Tuesday, June 13, 2006

When science poaches on humanities turf ...

... Why, it can only be a good thing!

[...] Where philosophy presumes human autonomy, history presumes human singularity, the distinctness of the species from other animals, the environment and machines. Criticism of the arts focuses on human creativity, which it defines as the human capacity to produce meaningful representations or forms.

These presumptions have governed scholarship in the humanities, but while humanistic scholars have been presuming core facts about human nature, human capacities and human being, scientists have been getting to work. One of the most striking features of contemporary intellectual life is the fact that questions formerly reserved for the humanities are today being approached by scientists in various disciplines such as cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, robotics, artificial life, behavioral genetics and evolutionary biology. (Indeed, some of the most suggestive work is being done not just outside the humanities but outside the university, by inventors and innovators in the for-profit sector.)

Aspects of the question of autonomy are being taken up not just by philosophers but by investigators in cognitive science, genomics, biochemistry and the technology of bioinformatics. In all these fields, the presumed autonomy of the free human subject is being interrogated and complicated. The presumption of singularity that informs history is also being pressed hard by those working in computational science, animal intelligence, genetic engineering and evolutionary biology, all of which are making it harder to speak in traditional ways about the splendid self-sufficiency of the human species.

And creativity—the most splendid of all properties of human being, according to the humanities—is now being itself redefined by linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience and even software development, which are assigning new meanings to this term, meanings that do not necessarily funnel back to the individual human being in a state of inspired frenzy.


  1. Anonymous said...

    A bit unrelated but this news looks interesting:

  2. Abi said...

    Gaddeswarup: Wow! That link is great! Thank you.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Intersting. Abi have you read Stephen Jay Gould's work on how the humanities and sciences should work together?


  4. Abi said...

    Neela: Sadly, no. If any of it is available online, I would be interested.