The Humanities: Leon Wieseltier wants to protect his turf

A science versus humanities war is brewing. Triggered by Steven Pinker’s excellent article in the New Republic (Science is not the Enemy), Leon Weiseltier, a “Humanist” and literary editor of the New Republic, retorted “Science is the Enemy” (rough translation; Crimes Against Humanities: Science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let that happen). I am not the first to complain about Weiseltier’s screed. Daniel Dennett does an excellent job in the Edge (Dennett on Wieseltier v. Pinker in the New Republic. Lets Start With A Respect For Truth).

But I want to make one simple point. Weiseltier is not making an argument, he is making an assertion.

For example, Wieseltier states,

… the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.

Huh? who said so?

For all his complex words, Wieseltier is a dualist.

Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world

It is fine for Wieseltier to be a dualist. Dualism is a respectable framework. But one cannot assert that it is true, just as one cannot assert that materialism is true. Assertions are not arguments, they are articles of faith.

The advantage of the scientific/materialist framework is that it can expand. Gradually, it can explain more of the natural world. With the rise of Neuroscience, materialism is beginning to explain and understand aspects of the mental (human) world. As truth-seekers we should rejoice in this. But Neuroscience is not alone. I interpret much of the work in the liberal arts as a search for truth that is not a conflict with materialism.

Will there be convergence? Will we understand the mind — the “hard problem”? I don’t know. But simply to assert the impossibility of the task — and to attack those who attempt to bridge the divide — is turf protection and the opposite of scholarship.

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2 thoughts on “The Humanities: Leon Wieseltier wants to protect his turf

  1. “Complex words?” This is one of Wieseltier’s frustrations–humanistic understanding is weak and many today lack the literacy to participate in a proper intellectual discussion. Wieseltier’s not arguing about dualism or whether or not science can solve the hard problem of consciousnessness. He’s arguing for boundaries of scholarship and saying that humanities need to be respected for the unique perspective they offer.

    • Alanseyes, thanks for the comments. I read Wieseltier’s words as obfuscation. He has a lovely writing style, but his words muddle his thoughts. His points were not clear. I argued that he really did not have an argument, he made a rant. His newest comments, published a day-or-two ago, seem more moderate, but I still think he is not making an argument. If he wants to say that humanistic product X cannot be approached or understood at the reductionistic level of Neuroscience, give clear argument. Specifically, if he is saying that X can never be understood from the Neuroscience level, and no insights can be made from that level, make that point based on argument and examples. Be more explicit. I agree that reductionists frequently simplify, don’t understand some complexity and lose the essence. But that is not an argument to against a reductionist approach.

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