Some years ago, when I was teaching in a respected department in a prestigious university in one of the older states of the union (note how nimbly I pirouette past specifics there), a slightly more senior member of the faculty stopped me in the hallway to trade brief pleasantries. After a moment, seeing that I had a copy of Byron’s Don Juan in my hand, he pointed at it, blandly remarked that it was an interesting object, and then asked, “What are you reading that for ?” One really has to stress and slightly elongate that final word in one’s imagination to hear the question with the proper intonation and intention. He was asking me, in the argot of the academic tribe, what course I had to teach, or what paper I had to write, or to what tedious scholarly necessity I had to truckle, in order to be thus obliged to spend time with a volume so clearly outside the purview of our official discipline.

When I replied—quite guilelessly—that I was reading it for pleasure, he smiled indulgently, nodded, said, “Of course,” and then added, “But, really, why are you using it?” When I repeated that my only purpose was the enjoyment of reading it, the faint sparkle of geniality faded from his eyes, his expression became grave and pensive, and he stared at me in silence for several seconds, as though I had said something outlandish and perhaps a little depraved; then he sighed; then he looked about him to see if anyone else might be walking past. “Well,” he said at last, turning a gaze wan with indifference back in my direction, “is it any good?”

A boring anecdote, perhaps, and probably a little self-serving (at least, I hope it is). But the memory of that conversation has remained with me simply because it seems so perfectly emblematic of current academic culture. And it came to my mind last week when I began reading through the recent exchanges between Leon Wieseltier and Steven Pinker in the New Republic over “scientism” and the threat—as the former saw it—of the attempt of some scholars to subjugate every sphere of inquiry to the quantitative methods of the empirical sciences, and thereby to treat all the distinctive forms of humane inquiry as intrinsically provisional and ultimately worthless.

I am not sure the debate as it was actually prosecuted accomplished all that much, or that both sides were always talking about the same things, but in a general way I am of course on Wieseltier’s side. There is indeed such a thing as “scientism,” a barbarous fundamentalism regarding what qualifies as true knowledge or even true inquiry, and in its purest form it does inexorably tend towards an “eliminativist” view of all those quaint “folk” discourses that lie outside the sciences.

There really are those out there for whom a poem or a sonata or a sculpture is nothing but an objectively ponderable collection of molecules processed through a series of electrochemical events in accord with certain neurobiological constants, all as determined by a vast set of wholly physical contingencies. There are those who think Plato’s allegory of the cave is little more than a defective attempt to explain the physical structure of the universe. And there are those who take the risible pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology seriously, and believe that every aspect of culture, cultural history, politics, religion, social convention, and so on is more or less wholly explicable in terms of beneficial evolutionary adaptations (if one can only dream up the right Just So story).

So Wieseltier is quite right to insist—as he should not need to do—that there are innumerable dimensions of cultural experience, exploration, and creativity that exist at levels of such formal complexity, and that are so rich in hermeneutical intricacy, and that demand from us such diverse modes of reflection, that they can never be reduced to any mere calculus of particulate physical causes. And he is certainly right to make a case for the rational integrity of the humanities, their necessary heterogeneity, their autonomy, their openness to one another, the endlessly new perspectives they call forth, and so on. But I should also point out that the only sort of person who would disagree with any of that is, quite simply, a philistine. A person whose sensibility is so obtuse and impoverished that he really believes that the only significant questions in life are questions of mass and force and neurological correlates and natural selection is no more likely to be persuaded to appreciate the special logic and dignity of humane learning than a congenitally color-blind person is likely to learn to appreciate the exquisite layerings of color in a Chardin or the chromatic choreographies in a Whistler.

In the end, however, I am not sure how much of a threat such persons genuinely pose. When one takes more than a cursory look at the interventions those of “scientistic” leanings attempt to make in the humanities, they invariably turn out to be so simplistic and feeble that no one of any discernment is going to waste much time with them. They simply add nothing germane or even interesting to the discussion. More to the point, it is difficult to imagine what harm such persons could do to the humanities as a whole, especially in the academic world, that the humanities have not already done to themselves with quite devastating thoroughness. The image of the world of humane scholarship that Wieseltier’s columns summon up is moving, but whether that world still exists in any but marginal and fugitive form is doubtful.

When C. P. Snow began warning, in the late fifties, of the dire consequences that would follow from the bifurcation of Western society into “two cultures”—that of the sciences and that of the humanities—he was describing an opposition between what could plausibly be viewed as two integral wholes. There may really have been, even if in an already somewhat imperiled condition, a common world of humane scholarship, whose inhabitants occupied their own local fields, but with the expectation that they would have some awareness and competency in other fields as well. There was, that is to say, enough of a community of discourse that it was imaginable that a philosopher, a classicist, a theologian, an historian, and a scholar of English poetry could pick up their copies of, say, Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being and all find themselves entirely at home among its philosophical, classical, theological, historical, and poetical allusions and citations. Somewhere a single great conversation—motley, multifarious, polyphonic, at once both discordant and harmonious—was still taking place. But how many scholars in the humanities today care about the humanities as a whole?

I am not denying that there are certain accomplished individuals in the scholarly world whose interests are wider than the special concerns of their guilds. But the ethos of the academy, especially in the humanities, has for decades now been one of aggressive specialization—or, better, fragmentation. As a unified realm of intellectual endeavor, or at least as a community of souls concerned in their differing ways with the same perennial mysteries and marvels, the humanities no longer have an institutional existence. There are discrete disciplines, comprising discrete subdisciplines, hermetically sealed against one another, jealous of their borders and of their distinctive methods and territories and inalienable apanages, and ignorant of one another almost on principle. And that means, of course, that a great many scholars in the humanities are effectively ignorant of even their own fields, since culture is not really divisible in that way. I have known many historians of ancient and medieval art, but very few who had any real grasp of ancient or medieval culture. Even the most celebrated of Milton scholars tend to possess only the most confused concepts of the theological themes and classical sources that so vitally informed Milton’s poetic vision. Show me an academic philosopher who can quote five lines of English verse, and I will show you a fellow nearing retirement whose younger colleagues refer to him as “the relic.”

This is all fairly well known, I suppose. It is no great secret that “theory” became so dominant a force in the humanities from the late seventies onward largely because it does not require scholars actually to know very much about anything. And the chief cause of the fragmentation of the humanities is not hard to find: In the past, a humane scholar was someone who had grown up in a place called Western Civilization and then, at a certain appropriate age, had elected to explore one aspect of that civilization with particular intensity and precision. Today, no matter what their individual gifts, most young scholars come into the academic world out of the nowhere and nothing of late modernity; they can learn how to play among the fragments, but they have never had any experience of the whole.

Again, though, it is an honorable thing for Wieseltier to try to defend the integrity, dignity, and independence of the humanities against what he sees as the barbarians clamoring at the gates. But the truth is that, inside the walls, much of the city already lies in ruins. 

Articles by David Bentley Hart