Proust = neuroscience. Austen= game theory. Dickens = gastrointerology
January 21, 2014 7:55 AM   Subscribe

That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity—which is to say, by setting humanistic thought upon a scientific foundation. Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights. Proust knew things about memory that neuroscientists are only now discovering. Austen constructed her novels in a manner that is consistent with game theory. Bang, there’s your consilience.
posted by HeroZero (37 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Facile and specious.
posted by dfriedman at 7:58 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


*Hi fives this article*
*keeps running*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:02 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


So, it's a TED talk stretched out to book length then?
posted by Bromius at 8:13 AM on January 21 [9 favorites]


Say what you will, "This is a perfectly valid statement, as long as we ignore the accepted meaning of most of the words it contains." may become my go-to for a negative response on MetaFilter.....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:21 AM on January 21 [23 favorites]


That’s the latest gambit in the brave new world of “consilience,” the idea that we can overcome the split between “the two cultures” by bringing art and science into conceptual unity

I had no idea that this was even a thing. And, IMO, it seems rather stupid to consider things this way; I find myself growing tired of the endless narrative of humanity as a binary thing - "art" versus "science"; "left" or "right"; we are all apparently "this" or "that". Bullshit. We are many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time. Art and science learn and draw from each other; there is no need for "conceptual unity" because at their heart they are the same thing - the quest for understanding about ourselves, about the world and universe we inhabit, and those we inhabit it with. They may use different methods and different languages, but is that not what we are engaged in?

Some brilliant writing in the link, though
posted by nubs at 8:22 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


Take a famous writer, preferably one with some marketing mojo, and argue that their work anticipates contemporary scientific insights.

No, it's a parlor game!

Nabokov was a lepidopterist!
Gaddis was an efficient market theorist!

u.s.w...
posted by chavenet at 8:24 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


I'm coming to the position that the idea of evil "scientism" threatening "the humanities" is mostly imaginary, a commonplace of the kinds of academic hacks beloved by Arts and Letters Daily.
posted by thelonius at 8:25 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


(slowly puts away manuscript for Trollope's Dismal Science: What "The Way We Live Now" Has To Say About The Way We Live Now.)
posted by mittens at 8:25 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


"Dead, French, Both, or Neither" is more fun and less pretentious a parlor game.

Napoleon
Robert Guillaume
H.R. Giger
Jacques Chirac
Jean Chrétien
Jean-Paul Duvalier
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:31 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


I'm coming to the position that the idea of evil "scientism" threatening "the humanities" is mostly imaginary, a commonplace of the kinds of academic hacks beloved by Arts and Letters Daily.

Well, there is a bit of truth to the view that Arts and Humanities generate a disproportionate share of tuition for the amount of support and respect they get from university administrations. That tends to color one's view a bit, I suppose.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:34 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


Beckett clearly anticipated the bleak and cyclical futility of tech support / computer training.

Joyce is the grandfather of email spam filter poisoning.

The various Oulipo writers set the stage for twitter with their embrace of rigid and purposefully arbitrary stylistic constraints.
posted by idiopath at 8:35 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


I'm coming to the position that the idea of evil "scientism" threatening "the humanities" is mostly imaginary, a commonplace of the kinds of academic hacks beloved by Arts and Letters Daily.

I don't know. I've seen people right here on this site argue that the study of arts and literature is of no value to Humanity, unlike the study of "real" things like what science does. Some people definitely see them not just as binary but in opposition. We've had plenty of threads where mefites sneer at someone who's working a shit job as a literature adjunct as someone who is obviously just wanting handouts because they have no skills. It's disturbing and tiresome. Humanity needs both/all, as evidenced by the fact that throughout our history we have had both/all literature/arts/science.

Austen isn't valuable only if we can "prove" that she was really a game theorist. That's silly. But that's what some people seem to think.
posted by rtha at 8:36 AM on January 21 [15 favorites]


It may be, on my part, mostly distaste at the idea of reading any more dreary "two cultures" essays.

TFA is quite right to point out how silly the "Proust was a neuroscientist!" genre is, too, and, if you must, I guess that is "scientism".
posted by thelonius at 8:42 AM on January 21


Fun read. Reminds me of the headline formulas that web marketing people use: "10 surprising truths about strategic thinking/being a barista/milking cats that I learned from Jane Austen". The juxtaposition is so bizarre that it actually makes you wonder if someone might just be onto something.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:44 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I feel like this whole thing could go away if people just used the prefix "proto-" more often.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:50 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


Facile and specious.

Insubordinate and churlish.

mischievous and deceitful,

chicanerous and deplorable.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:52 AM on January 21 [12 favorites]


> Nabokov was a lepidopterist!

<nerdrage> But Nabakov was a lepidopterist! </nerdrage>
posted by benito.strauss at 8:57 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


Yeah, Chwe's book seems like a classic example of a logical error one sees all the time in these kinds of arguments: because theory X can be used to elucidate such-and-such a field of social behavior and because author Y represented that field of social behavior in interesting and rich ways, author Y obviously adumbrated (and would have subscribed to) theory X. In essence, it's really just a form of ethnocentrism: my way of understanding the world is so compelling, I can't believe that others might have understood it in fundamentally different ways.
posted by yoink at 9:08 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I'm coming to the position that the idea of evil "scientism" threatening "the humanities" is mostly imaginary, a commonplace of the kinds of academic hacks beloved by Arts and Letters Daily.

I'm a researcher in the humanities. The only place I see the concept of "scientism" used are the various online quasi-intellectual publications, like the ones that took Pinker seriously only recently. In other words: yes.

There are some topics that are discussed and which are related though, most prominent ones being reductionism (a rather interesting topic) and the various iterations of stupidity from evolutionary psychology.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:09 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


They say it's a good field to go into if you don't know much about evolution or psychology.
posted by thelonius at 9:27 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


This is the nerdiest NYT trend piece I've ever read.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:28 AM on January 21


When someone harps on the idea that science and art are fundamentally different domains, you can assume that this person lacks deep experience with one or both of those categories.
posted by serif at 9:30 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


They say it's a good field to go into if you don't know much about evolution or psychology.

Neurology, technically (brain modules evolving in Pleistocene, etc.) But yes, it would be a wonderful science if neurology and theory of evolution had reached their complete and full truth in 1975. If that were the case, I'd have no problem whatsoever with evo psych.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:32 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Hunter S. Thompson= organic chemistry
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:44 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile, in science circles Cornell's president David Skorton is advocating that liberal arts have been neglected for scientists and that it's causing problems:
...scientific, medical and public health developments sometimes fail to gain public acceptance for reasons that lie far outside the realm of science. And that is not the fault of the public—that is our fault as scientists.

... What we really need is a much broader humanistic education for scientists (and nonscientists), beginning in K–12 education and continuing through the undergraduate/graduate and professional years. It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide. ...
Not that Scientific American is commonly read in science circles, but this particular article is getting circulated.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:50 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


One of my most loved childhood friends-of-the-family, a retired Royal Navy guy who "worked on radar in the war" and was also a world authority on navigation, had lots of time for culture but little time for many of its practitioners. His favourite gambit, on being berated for science's lack of humanity, was to offer to recite from memory any Shakespeare sonnet if his protagonist could tell him the three laws of thermodynamics.

He claims never to have lost that one. I never did find out whether he actually knew all the sonnets, as another of his specialties was world-class bullshitting, something he considered one of the most useful arts available to humanity.

That he was good friends with Prince Philip is not, I feel, unconnected.

I miss him dreadfully.
posted by Devonian at 10:27 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


I'm coming to the position that the idea of evil "scientism" threatening "the humanities" is mostly imaginary

Would you perhaps prefer "pop-scientism"? It's possible Deresiewicz doesn't do enough to separate the bona fide practice of science from what he's really talking about, which is a kind of science-solves-all ideology only tenuously connected to actual research/actually knowing things.

In any case, sadly he's completely right about the Chwe book — it has a great, interesting pitch that makes it sound like it might actually illuminate something about Austen, but in fact it's completely vacuous and dunderheaded about every subject it touches on, from history to culture to literature (apart from game theory; I guess it could be an okay intro game theory textbook).
posted by RogerB at 11:13 AM on January 21


to offer to recite from memory any Shakespeare sonnet if his protagonist could tell him the three laws of thermodynamics.

we should play that little game in the thread right now...
posted by ennui.bz at 11:21 AM on January 21


This essay doesn't really engage this set of issues very substantially. Sure, it's ridiculous to try to, post hoc, shoehorn meaning into artistic works that are obviously not aiming toward those goals, but there is no mention of the emerging field of medical humanities, which is a much more potentially fruitful path toward differing domains learning from one anther. A quick search shows that the field is being adopted and explored in a variety of places.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:26 AM on January 21


His favourite gambit, on being berated for science's lack of humanity, was to offer to recite from memory any Shakespeare sonnet if his protagonist could tell him the three laws of thermodynamics.

That's cute, but what does it prove? At least these days, as posters above have said, the attacks go the other way: STEM types (especially programmers) sneering at the arts and humanities as wastes of times and money.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:45 AM on January 21


Leo Strauss appears to have anticipated consilience. "OMG THE ANCIZENTS HELD MORE WISDOM THAN THEY WERE LETTING ON"
posted by Apocryphon at 11:59 AM on January 21


benito.strauss: " But Nabakov was a lepidopterist! "

Oh come on! Lolita is fiction and Humbert Humbert isn't VN....


;-)
posted by chavenet at 12:33 PM on January 21


> Oh come on! Lolita is fiction and Humbert Humbert isn't VN....

I can't tell if you're just kidding around, but in case there is anyone who doesn't actually know, He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University ...
posted by benito.strauss at 12:44 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Nabokov was a for-real naturalist, though he specialized in lepidoptery. In his notes to his translation of Eugene Onegin, he actually censures Pushkin, his favorite all-around artist, for describing nature too generally; in his Lectures, he bemoans the limited botanical vocabulary of his students.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:02 PM on January 21


Well, there is a bit of truth to the view that Arts and Humanities generate a disproportionate share of tuition for the amount of support and respect they get from university administrations. That tends to color one's view a bit, I suppose.

And essentially zero share of research grant funding overhead, which also being money is likely important to administrations. I'm certainly not saying that humanities should be down-played in the university (quite the opposite), but BP is not asking to fund a half-billion dollar new research effort in the arts. If A&H were actually providing the bulk of the money to the university, you better believe they would be more highly valued.
posted by one_bean at 1:28 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


I think the best part of this article are the last two paragraphs. But thinking about it, it's interesting and strange. He essentially argues that art is defined by (and its value lies in) its subjectivity. However, he doesn't take one more step to recognize that when human beings do science, there's a nontrivial subjective component as well—in that there's a nontrivial art to scientific work, or in different words, that scientists' motivations are in the end subjective, too. I have an inkling what the implications of this are, but regardless it would seem to be an important thread to explain as part of his final argument.
posted by polymodus at 12:49 AM on January 22


to offer to recite from memory any Shakespeare sonnet if his protagonist could tell him the three laws of thermodynamics.

Exactly why both fields should be regarded as seperate imho - anyway, there seems to be a third field missing: money.
posted by sgt.serenity at 12:52 AM on January 22


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