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Do you think that recent developments in the Sciences and Humanities represent a convergence that are causing their distinctions to crumble, or do you think that they embody two fundamentally different forms of understanding and that their distinctions will endure?
Write a meaty paragraph in which you start by clearly stating which of these two possibilities you agree with, and then draw on the material in the reading here as well as anything you think is relevant in earlier readings to develop and support your position. End with a firm summing up of your position.

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The Evolving Relationship between the Sciences and the Humanities
From the time of the Renaissance until quite recently, the Humanities reigned supreme. Philosophers, historians, and classicists ruled the academic roost, and Science, which only emerged from its position as a branch of Philosophy (Natural Philosophy) in the Nineteenth century (1800-1900), came to be grudgingly recognized as important, but was relegated to second class status because it emphasized mundane facts and cautious conclusions over profound reasoning or soaring rhetoric.

However, the Twentieth century saw the rise of Science in general and the Social Sciences in particular relative to the Humanities. Marxist economic determinism, the idea that human institutions are fundamentally structured by the economic interests of different social groups, and Freudian psychology, which posited that human affairs are fundamentally driven by unconscious mental processes whose patterns within individuals are formed by their experiences as infants, supplanted the traditional view of human institutions and affairs as structured and spurred by a combination of innate biological imperatives (?human nature?) and great ideas rationally conceived, chosen, and implemented by great men.

After the 1970s, though, the tide turned again. Attempts to construct a causal connection between socio-economic structures and individual beliefs and actions proved difficult, and Freudian psychology proved to be a rather parochial set of assumptions and conclusions that reflected late-Nineteenth century European middle-class norms, rather than the universal key to the human psyche its most ardent proponents had claimed. In their place, a kind of Cultural determinism arose that posited that cultural norms rather than economic interests or psychological drives are the crucial factors in human affairs, defining what people think is possible, desirable, and necessary in everything from the emotional satisfaction gained from personal relations through the legitimate terms of economic activity to the purpose, questions, methodologies, thereby conclusions of scientific research. This is the dominant perspective not only in the Humanities, but also in most of the Social Sciences in academics today.

An extreme version of the culturalist perspective argues that reality itself is a social construct: we only know what?s ?out there? through the filter of understandings that our culture equips us with, so there is, in effect, no ?out there?, just different systems of understanding that define ?out there? to the members of different cultures. Reality is, for members of a culture, what the culture says it is, and since there is no knowledge independent of a cultural frame, the reality of any one culture is valid for its members and both unknowable to and un-falsifiable by members of another culture. (As then-vice-president Cheney said to ?realist? critics of our invasion of Iraq, ?we make our own reality.?)

Even more recently, though, cognitive neuroscience (a combination of the biological study of the physiological structures of the brain, and the psychological study of how we think) has begun to push back against the more extreme claims of cultural determinism, asserting that the human brain is not a ?tabla rasa?, or blank slate, when a person is born, but instead humans are predisposed by genetic endowment for certain cognitive modules to develop in the brain: not just the limbic systems mentioned in the discussion of anger in the previous section, but specific locations for language ability and facial recognition; an innate ability to understand both physical causation (mechanism) and that some other beings have thoughts and feelings like us (what’s called “theory of mind” and empathy, which enable us to share meaning with each other).

Rather than seeing these developments as just another phase in an endless quest for dominance, though, it is possible to see the two most recent trends as a convergence. On the one side, the Sciences are exploring the mechanism of meaning, while on the other side the Humanities are exploring the meaning of mechanism.

What this means more specifically is that in the Sciences, first, starting in the early-twentieth century, Semiotics, the Science of Signs, began exploring the way that symbols gain meaning, which is basically by their position in a system of symbols. In other words, something cannot have any meaning in-and-of itself, it has to be part of some set of things, and is defined by its difference from the other parts. For example, if everything was always the same temperature, then “hot” and “cold” would be meaningless. It is only in relation to each other that they have meaning. This is true of everything we know, we only know what it is because of all the things it isn’t. This is one way of understanding how meaning works.

The second way of understanding the mechanism of meaning began to flower in the late twentieth century, when cognitive science advanced to the point that it began to be able, through fMRI scanning, to see what areas of the brain are activated by what stimuli, so we can literally see the centers of thought and emotion that are activated by different words and images. This is another, much more direct way of understanding how meaning works. Together, they have allowed science to make great inroads into the territory that had heretofore been the preserve of the Humanities, bringing the exploration of what things mean into the realm of how things work.

On the other side, though, the Humanities have been exploring the meaning of mechanism. What this means more specifically is two things. More directly, it means that Humanists have asked questions about the purpose of Scientific Research and the biases that purpose introduces into the Scientific enterprise. In order to investigate the mechanisms by which things work, Science must break them into component parts to see how they fit together and function. It is thus inherently reductionist, treating things, even living things, as assemblages of lifeless parts rather than as living wholes. Furthermore, the ultimate validation of a scientific theory, which generally leads to a practical application of it, is to use the understanding of how something works to manipulate it. We study nature in order to dominate it, and the urge to dominate informs the premises and methods that we use to study it and the conclusions this leads to.

The second, less direct implication of exploring the meaning of mechanism is that Humanists and Humanistically informed Social Sciences have come to see the meaning ascribed to social structures and actions as the key to understanding how they work. You can make mathematical models of how markets work, for example, but at bottom markets only work, and they work the way they do, because of the understanding people bring to them about the possibility and desirability of exchanging items with different values to the two parties. Similarly, revolutions don’t happen simply because of a change in a society’s standard of living or political arrangements, but because of what the inhabitants think about the change. If people see inequality of wealth or racial oppression as natural or inevitable or good — in a word, legitimate — there will be no revolution, while if people come to see them as illegitimate, there will be rioting in the streets. It is, in a nutshell, the meaning people ascribe to things that ultimately determines what their reaction to the mechanistic changes in social, and even natural, processes around them will be.

It may thus be that the distinctions that define the Three Divisions of Academic Knowledge are crumbling, as the Sciences begin to understand how meaning works, both as a set of logical relationships among signs and as a set of physiological processes within the human nervous system, and the Humanities show us the crucial importance of understanding what mechanism means, and what mechanisms mean.