What can we learn from Shakespeare — or the Beastie Boys?

Scientism has been a term of considerable opprobrium for some time. The Wikipedia article has lots of definitions; this one is representative: “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.”

The New Republic recently ran an essay by Philip Kitcher called “The Trouble with Scientism,” where he refers to it as “natural scientific imperialism.”  He says:

The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

He then tries to make the case that these observations represent differences in degree rather than differences in kind, and that the humanities and the social sciences have much good to offer in advancing human understanding.

I have to say that the whole essay seems to me to be an exercise in demolishing a straw man.  He never bothers to quote anyone advocating any of the positions he criticizes.  For example, he says:

The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.

Well, duh.  Is anyone saying that (for example) the professors arguing about whether Middleton was a co-author of All’s Well That Ends Well aren’t doing science of a sort?  I suppose they’re out there, but I’ve never encountered them, and Kitcher doesn’t point us to any of them.  Historians, linguists, social scientists, musicologists — they are all using variants of scientific methodology to increase our knowledge.  Things may be messier in these fields than they are in physics — we’re not likely to ever know for sure whether the pro-Middleton or anti-Middleton folks are right; but they are clearly approaching the controversy as scientists — marshalling evidence in favor of one theory or another.

So, that’s one problem with the essay.  But the more serious problem is that Kitcher never quite gets to the point he implies that he’s going to reach, the one that usually comes up when people start talking about scientism: how art and religion are equally valid as science in arriving at truth and understanding.  Isn’t literature another way of knowing about the world?  Doesn’t religion teach us things that science can’t? Aren’t there, like, non-overlapping magisteria?

Let’s leave aside religion for now.  Let’s consider Shakespeare.  Obviously we don’t go to Shakespeare for knowledge.  You won’t learn the truth about Richard III by reading or watching Richard III.  You’ll come away from reading A Winter’s Tale think that Bohemia has a seacoast.  So maybe we don’t get the truth from Shakespeare; but what about the Truth?  Don’t we learn what it is to be human from Shakespeare?  Doesn’t he advance human understanding?  I suppose.  But that doesn’t seem to me to be particularly special or interesting.  I could read psychological reports about jealous husbands and probably learn as much about them as I do from watching Othello.

We read and watch Shakespeare for the aesthetic experience his plays provide — the beauty of the language, the artfulness of the plotting, the joy and terror we feel as his characters make their way through those plots.  Anything else is incidental.  So, I don’t get it.  I don’t learn anything special from Shakespeare.  As far as I’m concerned, he doesn’t add to my knowledge of the world.  Brian Vickers (not the NASCAR driver) does science; Shakespeare, not so much.

Oh, yeah.  Same thing for the Beastie Boys. And Beethoven.  And Vermeer.

This doesn’t say anything about the value of Shakespeare (or the Beastie Boys) versus the value of science.  Lots of things have value.  But I’m still waiting to be convinced that literature and music somehow advance human knowledge in the way that science does.

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One thought on “What can we learn from Shakespeare — or the Beastie Boys?

  1. Pingback: More on Kitcher and Scientism | richard bowker

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