|The people are revolting, Roger. Better get used to it. But it was good to be king, wasn't it?|
At Big Questions Online, Philosopher Roger Scruton thinks science is out of its element when it attempts to explain art, music, literature, and human senses of beauty:
We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments. We don’t interpret The Art of Fugue with an acoustical analysis, or Michelangelo’s David with the chemistry of marble. Art, literature, music and history belong to the ‘human world’, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean. Explanation has a method, and it is the method of science. Interpretation goes in search of a method, but is never sure of finding one.I am, of course, a humanities guy. But who says we can't understand Shakespeare through surveys and experiments? Yes, certainly, one important way we engage art is by interpreting what a work means, but we can learn much by developing explanations of how works arise. I don't understand why Scruton wants to make humanities and science non-overlapping magisteria.
I am also puzzled by his picture of humanities interpretation as a humble discipline of "doubt and hesitation" and science as "certainty":
Over the last two decades, however, Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes. No need now to puzzle over the meaning of music or the nature of beauty in art. The meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes. Once we see that these features of the human condition are “adaptations,” acquired perhaps many thousands of years ago, during the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we will be able to explain them. We will know what art and music essentially are by discovering what they do.Whenever people want to criticize or denigrate science, they invariably characterize it with the flaw of certainty. They suggest it is hubristic, pronouncing to hold answers it does not really have. This criticism misses the mark. More often, the critics assert scientific certainty where the scientists themselves do not. For instance, in the quote above, Scruton presents Darwinism as claiming to offer definitive, over-arching explanations of works. Unfortunately, we find not one citation to examples of literary Darwinists making this claim in Scranton's entire article.
On the other hand, we can look at another article where we might expect to find scientific hubris. Here, for example, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker favorably reviews the book, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Pinker seems quite interested in literary Darwinism, so does the following make a claim for certainty?
For its part, literary analysis would surely benefit from the latest scientific ideas on human thought, emotion, and social relations. Fiction has long been thought of as a means of exploring human nature, and the current stagnation of literary scholarship can be attributed, in part, to its denial of that truism. The field’s commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of fiction that transcend time and place. And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism. For all these reasons, evolutionary psychology and literary analysis seem to be natural companions.Here's a second quote from Pinker (the entire review can be found here). Again, is he declaring literary Darwinism as an infallible and exclusive method for engaging or explaining literary works?
The essence of science is not a subject matter or a set of experimental techniques, but the conviction that our claims about the world are not matters of personal taste or conviction but can be evaluated for their degree of truth. A consilient literary analysis should thus pursue some of the methods of science as well as its theories, and two of the contributions argue that hypotheses in literary scholarship can be as testable as those in the sciences.Apparently, Scruton is enamored with the idea that music, beauty, art, and similar terms are mysterious. Science fails with humanities disciplines, he says, because the scientists don't really know what the subject is that they are investigating. Scruton argues:
Until you define what music is, and how it differs from pitched sound, for example, you will not know what question you are asking, when you inquire into its origins. Until you recognize that the human sense of beauty is a completely different thing from the peahen’s sexual attraction, you won’t know what, if anything, is proved by the sparse similarities.Yes, we need good, comprehensive definitions. We need a standard vocabulary that we can share in discussing phenomena. And understanding differences is important. No doubt, music is different than pitched sound. Music involves selection and arrangement of pitched sounds. But I question Scruton's completely different than. Whatever we make of the relationship between music and pitched sound or between a sense of beauty and sexual attraction, I see no warrant for blocking off music or beauty as phenomena of radical difference, as if they have no connection whatsoever with sound or sex--as if, in other words, they had been divinely wrought and bequeathed to humanity.
Scruton, as I see it, plots art and beauty on the same continuum with gods, free will, and souls. Defenders tell us we cannot explain the categories on the continuum. The categories are beyond our full comprehension, exceeding our language, and greater than the real things that are otherwise their material substance (e.g., religious writings and commentaries, neurons, cells and organelles).
What's more, Scruton and like-minded thinkers advise us not even to try explaining such categories:
The attempt to explain art, music, literature, and the sense of beauty as adaptations is both trivial as science and empty as a form of understanding. It tells us nothing of importance about its subject matter, and does huge intellectual damage in persuading ignorant people that after all there is nothing about the humanities to understand, since they have all been explained — and explained away.This argument is deeply flawed. I don't accept Scruton as an authority to tell us what disciplines and methods to take seriously. Ultimately, the test of disciplines and methods is the knowledge they produce. In his given examples on music and sense of beauty, Scruton finds the Darwinist explanations "absurd." Fine. That's his opinion. But we need not accept those explanations fully to understand that they (1) are out in the public domain, (2) have some legitimacy, and (3) will ultimately stand or fall based on the collection of more data and the performance of more work in the area.
Another truly odious charge is that a Darwinist line of art or literary study obliterates any other modes of explaining and interpreting. The charge is simply untrue. Humanities studies can be interested in both biological explanations and cultural ones. The development of singing, to take an example from Scruton, seems to me very interesting. I want to know about the biological impulses and struggles that singing expresses, and I want to know about the arrangement of pitched sounds. Why that arrangement? What makes it as powerful as it is? What are its precursors? How has it spread and changed in culture?
We can, I submit, both learn about art and learn from it. And we can engage art (whether painting, literature, or a sense of beauty) productively without mystifying or aggrandizing it. Scruton's position betrays intellectual authoritarianism and parochialism. It's a position of entrenched power fearfully struggling to maintain hegemony.