Thursday, August 23, 2007

On Mansfield's 2007 Jefferson Lecture

Later this fall, I'll be giving a lecture as part of the celebration surrounding Bennington College's 75th Anniversary. (Listening to lectures is considered to be a celebratory activity in academia.) I'm still considering what to talk about. The temptation is always there to do something with "the two cultures," or (particularly in the Bennington environment) to address art/science connections. But it's hard to avoid tepid generalities in that sphere. As a reminder of what not to do, I clipped the following paragraph from Harvey Mansfield's 2007 Jefferson Lecture, "How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science". (See also the 05/09/07 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.) Mansfield is a famous Harvard political scientist, but the first time I heard of him was in connection with his amusing system for assigning "ironic grades" in his courses, which made the papers a few years ago.

In this passage from the lecture, Mansfield is contrasting literature with science:

Literature, to repeat, besides seeking truth, also seeks to entertain - and why is this? The reason is not so much that some people have a base talent for telling stories and can't keep quiet. The reason, fundamentally, is that literature knows something that science does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth. Science does not inform scientists of this basic fact, and most of them are too consistent in devotion to science to learn it from any source outside science such as common sense. The wisdom of literature arises mainly from its attention to this point. To overcome the resistance to truth, literature makes use of fictions that are images of truth. To understand the fictions requires interpretation, an operation that literature welcomes and science hates for the same reason: that interpreters disagree. Literature is open to different degrees of understanding from a child's to a philosopher's, and yet somehow has something for everyone, whereas science achieves universality by speaking without rhetoric in a monotone, and succeeds in addressing only the company of scientists. Science is unable to reach the major part of humanity except by providing us with its obvious benefits. Literature takes on the big questions of human life that science ignores - what to do about a boring husband, for example. Science studies the very small and the very large, surely material for drama but not exploited by science because in its view the measure of small and large is merely human. Literature offers evidence for its insights from the observations of writers, above all from the judgment of great writers. These insights are replicable to readers according to their competence without the guarantee of scientific method that what one scientist sends is the same as what another receives. While science aims at agreement among scientists, in literature as in philosophy the greatest names disagree with one another.

One clue that this is gibberish is that you can interchange the words "science" and "literature" everywhere in this paragraph, and many of the resulting sentences remain true. Here are a few truisms resulting from this search-and-replace operation:

1. Science knows something that literature does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth.

Galileo knew this well. (So do you, if you've ever argued with a Creationist.)

2. Science is open to different degrees of understanding from a child's to a philosopher's.

We are obviously teaching children something in fifth-grade science class. And I'm guessing that that something

3. Literature is unable to reach the major part of humanity.

This truism holds because the major part of humanity doesn't read literature.

Well, I should qualify that: the major part of American humanity doesn't read literature. The 2004 NEA study Reading at Risk concluded that only slightly more than a third of adult males now read literature. Overall, less than half of adults in the study read any literature during 2002, the year covered by the questionnaire. "Reading literature" here means reading any novels, plays, short stories, or poetry. For example, reading a Left Behind novel would count as reading literature, for the purposes of the study.

It is a sad thing to realize that literature is unable to reach the major part of humanity, just as it is a sad thing to realize that science is unable to reach the major part of humanity. But I don't think that the explanations for either circumstance are to be found within science and literature themselves.

4. Science takes on the big questions of human life that literature ignores.

Where did it all come from...what is it all made of...where is it all going...what control can we exert over the forces that buffet us...why cannot my father raise himself from his bed?

These, I would argue, are some very big questions of human life, which literature can take up, but not take on.

5. In science as in philosophy the greatest names disagree with one another.

I think of the Einstein-Bohr debates...or of the debate between Einstein and Newton, which unfolded over centuries.

6. Science, besides seeking truth, seeks to entertain.

Guess what: science is fun. And maybe I'm a rarity for trying to use a little rhetoric and trying to avoid monotone in my scientific papers, but I don't think so. We all compete for each other's attention, and a little zip in the sauce never hurts. It's no different in the marketplace of scientific advances. For that matter, I think that excellent writing can be the clearest and most effective writing, even in a purely scientific context.

We could go on like this, but I have probably already become boring, so let me try to wrap this up quickly. (Also the semester is about to start, so I'd better get hopping on that.)

The question I came away with after reading this paragraph is, What does Mansfield think science is? By "science" he seems to mean some corpus of settled material, with its dry prose and careful skirting of controversy. He seems never to have witnessed the liveliness of scientists in their actual milieu: their daily bushwhacking along a dark and bewildering research frontier, as well as their Friday afternoon gab sessions, when everybody kicks back and debates the big picture. Listen in on one of these conversations, and you will realize that even two coauthors on the same journal article can differ importantly in the way they view their results.

Mansfield seems to view scientists as dispassionate masters of a circumscribed and uncontroversial text. But scientists disagree constantly with one another and argue heatedly amongst themselves, sometimes even about textbook material. Scientists also spend 90% of their day confused and off-balance: at a loss to understand their data; crumpling up the fiftieth attempt to get a calculation right. But no one in Mansfield's part of the campus seems to see their struggle and confusion; no one registers the rise and fall of their anxieties and ambitions. Perhaps this is because the scientists run academia now, and it is not in their interests to let their humanity show.

1 comment:

Jilly said...

"if you can't give me poetry, can't you give me 'poetical science?'"
--Ada Lovelace

[why does the comparison have to be so binary? pun intended.]