Scientism in the Arts and Humanities

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[The] transformation of the humanities into an anti-cultural force seems to be where we are today — or nearly so. Increasingly, we can see attempts to rectify the humanities’ difficulties by assimilating their subject matter to one or another of the sciences.

Transcript of Scientism in the Arts and Humanities

  • Fall 2013 ~ 33

    Scientism in the Arts and Humanities

    Roger Scruton

    Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. See for more information.

    As the universities expanded in the twentieth century, and as the hard sciences began to retreat to the margins of an educational system increas-ingly reluctant to demand too much of its students, the humanities moved to the center of the curriculum. First among them was English, a subject that established its place as a university degree in Britain only about mid-century, and largely as a result of the failed attempt by I. A. Richards to treat the study of literature as a branch of empirical psychology. Art history rose along with English, bringing with it the Hegelian histori-cal approach that had been developed in the German universities. And the growing prominence of philosophy (still considered a branch of the moral sciences during my undergraduate days in Cambridge) laid the foundations for the continuing expansion of the curriculum into areas as diverse as classical civilization, film studies, and creative writing. The simultaneous expansion of the social sciences to encompass anthropol-ogy (coupled to archaeology in the Cambridge of my youth), sociology, economics, political science, and the theory of education meant that many of the new areas of study fell uneasily between arts and sciences and required extensive borrowings from both. Take media studies: was it a branch of sociology or a subsection of literary criticism? The habit very quickly arose during the 1960s and 1970s of throwing together clusters of disciplines from the social sciences and the humanities in order to gen-erate studies that would appeal to the increasingly unqualified intake of students by conveying a spurious and usually highly politicized image of relevance.

    In the current university, the impression arises that outside the hard sciences just about anything goes, and that the humanities have neither a method nor a received body of knowledge, it being up to the professor to

    Roger Scruton, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His lat-est books are The Soul of the World (Princeton, April 2014) and the novel Notes from Underground (Beaufort, March 2014). A longer version of this essay will appear in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, edited by Daniel N. Robinson and Richard Williams (Bloomsbury, November 2014).


  • 34 ~ The New Atlantis

    Roger Scruton

    Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. See for more information.

    decide what to teach in his class. Occasional attempts to establish a canon of great books are quickly and easily overthrown, while the journals fill with articles devoted to what Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal have casti-gated as fashionable nonsense.

    An additional problem has been created by the growth of post-graduate schools in the humanities and social sciences. University departments and the people who teach in them are increasingly assessed both for status and for funding on their output of research. The use of this word to describe what might formerly have gone under the name of scholarship naturally suggests an affinity between the humanities and the sciences, implying that both are engaged in discovering things, whether facts or theories, to be added in the same way to the store of human knowledge. Pressed to justify their existence, therefore, the humanities begin to look to the sciences to provide them with research methods and the promise of results. To suggest that the principal concern of the humanities is the transmission of culture as has been argued by the followers of the nineteenth-century poet and critic Matthew Arnold would be to condemn them to second-class status. If all the humanities have to offer is culture, then they can hardly have the same claim on the public purse as the sciences, which constantly add to the store of knowledge. Culture has no method, while research proceeds by conjecture and evidence. Culture means the past, research means the future.

    Moreover, once the defense of the humanities is made to rest on the culture they transmit, they become vulnerable to deconstruction. One can summon any number of theories the Marxist theory of ideology, or some feminist, post-structuralist, or Foucauldian descendant of it in proof of the view that the precious achievements of our culture owe their status merely to the power that speaks through them, and hence that they are of no intrinsic worth. In this way the whole idea of culture as an autonomous sphere of moral knowledge, one that requires learning, scholarship, and immersion to enhance and retain, is cast to the winds. On this view, instead of transmitting culture, the university exists to deconstruct it, to remove its aura. The universitys purpose is to leave the student, after three or four years of anxious dissipation, with the view that anything goes and nothing matters.

    Invading the HumanitiesThis transformation of the humanities into an anti-cultural force seems to be where we are today or nearly so. Increasingly, we can see attempts

  • Fall 2013 ~ 35

    Scientism in the Arts and Humanities

    Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. See for more information.

    to rectify the humanities difficulties by assimilating their subject matter to one or another of the sciences.

    Take, for instance, art history. Generations of students have been drawn to this subject in the hope of acquiring knowledge of the masterpiec-es of the past. Art history had developed in nineteenth-century German universities, under the influence of the Swiss historians Jacob Burkhardt, Heinrich Wlfflin, and others, to become a paradigm of objective study in the humanities. The Hegelian theory of the Zeitgeist, put to astute use by Wlfflin, divided everything into neatly circumscribed periods Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, neoclassical, and so on. And the compara-tive method, in which images were shown side by side and their differences assigned to the distinguishing mental frameworks of their creators, proved endlessly fertile in critical judgments. Look at the works of Wittkower, Panofsky, Gombrich, and the other products of this school of thought, many of whom fled to safety from the Nazi destruction of the German universities, and you will surely conclude that there has never been a more creative and worthwhile addition to the curriculum in modern times.

    Yet the scholars are not satisfied. Is there any more research to be done on the art of Michelangelo, or the architecture of Palladio? Is there anything to be added to the study of the Gothic cathedral after Ruskin, von Simson, Pevsner, and Sedlmayr? And how do we confront the com-plaint that this whole subject seems to be focused on a narrow range of dead white European males, who spoke clearly for their times, but who have no great relevance to ours? All in all, the subject of art history has been condemned by its own success to a corner of the academy, there to be starved of funds and graduate students unless, that is, it can be endowed with some new field of research.

    Similar problems have bedeviled musicology and literary studies, and in each case the temptation has arisen to look for some branch of the natural sciences that could be applied to their subject matter, so as to rescue it from its methodless sterility. Two sciences in particular seem to fit the bill: evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Both are sciences of the mind, and since culture is a mental arena, both sciences ought to be capable of making sense of it. Evolutionary psychology treats mental states as adaptations, and explains them in terms of the reproductive advantages they conferred on our ancestors; neuroscience treats them as aspects of the nervous system, and explains them in terms of their cogni-tive function.

    Over the last several decades, therefore, we have witnessed a steady inva-sion of the humanities by scientific methodology. This invasion provides us

  • 36 ~ The New Atlantis

    Roger Scruton

    Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. See for more information.

    with a useful illustration of the distinction between scientific and scientistic ways of thinking. The scientific thinker has a clear question, a body of data, and a theoretical answer to the question that can be tested against that data. The scientistic thinker borrows the apparatus of science, not in order to explain the phenomenon before him, but in order to create the appearance of a scientific question, the appearance of data, and the appearance of a method that will arrive at an answer.

    Structuralism in literary criticism, as exemplified by Roland Barthes in his 1970 book S/Z, was scientistic in this sense. It raised questions that had the appearance of science, and addressed them with theories that could not be refuted since they failed to make predictions. Barthess flamboyant analysis of Balzacs short story Sarrasine, casting about the technicalities of Saussurian linguistics, created a certain stir in its day, and was immediately taken up by literary critics hungry for a method that would deliver results. The results never came, and that particular episode is now more or less forgotten.

    A similar case today can be found in the new science of neuroaes-thetics, introduced and championed by V. S. Ramachandran, Semir Zeki, and William Hirstein, which promises to produce its own journal and already has a growing pile of publications devoted to its results. And the art historian John Onians has followed this example by attem