The Humanities, Science, and the Soul04-01-2021
Sara Cederberg looks at the now perennial “crisis of the humanities” and writes that one reason for the crisis is “the fact that there is no longer a case to be made for the cultivation of the soul.” If the humanities emerged as a project of national storytelling so that humanists were engaged in the “preservation and cultivation of the nation’s soul,” the turn to science as the dominant cultural force has left the humanities adrift. She writes:
Over the past 50 years, these grand narratives were overthrown. New narratives and academic fields, though less unified, have emerged. The traditional disciplines are still adrift, without any solid attachment in time and space. The biggest problem for the traditional humanities disciplines is not cultural studies, but the fact that there is no longer a case to be made for the cultivation of the soul. This problem is not new. It has evolved over centuries and is intimately linked with the battle between the arts and the sciences which dates back to the schism between utilitarians and romantics. The greater historical force behind this development is the secularisation process: the triumph of science as the dominant cultural force in Western society.
The concept of “the humanities” first emerged in the US in the mid-20th century as a response to a radical form of secularism that flourished among scholars and intellectuals of that time: positivism. The positivist philosophy held that the only knowledge worth pursuing—the only truth—was that produced by the natural sciences. Thus, the origin of the term “the humanities,” and of the debate about its crisis, are closely tied to the fear that the cultural memory and activity in society would be obliterated by a one-dimensional focus on science.
Over the past 70 years, however, the positivist narrative itself has disintegrated. After World War II, Western intellectuals became painfully aware that while science could be used for the betterment of human life, it could also be used to inflict great harm. In 1949, Albert Einstein concluded that machinery and technology had made the struggle for life more severe, to the detriment of Western culture, because it greatly restrained the possibility for self-cultivation. But he remained optimistic. In his view, the decline was only a temporary setback caused by the rapid progression of modern civilisation. Once science and technology had been tamed by the ideals of a righteous and humane society, human culture would blossom once more.
An idealist at heart, Einstein hoped that the Western societies would embrace socialism, believing that the just division of labour would leave time for the free development of the individual. That did not happen. Instead, science came to dominate more and more of Western culture, until the pursuit of scientific truth became the sole purpose, not only of scientists, but of literary scholars and historians as well. In the absence of a grand narrative, science became ideological. In 1959, chemist and novelist C.P. Snow published a highly influential essay entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” in which he praised the progressive work of scientists while viciously attacking the conservatism of Britain’s literary intellectuals. Snow dismissed literary criticism as a self-indulgent pursuit, and accused literary scholars of clinging to the past, refusing to address real-world problems.