Humanities, the counter-culture, and scientism–thoughts on Leon Wieseltier

I recently read the New Republic’s literary editor’s commencement address to Brandeis. Leon Wieseltier bemoans the current state of the humanities in American life and education:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?

He complains that as a society we have inclined to a narrow, instrumentalist reason and intellectual effort—the reason of mere technology or cost/benefit analyses:

The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life.

Who’s to blame?

He is quite right, of course. On the other hand, I think he ignores that the humanities themselves (or at least some prominent voices within them) deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the current state of affairs.

For example, Wieseltier is displeased that reason and philosophy don’t care about larger questions of morality, good and evil, truth or falseness. Fair enough. And yet, the post-modernism that has gripped so much of the academy has declared such questions to be pointless, unanswerable, meaningless, and amusingly naïve.

Instead, we’re treated to the lit-crit theories of various French post-modernist philosophers. No text has any meaning save that which we impose upon it. In that kind of environment, figuring out whether something is true and good becomes a senseless enterprise. All discourse devolves into mere political maneuvering for power. And so, for example, if dead white men wrote the texts and thus controlled the discourse, now it is time to impose a feminist reading of the texts, or an anti-neo-colonialist reading, or a gay rights reading, even if such concerns were completely foreign to the time, place, and authorship of the texts. And, woe betide you if you suggest that such alternative readings might be every bit as much grabs for power as the ones they are attacking.

Even things as clear-cut as physics are declared by some to be nothing but a type of cultural hegemony, a socially-constructed narrative that privileges the western, white, male view of the world. (Science is affected by social factors, of course, but if you’re arguing that things like Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations are no more true in an absolute sense than anything else, is it any wonder that the humanities are not generally competent to address matters of Truth and the Good life?)

A pleasant counter-example

To be sure, there are beacons of hope. I took one class from Patricia Demers of University of Alberta, then chair of the English department—short poetry in the Renaissance. Here was a class where you actually had to support your views from the text and historical period of the poem, where “what this means to me” did decidedly not fly, and where a casual Freudian interpretation would get shot down as absurd nonsense.

That it happened was refreshing—but, you could tell from the expression on my humanities-major classmates’ faces that they were not used to this level of discourse. We were all expected (along with the professor) to nod sagely at such “reader response” or Freudian impositions.

That they were surprised and a bit disgruntled when called on such stuff was telling.

I was, ironically, better at it than they were because my background was in science, where the rejection or acceptance of hypotheses was (at least in principle) conditioned only upon the evidence, and a rigorous attempt to disprove an idea was a key part of the process.


Weseltier’s jeremiad against scientism—a philosophical stance that reifies scientific thinking as the be-all and end-all, without the epistemological humility that characterizes true science—is also well-placed. (Scientism is characteristic of the philosophically inept New Atheists, for example.)

But again, what did he expect to happen? Physics and medicine and Google and technology simply work—and yet, the severe cultural relativists that have gripped much of the humanities seem oblivious to the implications. Unsurprisingly the culture (and even their students) have by and large rolled their eyes and texted, “Whatever.”

I would love to see a revival and increased respect accorded the humanities. But, to accomplish that, I think they need to go backward a bit to go forward—in the same sense (as CS Lewis was wont to put it) that going backward to start over on a mathematical sum that you’ve gotten wrong is the best way of making progress (rather than beavering onward with the mistake unacknowledged or uncorrected).

The humanities need, in a sense, to go back to Socrates—back to a serious, intellectually rigorous, fearless reflection on what makes the Good Life. They need a conviction that that is a question that reason can, if not definitively answer, at least cast reliable light upon. Some things can be clearly ruled out as part of the Good life—some things are, to be blunt, Evil.

Not just Evil “from a certain point of view,” not just Evil in cultural context, but honest-to-goodness, clear-cut, Evil. Yet that kind of conclusion is the sort that has been made exceedingly difficult to come to. Even to suggest that there is some type of constant, universal “human nature,” as opposed to a malleable social animal, is to court disaster.

And, for any such declarations or tentative conclusions about Evil to be convincing, such Evils need to be found not just (or even primarily) in the standard whipping boys of the contemporary academy—the well-worn targets of the patriarchy, or colonialism, or racism, or homophobia, and all the rest.

Such attitudes and cultural currents no doubt have their share of evil. But, those are easy evils to call out in the academy these days. Any bravery involved in raising such issues has long faded–rather like me patting myself on the back for making it to the top of Vimy Ridge.

The dangerous evils are the ones that cannot be named, or that you get shouted down for naming—the treason that none dare call treason. And, the humanities specifically and the academy in general is rife with those. Such a discussion would inevitably call personal choices and behavior into question, which is never popular.

A personal example

When I was in university, I was sitting in a humanities class on the literature of science fiction, taught by a scholar of eastern European literature. One day, he was ill, and so we had a substitute. This woman was an incisive teacher, and in the context of a discussion about one particular work, pointed out in passing that children raised by single parents had higher rates of social dysfunction, poverty, etc.

Now, it would be hard to find a more robustly-supported claim from sociology than that. She made it in an off-hand way, and not in a polemical one, but simply as an invitation to consider the implications for the dystopian view of family with which a certain work presented us (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel Wea book with the distinction of being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board).

Well, you’d have thought that she had defended rape or something. One woman stormed angrily out of the classroom. Others protested her claim—the instructor noted she wasn’t making the claim in a judgmental sense of single parents or divorced families, but simply as a factual observation that might have relevance.

As it turned out, this did no good. Letters of protest were written to the department. The regular professor returned and had to apologize for his substitute saying something so “insensitive.” (It was so far from insensitive that I confess I didn’t even realize what all the stomping out in high dudgeon was about until later.)

So much for the quest for the Truth—and, thus, for Good or Evil. So much for “academic freedom”—such an idea couldn’t even be entertained without students having a melt-down, and the academic department caving in. If this can happen in something as robustly supported as the fact that children do better, on average, with a married set of biologic parents, then one must abandon hope all ye who enter here if anything even slightly open to debate should be raised.

Now, I suppose that that kind of experience could be an aberration. But, from what I have heard from others, and read, and given what I see in the media and now on-line, I suspect that it is not. I was ultimately destined for the science departments, and so my exposure to such matters was limited—but, given that I encountered it as I did, I cannot think that it was or is uncommon.

In fact, it was this dynamic that redirected me, after one term, from aspirations in the academic humanities into the sciences, because so much of it seemed to be an intellectual game that never went anywhere. And, I wasn’t interested in playing.

I do not think that it always is that way—I have many friends who are academics in the humanities, and they don’t partake of that approach. But, I think they often must swim against the tide. And, you need tenure before you can be really daring, if you want a job.

Down with bad things….

Down with scientism and its arrogant, unwarranted certainties. Agreed!

But, down too with the pervasive relativism and the shibboleths of the academic Left. (You know there’s a problem when a phrase like ‘shibboleth of the academic Left’ has become cliché.) At least science can, with some justification, point to triumphs like the moon landing, integrated circuits, and AIDS medication as an excuse for its philosophic hubris. New Age dilithium crystals did not land us on the Sea of Tranquility.

What, one might ask, has the extreme post-modernism of much of the humanities brought us in the last century in the quest for Truth that is even remotely comparable? If anything, its leading lights have squandered the moral and intellectual inheritance of the West, and now play games among the ruins, sneering at any who don’t automatically acknowledge the value of what they’re doing.

Small wonder that many walk away and fire up their iPad.