Knowledge and Illusion

by Mark English

Writer’s block it is not. The problem – if it is a problem – is more along the lines that the sorts of topics and themes I know best are not (for various reasons) all that interesting to me, or only in a negative way. And most of the topics that I am interested in exploring I don’t really know well enough to write about (with any confidence, at any rate).

Though the sorts of things I know best are not for the most part scientific, I have a scientific view of the world, firmly believing that scientific knowledge belongs to all of us, not just to the individuals whose job it is to develop and expand that very important body of knowledge.

Attempting to point out the errors or misconceptions of others – even if one admits to having shared these errors and misconceptions at one time – is an unattractive option. This kind of negative critique no doubt has its place but it is both intellectually limiting and socially problematic.

It is intellectually limiting because it involves going back over old ground. Once one has moved on intellectually, it seems more healthy to look ahead and cultivate new knowledge and understanding rather than to keep returning to issues and questions associated with positions which are no longer live options for oneself. And, of course, the people whose views one is critiquing – who have not “moved on” in the way one sees oneself as having done – are not necessarily going to appreciate a critique directed at their most cherished beliefs. In fact, they will probably see such a critique as mean-spirited, arrogant or condescending (or a mixture of these). As I said, the results would be socially negative and, frankly, I would prefer that others shouldered this particular burden.

After all, I may be wrong. I may have a fatal blind spot and be missing something of vital importance. It goes without saying that I have “coping illusions” of my own, and these could well be distorting the way I perceive the beliefs of others.

Even assuming that my confidence in my general position is not misplaced, does it really matter if other people see things not quite as (I think) they are? Life is hard. Illusions are necessary. Western literature is full of salutary tales of worthy people who come to grief when their illusions are exposed either through their own efforts or by the (often well-meant) intervention of others.

There are, however, illusions and illusions. Personal illusions are often coping mechanisms, and it’s dangerous to mess with them. I am more concerned with the sorts of illusions which are shared with others and are associated with identifiable institutional structures.

My targets would probably be mainly religious, political and – not least – academic groups and groupings. I realize, of course, that religious denominations and political parties, etc. often help to define and support personal beliefs of one kind or another. Institutional and personal elements are inevitably intertwined, but my own observations and reading strongly suggest that the actual beliefs of individuals who share an institutional affiliation are in no way guaranteed to be similar or even compatible.

In respect of academic groupings, it is hard to talk in general terms but I would suggest that, in assessing these groupings as academic disciplines, one needs to focus not so much on what one personally might value or enjoy in terms of intellectual or similar activity, but rather on general questions concerning the nature of knowledge and expertise and on how the discipline in question fits in to the knowledge-building process.

And how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe. Are there, for example, parts of reality which are in principle not accessible to ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning?

I see the natural world – the world of physics and biology – as given. It is as it is. The sciences have allowed us to develop a very sophisticated, communal understanding of this world of which we are a rather special part. Life is rare enough, but we are certainly the only highly-intelligent species in our cosmic neighborhood (and possibly beyond).
Science tells us how this world is, mainly by extending our understanding of various processes and phenomena. It tells us that our universe has a particular (13.8 billion year) history and also about its likely future.

Less than two decades ago, it was discovered that the expansion of the universe – driven by so-called dark energy – is speeding up. Our universe began in a state of very low entropy and is moving inexorably to a very high-entropy (featureless and lifeless) state. Entropy is all about information, and increasingly information is being seen as a central concept of physics and probably more basic than matter and energy.

How our universe fits into a larger picture is still very unclear, but there are now good scientific reasons for believing that it is just one in a vast, possibly infinite, complex of other universes (the multiverse).

Crucially, these stories are quite different from the (often incompatible) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in non-scientific contexts. To put it simply, the latter – while some narratives are certainly more plausible than others – tend to proliferate in an uncontrolled manner. The sorts of constraints and criteria that allow a scientific consensus to form over time do not apply to the humanities, for example, except in a few areas (such as textual criticism).

What most of us are concerned with, of course, are human problems and not abstract or overarching scientific questions. It seems nerdy and rather silly to be too preoccupied with the latter. Whenever I find myself referring to cosmological matters, for example, I think of a well-known scene involving Alvy Singer as a child in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. He became depressed and lethargic when he found out that the universe was expanding inexorably. He stopped doing his homework. As Alvy’s mother asked in desperation: “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.”

But the main point I want make here is that this general scientific understanding of the natural processes that led to our being here inevitably affects the way we see ourselves, even in human terms. For example, what we see – both in the manifest processes of the living world and in the more sophisticated theoretical understanding of how these processes unfold which cosmology and evolutionary theory provide – is a totally amoral system and quite unlike the kind of system (shot through as it was with divine symbols and infused with grace and implicit moral lessons) which medieval thinkers elaborated.

Yet somehow the medieval view or something like it persists in intellectual circles. I am thinking here not just of various forms of neo-scholasticism in philosophy but also of attempts by scientists to interpret their work in essentially moral or political terms. It happens all the time, unfortunately, and especially in areas like evolutionary theory which has long been a moral and political battlefield.

If ideological intrusions into science are significant and troublesome, they are even more significant and troublesome, I think, in certain areas of the humanities. As I suggested, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in non-scientific contexts are relatively unconstrained. In personal contexts, I embrace this. But in academic contexts there is a danger that ideological factions will form which impose their own constraints and taboos. This is in fact what has been happening in many areas of the academy; and it is demonstrably worse in areas in which generally accepted empirical and/or formal constraints do not apply, so that academic activities are reduced to a naked power game with little relevance to the sort of genuine knowledge or learning to which academic institutions ought (in my opinion) to be devoted.

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36 Comments »

  1. Mark, as I said to you privately, even as I edited this, I wondered what the point was. To the extent that I see one, it seems to be that you think that arts and humanities should not be academic disciplines, with the exception of things like “textual criticism,” and that academic study should be limited to science. Is this correct?

    If this is what you think, it certainly is interesting and provocative. It’s also, of course, completely wrong, but I don’t want to argue that point, if it’s not one you are making.

    At a more general level, I must admit to finding your science fetishism very odd. It seems to go beyond mere admiration for the scientific disciplines and almost represent a form of temperamental expression on your part.

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  2. And how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe.

    This presupposes that the universe has a fundamental nature. I am not convinced that it does.

    I see science as advising us on the “fundamental nature” of how we should interact with the universe. And when we have a major change in science — a Kuhnian paradigm shift — we change how we interact with the universe.

    Are there, for example, parts of reality which are in principle not accessible to ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning?

    If there are, then it would seem that we do not and could not know anything about such parts of reality.

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  3. Well as observed you are allusive but let me offer a demur. In the humanities the classics remain the classics even if the interpretive landscape alters. For instance today I have been reading Gogol’s The Overcoat, Richard Whateley’s Elements of Rhetoric and Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry all of them 19th. century figures yet hardly diminished by the great events that have occurred in the bloody 20th. century. Even the religious whimsy of Arnold is salient and philosophers recapitulate his thought without being aware of it i.e. religion as poetry that leadeth unto righteousness. It is a prejudice of mine that the majority of scientists are not as smart as they think they are; that in fact what science requires is infinite patience, devising experiments and testing, testing, testing. Yet they are regarded as oracles and some philosophers want to model themselves on their procedures and catch a ride to certainty.

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  4. Mark,
    There’s much I agree with here, some I disagree with – I think. The problem is that you are painting with broad strokes and not enough detail work.

    If I have in the past, after agreement, swung around occasionally to disagree with an essay of yours, I think that this is tendency I see in your writing sometimes, to hedge a bet while implying (intentionally or no) a more strident view on a given matter.

    For now, I’ll say that if I get the general drift here aright, I agree; but if Dan’s criticism is anywhere near the mark, then on that particular point I disagree. Ideological factionalism has damaged the humanities, but that doesn’t lesson the importance of the humanities.

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  5. Dan

    If I haven’t spelt out the implications of my suggestions, perhaps it is partly because I haven’t worked them out myself in a definitive way. My idea was to return to this general theme (or set of themes) in future pieces if there appeared to be any interest.

    The current piece could be seen as a statement of my general intuitions and orientations. But I think that I clearly state a number of specific points, all of which I would be happy to defend.

    And note that much of what I say is conditional: *if* you have this kind of broadly scientific view of the world, then you will be inclined see, for example, certain academic subjects as dubious. Etc.

    “At a more general level, I must admit to finding your science fetishism very odd. It seems to go beyond mere admiration for the scientific disciplines and almost represent a form of temperamental expression on your part.”

    Science fetishism? Obviously I reject the characterization. I value the arts and have a strong commitment to many non-scientific cultural traditions.

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  6. Hi Mark:

    What is your reply to Neil’s comments above?

    You seem to have things back to front when you say that “how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe.” If that were so then science could not rationally reform our belief systems.

    You then add that “Science tells us how this world is, mainly by extending our understanding of various processes and phenomena.” Isn’t that contradicting the view that science can’t tell us how the world is? I’m assuming that science doesn’t just tell us things, but gives us good justifications for our beliefs about things.

    Alan

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  7. Neil

    “[Quoting me] “And how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe.” This presupposes that the universe has a fundamental nature. I am not convinced that it does.”

    I just meant that one’s views on knowledge depend on one’s broader view of the world.

    “I see science as advising us on the “fundamental nature” of how we should interact with the universe. And when we have a major change in science — a Kuhnian paradigm shift — we change how we interact with the universe.”

    I am familiar with this view, but I don’t share it.

    “[Quoting me] “Are there, for example, parts of reality which are in principle not accessible to ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning?” If there are, then it would seem that we do not and could not know anything about such parts of reality.”

    Not necessarily. I don’t but many people do believe that there are other ways of knowing.

    If you don’t accept that there are these other ways of knowing (religious intuition or whatever) then I think any claims about the existence of realities which are in principle beyond the scope of ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning are pretty empty.

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  8. Mark wrote:

    I am familiar with this view, but I don’t share it.

    = = =

    This is not an argument. So, it would seem that Neil has you — at least until you have some substantive response.

    = = =

    Mark wrote:

    If you don’t accept that there are these other ways of knowing (religious intuition or whatever) then I think any claims about the existence of realities which are in principle beyond the scope of ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning are pretty empty.

    = = =

    Ethical knowledge; mathematical knowledge; knowledge of institutional facts … these are all examples of things we know that are not known re: “religious intuition” and are also not known by way of science.

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  9. Dan

    “[Quoting me] “I am familiar with this view, but I don’t share it.” This is not an argument. So, it would seem that Neil has you — at least until you have some substantive response.”

    You are taking a very combative stance here, Dan. I was just indicating that I am familiar with the tradition of thought to which Neil alludes. I respect it but it does not really reflect my own outlook which I have outlined on this site in at least one essay.

    “Mark wrote: “If you don’t accept that there are these other ways of knowing (religious intuition or whatever) then I think any claims about the existence of realities which are in principle beyond the scope of ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning are pretty empty.” Ethical knowledge; mathematical knowledge; knowledge of institutional facts … these are all examples of things we know that are not known re: “religious intuition” and are also not known by way of science.”

    You are misreading me. By “other ways of knowing” I did not mean other than just scientific ways. And I was quite explicit. I specifically mentioned ordinary observation and reasoning. And ordinary observation and reasoning would cover the examples you give (other than mathematics which I see as a formal discipline close to science).

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  10. Mark: Not necessarily. I don’t but many people do believe that there are other ways of knowing.

    Then that may have been miscommunication. Your original statement had to do with “parts of reality”. I guess I take “reality” more narrowly than you. For example, Dan mentioned mathematics. I don’t consider that part of reality.

    I agree with those who say that there are other ways of knowing (than science). I just don’t think that those other ways have to do with parts of reality. But perhaps you want to call that “social reality”.

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  11. ombhurbhuva

    “In the humanities the classics remain the classics even if the interpretive landscape alters.”

    I agree that there is a (decaying) consensus here. And I regret that it is decaying. I see a vital role for literary classics in maintaining cultural continuity and developing moral sophistication. And I think they should be served up early (in the home, at primary school and high school).

    “For instance today I have been reading Gogol’s The Overcoat, Richard Whateley’s Elements of Rhetoric and Matthew Arnold’s The Study of Poetry all of them 19th. century figures yet hardly diminished by the great events that have occurred in the bloody 20th. century. Even the religious whimsy of Arnold is salient and philosophers recapitulate his thought without being aware of it i.e. religion as poetry that leadeth unto righteousness.”

    My comment above would probably be in accord with Arnold’s ideas.

    “It is a prejudice of mine that the majority of scientists are not as smart as they think they are; that in fact what science requires is infinite patience, devising experiments and testing, testing, testing. Yet they are regarded as oracles and some philosophers want to model themselves on their procedures and catch a ride to certainty.”

    I tried to make it clear that I was talking about science and not scientists.

    One thing is for sure however: a narrowly scientific education tends to produce the sort of people you describe. But a narrowly scientific education in formal contexts from the age of about 18 (our education systems are different from the American one) seems fine to me for those who want it.

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  12. I think one solution or remedy to at least some of the problems you raise is the wholesale acceptance of a kind of pluralism. If truth is not unitary, at least in the realm of human affairs, then there is simply not the sort of consensus in human life that you would have in physical science. Such consensus in this sense is both impossible and undesirable. The going assumption is that science is to give us one worldview that we can then say things about, that it is amoral, for example, (if we buy certain arguments against modernity itself) or that it is more accurate than the views of earlier times (if we accept a kind of science based progressivism) But this oneness is essentially an illusion when we look at human life from the point of view that is outside of natural science, to the degree that we think such separation is possible or desirable. It gets even more complicated when you bring in religious and political ideologies in the humanities. I am saying that if we just give up a “getting to yes” consensus approach and maintain the minimum of having institutions accommodate rather than dictate. I realize this seems hard. After all, schools must decide which books to teach or not, and more importantly how to teach the books finally chosen. But if we keep in mind the principle that our institutions be ones in which the different ways of life can manage to coexist rather than being for the embodiment of any one way I can see the problems of ideological intrusion lessening.

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  13. ejwinner

    You talk about my “tendency … to hedge a bet while implying (intentionally or no) a more strident view on a given matter.”

    I don’t know that I have any “strident” views. What I am trying to do here is to raise certain questions, not to pontificate.

    Besides, I am pragmatic enough to realize that the real world (of higher education or anything else) is messy and isn’t going to fit anybody’s clear and coherent models.

    Take systematic theology, for example. I don’t value it. But it has a long and illustrious history and for better or for worse it continues to be taught and practised in formal educational settings.

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  14. Hi Alan

    “You seem to have things back to front when you say that “how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe.” If that were so then science could not rationally reform our belief systems.”

    I see science as a set of methods we have developed to extend (and reform, as you say) our ordinary knowledge of the world. But you can start out with a view that no aspect of reality is in principle ruled out of bounds (what I am calling a scientific view of the world) or with the view that there are aspects of reality which are inaccessible or only accessible to non-ordinary and non-scientific perceptions or methods.

    “You then add that “Science tells us how this world is, mainly by extending our understanding of various processes and phenomena.” Isn’t that contradicting the view that science can’t tell us how the world is?”

    It can’t tell us about hypothetical entities which are *in principle* outside of its scope. You can take the possibility of such entities very seriously *and build them into your worldview*; or (like me) you may choose not to.

    “I’m assuming that science doesn’t just tell us things, but gives us good justifications for our beliefs about things.”

    This is what makes it science, isn’t it.

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  15. Mark: One problem here seems to be that you think all non-scientific knowledge is un-rigorous and only belongs to common sense and ordinary experience. This is simply a mistake, as Sellars explained in great detail — and in my view demonstrated — in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.” To suggest that knowledge comes only by way of the scientific image, then, is not only wrongheaded, but if Sellars is correct, likely impossible, given that we are persons who interact with the world by way of representations.

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  16. “One problem here seems to be that you think all non-scientific knowledge is un-rigorous and only belongs to common sense and ordinary experience.”

    You are imputing ideas to me which I have not expressed. Nowhere did I say that all non-scientific knowledge is un-rigorous and nowhere did I mention the concept of “common sense”.

    For me the “ordinary” in “ordinary reasoning” or “ordinary experience” does not have a pejorative connotation. (Revealingly you said: “… *only* belongs to common sense and ordinary experience” [my emphasis].)

    As humans our ordinary reasoning is (as scientific studies have underscored) remarkably complex and sophisticated. Take the syntactic complexities of “ordinary” language, for example. The same applies to our ordinary social thinking and analysis (which includes the moral side of things).

    Practical knowledge and skills of all kinds, reading the landscape for prey or predators, making or using implements, playing musical instruments, even things like juggling, involve a huge amount of rigor.

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  17. Mark,
    You say to Dan, “You are imputing ideas to me which I have not expressed. Nowhere did I say that all non-scientific knowledge is un-rigorous and nowhere did I mention the concept of “common sense”.
    But then you also say, to me:
    “Take systematic theology, for example. I don’t value it. But it has a long and illustrious history and for better or for worse it continues to be taught and practised in formal educational settings.”
    Really? Come on, man; say it or swallow it.

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  18. A linguist should never argue with a semiotician. it’s like an argument between a baseball fan and football fan – over baseball.

    Neither you nor I nor Dan value theology – so you hope to score a point by using that as your example ‘Humanities’ study. That’s cheap and unworthy of your articulations. That I (and others) have no use for Theology doesn’t mean that some others may not find inherent value in the study of theology.

    Frankly. I find this a cheap shot. Unworthy of you, sir.

    In this, your intent becom es much more clear. And I cannot agree.

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  19. ejwinner

    “Mark, you say to Dan, “You are imputing ideas to me which I have not expressed. Nowhere did I say that all non-scientific knowledge is un-rigorous and nowhere did I mention the concept of “common sense”. But then you also say, to me: “Take systematic theology, for example. I don’t value it. But it has a long and illustrious history and for better or for worse it continues to be taught and practised in formal educational settings.” Really? Come on, man; say it or swallow it.”

    I have no idea how the two quoted passages clash or reveal something sinister. I gave theology as an example of a subject which does not represent genuine knowledge as I see it (and also as I suspected you would see it, although I know you have a high regard for Hegel whom I understand to have been doing something very like theology). As such it would not fit my criteria for inclusion in higher education. The point was to illustrate my previous sentence: “… I am pragmatic enough to realize that the real world (of higher education or anything else) is messy and isn’t going to fit anybody’s clear and coherent models.”

    You go on: “Neither you nor I nor Dan value theology – so you hope to score a point by using that as your example ‘Humanities’ study. That’s cheap and unworthy of your articulations.”

    Why is it cheap? I am completely puzzled by your accusations.

    “That I (and others) have no use for Theology doesn’t mean that some others may not find inherent value in the study of theology.”

    So what? What’s your point?

    “Frankly, I find this a cheap shot. Unworthy of you, sir.”

    ??

    “In this, your intent becomes much more clear. And I cannot agree.”

    So what is this (presumably evil) intent which is so clear to you?

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  20. 1970scholar

    “… If truth is not unitary, at least in the realm of human affairs, then there is simply not the sort of consensus in human life that you would have in physical science. Such consensus in this sense is both impossible and undesirable.”

    Agreed.

    “The going assumption is that science is to give us one worldview that we can then say things about…”

    We don’t want to say things about the worldview but the world, scientifically speaking.

    “… that it is amoral, for example…”

    Natural processes certainly seem to be amoral.

    “… or that it is more accurate than the views of earlier times (if we accept a kind of science based progressivism). But this oneness is essentially an illusion when we look at human life from the point of view that is outside of natural science, to the degree that we think such separation is possible or desirable. It gets even more complicated when you bring in religious and political ideologies in the humanities. I am saying that if we just give up a “getting to yes” consensus approach and maintain the minimum of having institutions accommodate rather than dictate. I realize this seems hard. After all, schools must decide which books to teach or not, and more importantly how to teach the books finally chosen. But if we keep in mind the principle that our institutions be ones in which the different ways of life can manage to coexist rather than being for the embodiment of any one way I can see the problems of ideological intrusion lessening.”

    I think I agree with the gist of this as an ideal. As a matter of fact, however, there is a lot of ideological dictating going on in colleges etc. This applies to academics, but also to the general student culture.

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  21. I should explain: I am – as you know – an atheist, and have been myself stridently so on occasion. While I think there is a place for the historical and cultural study of religions in the academy, and while privately funded universities can teach what they want, I would vigorously oppose the funding of theology departments in state universities because there is no longer any useful knowledge to develop in such study, and the teaching of it can do little more than prop up a certain ideology. So it is taking the low ground to use theology as an example of a field of study in the humanities that you respect although you have no use for it, because you know that I have no use for it either, and I probably hold it in less respect than you do.

    But I believe something important was lost to the culture of my community when the colleges of the State University of New York dismantled their Foreign Language departments which not only studied, and taught, the linguistics of various different languages, but also the literature of the cultures of the peoples native to these various languages – a loss felt still, after three decades. And I think the people of this state would be very ill served if there were no longer courses in art or at the very least art history made available in those colleges. In other words, there are humanities studies that while not necessary may still be useful, and there are humanities studies that I think are necessary, if the social unit is to have any claim to community or culture at all. There is a knowledge to art, and to its history, which can never be measured, yet contributes immeasurably to how we think and communicate, and which frames the image we have of the world.

    It is these necessary humanities that are really at issue here. Should there be a philosophy of these humanities? I believe so. One reason I blew up, mistakenly, over David Ottinger’s recent essay on post-modernism is because “Post-Modernism” is actually a term first deployed in the 1960s to refer to certain trends in the visual arts and architecture. The arts tell us something about ourselves that we can’t get at any other way. And without this knowledge, practical understanding useful to our navigation of the social reality in which we live cannot be developed.

    My side remarks on semiotics and linguistics we tongue in cheek; but the fact remains that we can never know the world, or communicate about it, simply in a series of carefully analyzed ‘true sentences’ about empirical observations. Sometimes we need to splash paint on a sheet of canvas, or talk about others who have.

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  22. Here’s my take on this.

    Fifty years ago — I don’t like being able to say that — the humanities were dominated by history, literature, philosophy and classics. Around this core there were languages, linguistics, politics, art, music, and a few others. Religious studies was in the process of replacing theology.

    In the lower ranked and more vocational universities at least, things changed. University intakes were democratised; at the top managerialism became the prevailing ethos. Driven by student demand, journalism and media studies came to dominate the old humanities disciplines. The postmodernists provided the theory for this process.

    Under these pressures, the old disciplines could go two ways: follow the fashions (in the guise of a modest-seeming “pluralism” or a variety of radical-seeming “critiques”), or look for “scientific” validation. All these strategies involve giving up what once gave the old disciplines their standing. In part that standing came from pure scholarship, but it was also, I think, something more than that. It was a way of thinking about human affairs — that is, about what it is to be human and rational. It goes back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles and the other great creators of western culture.

    Over time, the vocational prospects of the new disciplines proved illusory and postmodernist theory self-relativised. Attempts to defend the traditional humanities now get dismissed as elitist or are seen as defences of these illusory replacements.

    Arthur Herman’s book “The Cave and the Light” is an excellent historical survey of what we are at risk of losing.

    Susan Haack traces the “scientistic” solution to philosophy’s version of this dilemma here:

    https://www.academia.edu/34623057/The_Real_Question_Can_Philosophy_Be_Saved_2017_

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  23. Mark,
    so, we are circling down to the root misunderstandings here. The question concerning your article, is: what fields of study should we pursue in the humanities and what fields should we abandon as displaced by more scientifically informed studies?

    You say you have some investment in the arts. Well, I like breakfast burritos, but I certainly wouldn’t want them studied in college. The question is whether you think the arts should be studied in college. When I first read your article, my thought was that you agreed. However, once you dragged theology into the discussion, I realized that this assumption was unfounded. Because neither you nor I think that theology should be studied in college.

    Frankly, I felt I had been led down a garden path: Implicitly, ‘surely we see that theology is an empty study, still pursued in some universities, and doesn’t this show that the humanities is rife with ideology lacking real (scientifically justified) knowledge?’ No. I can’t agree to that.

    And your presentation is dissimulative through (frankly empty) generalizations – ‘science gives us our real knowledge, but there are humanities studies that just prop up ideology and seem unrealistic (by scientific standards)’ – fine, what are these disreputable humanities studies?

    This lack of commitment is frankly disturbing. If there are humanities studies that we should dispense with, tell us know what you think they are. Then we can properly debate those, and not talk around them.

    You played a rhetorical game of implicature and enthymeme with those who understand rhetoric. That was a big mistake. I’m not saying that you’re wrong; but I wish you would simply say what you mean and engage a real debate over that, rather than hedging your opinions in overly generalized phrases and, yes, dissimulations.

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  24. A comment I made at another blog:
    “Advocacy in the academy is inevitable, no matter what the study. The best researchers in any field come to that field, study it, wish to teach it, because they have a passion for it. This passion inevitably motivates advocacy. The problem is establishing ground rules for debate between different advocates, and having advocates respect those ground rules.

    Second, I tend to see ‘ideology’ through a neutral prism – we each have some ideology – some interconnected sets of ideas we are committed to, and through which we develop further thoughts on further ideas – and we all hope our ideology is close to the nature of reality – social, scientific, political, whatever. This ‘neutral prism’ does not give me a superior point of view – of course I have my ideology, in fact I have several. Again, the real problem is establishing ground-rules and respecting them in order to communicate with – or at least live with – others with different ideologies.

    The rules for advocacy and ideology are only violated in a ‘triggering’ manner if they so egregiously ignore history or clearly suggest active harm to others, eg. Holocaust denialism.”

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  25. We would want our ideology – our core beliefs – to be so close to reality as to shut down claims of other ideologies.

    History will not let us do that.

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  26. ejwinner

    “The question concerning your article, is: what fields of study should we pursue in the humanities and what fields should we abandon as displaced by more scientifically informed studies?”

    This is your version of one question which the OP raises. If we can have a reasonable discussion of this, fine. But the way you are coming at it – and at me – makes this difficult. You continue to put words into my mouth, even going so far in your latest comment as using quotation marks for what you claim I am implicitly saying. [… ‘surely we see that theology is an empty study, still pursued in some universities, and doesn’t this show that the humanities is rife with ideology lacking real (scientifically justified) knowledge?’ …]

    “The question is whether you think the arts should be studied in college. When I first read your article, my thought was that you agreed. However, once you dragged theology into the discussion, I realized that this assumption was unfounded. Because neither you nor I think that theology should be studied in college.”

    “The question is …” You keep saying this. There are a bunch of questions, right? Some of them I have dealt with in the past. Some (like the arts) I have not dealt with. Some I may deal with in the future. You seem very impatient to know my views on all of this. But I will not be rushed or bullied.

    “And your presentation is dissimulative through (frankly empty) generalizations – ‘science gives us our real knowledge, but there are humanities studies that just prop up ideology and seem unrealistic (by scientific standards)’ – fine, what are these disreputable humanities studies?”

    (Again the quotation marks for my supposed thoughts in your words.)

    The way I see it, you seem to be trying to provoke me into pontificating on something I have already said I don’t want to pontificate about.

    Moreover you are ignoring substantive questions which I addressed in the OP, including the claim that our scientific understanding impacts on how we see the world in human terms. All you seem to be interested in are my prescriptions for how to organize higher education, not the basic principles which might lie behind such decisions which I am attempting here to set out.

    Yes, I believe that the politicization of scholarship undermines its credibility. With respect to certain areas (especially the more politicized subjects, not least those centered around ethnic or gender identity) it is widely believed – not without reason I would have thought – that all you have to do is to remain in good standing ideologically speaking and write what you are told and you are rewarded. The system is sick and corrupt and generally known to be so. (See Susan Haack on this also.) There are many good people and many good departments (at least in reputable disciplines like philosophy) but we are all suffering from the rampant politicization of recent decades. PhDs and other qualifications have been much devalued. I enjoyed doing my PhD, but if I was starting out today I would think twice about taking that route.

    “This lack of commitment is frankly disturbing. If there are humanities studies that we should dispense with, tell us know what you think they are. Then we can properly debate those, and not talk around them. You played a rhetorical game of implicature and enthymeme with those who understand rhetoric. That was a big mistake. I’m not saying that you’re wrong; but I wish you would simply say what you mean and engage a real debate over that, rather than hedging your opinions in overly generalized phrases and, yes, dissimulations.”

    I phrased what I said carefully because I did not want to make half-baked, gratuitous claims. As an outsider, I believe I should tread carefully and take heed of the views of insiders with whom I have an affinity or for whom I have respect. This applies to participants here and also to people like Susan Haack whose article on the problems of philosophy Alan linked to.

    But your rhetoric in this thread has been quite extreme and at times offensive. You talk about my “empty generalizations” and you are “frankly disturbed” at my lack of commitment. I made a “big mistake” by not being totally explicit about all my assumptions – in other words by using language in a perfectly normal way. And you keep accusing me of dissimulation.

    Do I have thoughts which remain unexpressed? Of course. We all do. You can’t say everything at once. As it happens, I have said quite a few controversial things and taken quite a lot of flak over recent years. I have half-written notes on some of the topics you want me to talk about here. Maybe they will see the light of day, maybe not.

    Clearly you don’t like my style; you don’t like the persona I project. I’m sorry, but courtesy and caution and careful phrasing I see as virtues, designed not to obscure or dissimulate but to show respect for the views – and sensitivities – of others and to encourage thought and discussion more generally. I particularly want to engage with those who may be ideologically or in other ways opposed to the general thrust of what I am saying.

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  27. Mark,
    I apologize for anything offensive in my rhetoric. But your caution and respect for others’ sensibilities does lead to writing that does read as vague at times.

    On the other hand, you now write: “Yes, I believe that the politicization of scholarship undermines its credibility. With respect to certain areas (especially the more politicized subjects, not least those centered around ethnic or gender identity) it is widely believed – not without reason I would have thought – that all you have to do is to remain in good standing ideologically speaking and write what you are told and you are rewarded. The system is sick and corrupt and generally known to be so. (See Susan Haack on this also.) There are many good people and many good departments (at least in reputable disciplines like philosophy) but we are all suffering from the rampant politicization of recent decades. PhDs and other qualifications have been much devalued. I enjoyed doing my PhD, but if I was starting out today I would think twice about taking that route.”

    Now this I think rather good. It is bold, challenging, explicit, paints a clear picture of what you complain about. It may lack evidence, but that’s not important in the context, especially since these issues have been up for discussion for some time now. I feel, reading this, that I know exactly where you stand now, and why. And I agree with this, and have experiences leading me to do so.

    Although we are very different in our political orientations, we are much closer in thought on certain issues than may appear to those who read through our occasional firefights. There is something of a stylistic conflict between us that we haven’t resolved, and we both have tempers.

    But you have written some wonderful essays, And when you come out and say exactly what you mean, it is quite challenging and persuasive. And if it does not persuade others, then at least the points of differences are clear.

    (Note: as you know, but there are other foreign readers who may need reminder, in America, single quotation marks – ‘…’ – are used to paraphrase, to scare-quote a suspicious word, to collapse in idea for the sake of brevity, to suggest words thought but unspoken. I wasn’t imputing that these phrases were what you wrote, but how I read what you wrote. I certainly could be mis-reading here – and you say I am. Okay, but I may not be alone in this.)

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  28. Editors: here is tidied-up version of my last comment (which may be deleted).

    Alan

    “… All these strategies involve giving up what once gave the old disciplines their standing. In part that standing came from pure scholarship…”

    I’m interested in what you mean by “pure scholarship”. I see it as being associated with working in a rigorous way with original texts. E.g. textual criticism coupled with a certain amount of careful interpretation, as in classical or Biblical scholarship; or the close examination of subtle linguistic changes that philologists engaged in.

    “… but it was also, I think, something more than that. It was a way of thinking about human affairs — that is, about what it is to be human and rational. It goes back to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles and the other great creators of western culture.”

    Interesting list. Aristotle was half-scientist. I like it that you have Sophocles in your list. Great literature still speaks more or less directly to us whereas other forms from the past (especially philosophy/science) don’t in my opinion. What they say is part of a package of beliefs, assumed by them but unknown to most modern readers. So their science/philosophy is our history of ideas. (I’m pretty sure I see this differently from you (and most philosophers).)

    Of course, there is no clear divide between literature and history or between literature and (certain types of) philosophy (Plato, for example).

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  29. Mark,
    It occurs to me (finally, because I am slow in some matters), that you might not find value in our disagreements. I always have. And I have always thought (or hoped) that others would find these disagreements useful.

    If you find this sparring egregious, then I will try to tone it down from now on.

    I think I;ve actually gotten better at this over the past couple years; but I still have my moments.

    But please – just say it. Don’t worry about our sensibilities. We’re responsible for these.

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  30. Yes, you and I have the same sense of what scholarship is. Invented in the Renaissance, I think.

    Regarding the list, I think we too easily underrate the genius of these great Greeks, Socrates especially. If you compare them with the authors of the biblical books, they are a world apart. No disrespect meant to the latter. Compare them to the author(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there’s still no comparison.

    The thesis of Herman’s book is that Plato and Aristotle served as two poles, allowing western thought to oscillate between the two, to our long-term advantage. Both-and, not either-or.

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  31. “I think we too easily underrate the genius of these great Greeks, Socrates especially. If you compare them with the authors of the biblical books, they are a world apart. No disrespect meant to the latter. Compare them to the author(s) of the Iliad and the Odyssey, there’s still no comparison.”

    I agree that there is something very special – unique in human history – about the Greek thought of about that time. But I see the “genius” as communal (not quite the right word but you get the gist).

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