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Science and the Theft of Humanity

In science's renewed interest in the human condition, a humanist sees the promise of a dialogue and a new golden age

Geoffrey Harpham

In the Academy's Workrooms

In the modern university, all disciplines strive to distinguish themselves from all others. In doing so, they repeat at a lower level a primary distinction between the humanities and the sciences, with the former taking human beings and their thoughts, imaginings, capacities and works as its subject and the latter taking on the nonhuman world, of which the human can be seen as a mere epiphenomenon.

Within the humanities, each subfield claims its own territory. Philosophy, for example, examines the conditions of human life and thought, focusing in particular on the question of free will and choice that informs both ethics and aesthetics. Its mode can be described, very broadly, as analysis. History focuses its efforts on the archive of specifically human endeavor and achievement, and this focus provides not only a subject, but also a certain scale and style of analysis. As a discipline, history is primarily predisposed not to analysis but to chronology or narrative, which is capable of representing events in a causal series.

Criticism of the arts defines itself more by its object—paintings, musical scores or performances, buildings, films or literary texts—than by its methodology, which can incline either toward philosophy in the form of analysis, or toward history, the production or reception of the artifact. Sometimes multiple approaches are comprehended in the same critical work. As its subject is creativity, criticism of the arts must itself be creative in determining its own orientation, its own projects, its own methodology.

The demarcation of fields makes it possible not only to achieve precise sectoral knowledge, but also to mark the progress of knowledge as limited sets of problems are solved, one after another. Compartmentalization also, however, creates a host of unintended consequences, and some of these have proved to be just as productive as the intended ones. By limiting the kinds of questions that can be posed, departmental thought intentionally screens out certain features of reality, and while this partial blindness can be counted as a necessary condition of modern knowledge, it creates the conditions for an interdisciplinary reaction that blends two or more approaches to achieve results unobtainable by either: hence biochemistry, sociobiology, genetic engineering, architectural ethics and countless other innovations that are virtually invited by the limitations of disciplinarity.

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