Who Isn’t Interdisciplinary?

This from the NY Times, yesterday, on a new curriculum at SUNY Binghamton intended to narrow the “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between the arts and sciences. Strangely, the SUNY website points not to an internal website or press release but to the Times article but maybe something will be posted soon.

It seems to me, meanwhile, that we’ve been interdisciplinary for a while, now, for at least as long as I’ve been involved in the humanities, which is going on 20 years. In the most simplistic terms, it’s hard to study architecture (either its practice or its history) without at least a basic knowledge of physics, and art conservation is surely the poster child for fields that combine a study of the arts and the hard sciences, requiring a deep knowledge both of chemistry and art history. Historical archaeology requires facility both in traditional documentary research as well as empirical–one might say scientific–analysis of artifacts. Both history and archaeology embraced statistics long enough ago that quantitative methods have started to lose favor in some quarters. Of course, many archaeologists describe themselves as scientists, so maybe that’s not a fair example.

But in literary studies, maybe it is true that scientific methods haven’t caught fire to the same degree, and that their use still requires some cheerleading to be taken seriously. It’s hard to see how anyone could argue that systematic, empirical study can’t help interpret the written word. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that there have long been empricists working on texts, such as lexicographers and philologists (to say nothing of linguists), though such work has seemingly fallen out of favor in the academy. If it enjoys a renaissance in this 21st century, it will be largely thanks to the efforts of people like Willard McCarty, Jerome McGann, and Geoffrey Rockwell, who have all thoroughly embraced the use of computers to analyze literary texts, and made significant inroads in the kind of bridge-building that the SUNY curriculum seemingly aims to do.

There’s a problem, here, however, which is the presumption that disciplines are stable, discrete entities that define a methodologically coherent body of work. To be sure, different subjects call for different strategies of analysis but scholars are always on the prowl for new tools to shed light on their material. Disciplinary boundaries are highly fluid. What thoughtful art historian doesn’t read fiction, and doesn’t trawl through the archives? The question regarding evidence is always: is it relevant? The question regarding method is: is it useful? A study of still-life painting benefits from a solid knowledge of flora and contemporary scientific illustration but not so much from molecular physics.

Certainly, ensuring that students have a high level of facility with different intellectual traditions is a good idea, as is the presumed goal of diminishing the insularity and attendant arrogance that sometimes infects disciplinary partisans. But it does seem to me that there are multiple ways of achieving this goal and that the notion of a war between science and humanism is getting a little tired. In fact, the very notion of “a gulf of mutual incomprehensibility” excuses a lack of curiosity, and perhaps allows the kind of intellectual laziness that failed to vet Alan Sokal’s famous submission to Social Text with any scientists. (it might also be said, echoing Stanley Fish, that Sokal’s presumption that the entire field of Cultural Studies was learned nonsense suggests his own lack of rigor and curiosity).

The Sokal hoax raises another point, which is that a discipline always represents a strategy for and a claim about knowledge: “here is what one needs to know about to understand this thing.” One strategy, certainly, is what Sokal criticizes as a kind of willful ignorance on the grounds that understanding is always a fabrication: “there is nothing outside of the text.” Another approach, which presumes that at least a provisional understanding is possible, is more archaeological, or hermeneutic: “everything is context.”

Before I lose the train of thought entirely, what, in the end, is at the heart of the supposed gap in understanding between scientists and humanists? I confess that I don’t hear scientists worrying about this much, the Sokal example notwithstanding, though I don’t spend much time, these days, with scientists. Are scientists really wringing their hands over their inability to comprehend the latest scholarship on Jane Austen, or Frank Furness? And what, after all, do humanists have to offer scientists? Most of the efforts I know about involve importing scholarly strategies from the hard sciences into the humnanities, not the other way around. To be sure, humanists have much to offer sociologists and philosophers of science, and perhaps more to offer to the political discourse on science, but what we bring to the study of the natural world itself, or its abstractions in mathematics, remains unclear.

So is the significant distinction, finally, not between scientific and humanistic thought but between quantitative and qualitative scholarship? Or is it something else entirely? What is the point, here, beyond ensuring that students have broad exposure to different styles of reasoning and different methods for making sense of the world?

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