If you buy this picture, then at root philosophy doesn’t look so different than work in other theoretical disciplines. And there are some other benefits that come with the picture. It provides a means to explain why philosophy is importantly different from other theoretical disciplines: philosophical problems are those important problems left for which we are short on (or are drowning in) data. This often explains why there is a wider range of disagreements over methods…and perhaps why pedigree is still thought to matter, too.

    Horacio- Thanks for your remarks about Snow. I ran across a reprint of his book in the library stacks a long time ago. I was reading Henry’s Science and Reason again last weekend, which mentions Snow, and was struck by this little paragraph of Henry’s.

    I also agree that it is very tricky doing interdisciplinary work. The same pressures Mike describes in [1] (i.e., to publish original work and fit into a social group) are in place, but you have two social groups to join and two standards, both of which may clash in non-trivial ways. (e.g., Publish in mostly philosophy journals, particularly the very best ones, then your work doesn’t show up in the science indexes, so doesn’t receive an impact rating and may as well not exist, so your funding goes down. That is bad. Publish mostly in science journals (or interdisciplinary journals that are indexed), and you don’t get maximal impact with philosophers, at least over in the short term. That is bad too, but less so.)

    So why bother doing this? First and foremost, it is exciting. Second, it is a bet on the proposition I asserted earlier, namely that the biological and computational sciences will have a lasting impact on epistemology. I’m concerned with the non-biology end of this bet. And it may just be a prediction that AI will finally get its conceptual house in order; or it may be a prediction that the piece of epistemology that spans the philosophy of science, AI, economics, business, and statistics will (or should?) break-off and become a stable scientific field that includes an experimental wing and a theoretical wing. Several people have this conception already of ‘formal epistemology’. Some others call it ‘computational epistemology’, or ‘multi-agent systems’.

    Maybe Quine had the right idea but the wrong science(s).

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