The Science of the Humanities

posted on February 26th 2016 in Bookish Musings

After months away from the blog creating and fostering new material (my chubby-cheeked son), a recent op-ed in The New York Times has me back in the saddle. Entitled “Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life,” Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University contrasts the technological vise that more often than not seems to be holding our humanity hostage with the Humanities themselves. The extent to which our culture venerates amassing data affects institutional support of all else. The offense is not simply that the arts can no longer compete with the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are worthy disciplines in and of themselves. Rather, it is our current obsession as a society with the precision of information offered to us by these disciplines that leaves room for pause. As Weinstein states,

“The regime of information may well sport its specific truths, but it is locked out of the associations — subjective but also moral and philosophical — that bathe all literature. A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes.

When and how do you take your own measure? And what are you measuring?”

No data set, no algorithm, no numerical distillation can teach us how to interrogate our humanity. Timeless works of art do. They teach us about shape-shifting, writes Weinstein, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe. The sphere of numbers and data “has no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values.” It is a sphere of “notation that offers the heart no foothold.”

The Humanities expose us to modes of considering this foothold. Art requires us to inhabit a space of plurality in which our own feelings mingle with other lives, other feelings. Our commerce with art, writes Weinstein, makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. “Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve,” he continues, “but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?”

The Humanities thus bestow an alchemical technology, a science whose rigor is expressed in the depth of understanding we attempt to cultivate for the endlessly paradoxical creatures we find ourselves to be. How valuable is an education ripe with this ‘technology,’ that of art continuing to live inside us, continuing to generate a manifold number of reflections that in turn transform our minds and transmute the base self to a governance of heart? Perhaps more important: how is this a question we find ourselves asking?

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Weinstein’s op-ed.

We enter the bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind. It may sound paradoxical, but they are, in the last analysis, scientific, for they trace the far-flung route by which we come to understand our world and ourselves. They take our measure. And we are never through discovering who we are.