does naturalism make room for the humanities?

On the New York Times “The Stone” blog (contributed by philosophers), the Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg wrote recently that he is a naturalist. He explained, “Naturalism is the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge.”

Near the end of the article, Rosenberg asks whether history and literary theory “provide real understanding.” He acknowledges that these disciplines can be valuable even if they don’t. Maybe we human beings need them for psychological reasons or simply enjoy them–much as we enjoy fiction. But that doesn’t mean they offer knowledge. He doesn’t quite say whether they do or not, but he writes, “if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.”

By the the last clause of this passage, Rosenberg seems to be saying that history and literary theory do not generate knowledge. (In a reply piece in “The Stone,” William Egginton simply says, “Professor Rosenberg’s answer is as unequivocal as it is withering: just like fiction, literary theory can be ‘fun,’ but neither one qualifies as ‘knowledge.'”)

But that can’t be right. Here are two examples of findings from the humanities. From history: “George Washington was the first president of the United States.” From literary criticism: Dante’s character Francesca da Rimini speaks almost entirely in misquotations from earlier literature. These are verifiable (or falsifiable) claims.

Indeed, if we had no naturalistic information about literary texts or about the past, it would very strange. Ordinary documents (novels, poems, etc.) would be mysteries, and we would be like amnesiacs, with no access to the past. Rosenberg can’t mean that.

I think the nub of the issue arises in this sentence:

If semiotics, existentialism, hermeneutics, formalism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism transparently flout science’s standards of objectivity, or if they seek arbitrarily to limit the reach of scientific methods, then naturalism can’t take them seriously as knowledge.

Earlier, Rosenberg had mentioned history, literary criticism, and literary theory as disciplines that may not be naturalistic and that may not produce real knowledge. But his specific examples are all approaches to literary theory that arose in Germany and France  after 1900 and have powerfully influenced humanists at Duke University. They are approaches to reading texts–but more than that, they are philosophical doctrines. Most of them are explicitly critical of naturalistic philosophy in the tradition of David Hume.

Rosenberg is entitled to criticize those philosophies: they are in conflict with his own. (So are some views taught and studied in philosophy departments.) But his apparent identification of particular theories, such as structuralism and deconstruction, with the whole disciplines of literary criticism and history seems problematic. It reflects, I think, some lingering bitterness between particularly influential postmodernists and analytical philosophers at institutions like Duke.

Perhaps he means that the humanities are inherently untrustworthy because some of their most prominent practitioners have endorsed theories incompatible with naturalism, whereas hardly any biologists or chemists have done so. But Rosenberg doesn’t make that point explicitly and instead seems to raise doubts about our knowledge of the past (“history”) and of literary texts. Strangely, his skepticism seems to resemble post-structuralism. Or perhaps all he wants to do is endorse forms of history and literary criticism that make verifiable claims. So would many humanists. Unless I misunderstand him, Rosenberg is operating with stereotypes about humanists that are no more fair than some stereotypes that one hears about analytical philosophers.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.