In Praise of the Real:
Reforming the Humanities
We are in the midst of a remarkable surge of interest in the classics: witness the crowds pushing into Old Master art exhibitions, the craze for serious music, popular TV documentaries on the Civil War and the West, the lines outside Shakespeare and Austen movies, the spread of huge and profitable bookstores. Mercury, the Roman god of the market, seems to be demanding the goods that the humanities have always shyly guarded. But at exactly the same time public support for the academic humanities is dwindling. Institutions have no divinely appointed claim to custodianship over the cultural resources they claim. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Anglican Church was the automatic destination for Englishmen with literary and intellectual gifts; to “get a place” was the preoccupation of every young poet. Vast multivolume collections of calf-bound sermons were ranged in stately bookcases; universities took it as their prime function to prepare budding clergy for their duties. But by the mid nineteenth century everything had changed. In fifty years the Church somehow rendered itself intellectually and culturally irrelevant; in another fity years the C of E vicar was a laughing-stock; and in fifty more the seemingly endless financial holdings of the Church had evaporated. I fear that the same thing is going to happen to the academic humanities. Public support, not power, is what keeps an institution vital, as the Soviet Union discovered in the eighties; and public support follows whatever combines the imaginatively exciting with the practically relevant.
What does the public want that we are not giving it? I have been canvassing the views of graduate students and ex-graduate students in the humanities–the most discerning and crucial public we have–and the diagnosis is gloomy. The problem is not fundamentally the lack of jobs in the profession; humanities graduates now have no illusions on that score. Students enter the humanities because of love: love for books, for the search for truth, for the play of the imagination, for the serenity of spiritual goodness. What they often encounter is precisely what they made huge sacrifices to escape: a contempt for books, a total disregard of the the truth, an ideological suspicion of the creativc imagination, and an institutionally approved culture of politics, factionalism, grievance, opportunism, and cynicism. Many of the best humanities graduates have left the field or adopted corrupting modes of lip-service to their poststructuralist professors. Who can blame them, when Management and Business Administration are sometimes more humane and more realistic, and have a better sense of humor?
Of course I am describing things at their worst; I am constantly amazed by the splendid scholars, the live minds, and excellent human beings that I meet in the profession. But a visit to an MLA annual conference will quickly convince any doubter that the humanities are in deep trouble, and that there is a need for those who love them to figure out where we went wrong, restructure many of our presuppositions, and justify our claim to guard and interpret the enormous riches of the world’s cultural heritage.
How we got here is not that important, and in any case is becoming fairly clear. Intellectually the reduction of meaning to structure urged by the New Critics and Structuralists diminished works of art to mere texts, orphaned of author and referent, and fatally vulnerable to the corrosive acids of deconstruction. In their fragmented and relativistic state texts could now be interpreted only in terms of the interests of the regime under which they formed themselves. These developments coincided with the theories of speech acts, performatives, and language games in semiotics, which in turn linked up with the idea of the closed hermeneutic circle to cut language off altogether from any putative real world, and thus to isolate any discourse from the possibility of outside criticism. We were confined to the episteme, the regime of power and knowledge, in which we were programmed. But knowledge itself, declared the likes of Paul Feyerabend, was just a reflection of the political interests of scientists and scholars. Power, in fact, became the only reality in the humanities.
Now power is also the central idea of the scientific discipline of dynamics. For the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution science was the realm of cause; force was the way that cause operated, and power was what exerted the force. Cause was deterministic and one-way; in theory, a calculator–such as the Laplace Calculator, an ideal prediction machine programmed with the positions and momenta of all particles in the universe–could predict every future event, including all human actions and thoughts. The humanities were instituted at the instigation of such thinkers as Kant and Schiller, seeking to preserve a space for the discussion of the uncaused, unpredictable, and free–for the playful, the aesthetic and the moral.
But since that time science has undergone a profound revolution. Though indeed dynamics–and its statistical and time-dependent version, thermodynamics–still hold in isolated locations, they are now seen as idealizations only partly fulfilled in a real universe that is fundamentally unpredictable and free. Cause is now only one of a number of types of connection between events, including quantum coherence and statistical wave harmonics, far-from equilibrium thermodynamic catastrophes, nonlinear bifurcation, evolutionary emergence, and self-organization within strange attractors. The world according to scientists is no longer one of deterministic one-way power, in which A forces B to become C at the thermodynamic cost of D units of loss to friction and E units of entropic decay. It is becoming one much more like the realm of the traditional arts, of creative growth and emergence, of organically shifting frames of reference, of evolutionary development, mutual influence, and continuous retrospectively intelligible but prospectively surprising change.
Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities now profess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is as incompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universe to be. It might seem madness for untrained academics, without numbers, industrial base, or weapons of war, to invite combat in the opposition’s own terms with the great armed potentates of the world, but this is what the humanistic academy has done; it is like a Pekinese barking out of a window at a cement truck. But this is where the “logic of the humanities,” in Cassirer’s phrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginning with presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art and moral action. For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route by which it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in the power of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism.
But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanistic savants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over a century of largely misguided theory–and thus partly tainted research–in the humanities, and put the field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in better shape than we found it.
Let us admit openly, then, that our field is in trouble, and that its chief problem is a loss of contact with reality. We are a nation of laws; as citizens we subscribe to the legal system. Reality is legally defined as what is scientifically verifiable; hence we teach evolution in high-school biology, not scientific creationism. The humanities, however, are now teaching that reality is entirely relative to the culture and gender of the knower; our humanist professors are thus as far removed from fact as the most “biblical literalist” sect. That loss of contact with reality is also a loss of contact with the public–a failure to perform the mandate, bought and paid for fair and square by the people of our states and nation, of educating and civilizing the young, and acting as the repository and conduit of the cultural heritage. If we wish to do something else, we should not take the public’s money, and it is actually dishonest and immoral to do so. In the process we have suffered a decay of standards and of the empirical and logical canons of scholarly proof; the average MLA paper is a tissue of non-sequiturs and assumptions of what it wishes to prove.
I propose that we refound the humanities on the sciences. There are various routes by which we might recover the connection. The first is the anthropological path, retracing the roots of human arts and other activities through the oral tradition, folklore, cross-cultural anthropology, performance theory, ethnodrama, the study of human and animal ritual, archeology and human evolution. The second is the neuroscience route, the study of the neurobiological foundations of esthetic experience, language, meaning, perception, experience, etc. The third is the chaos theory route: using the powerful new sciences of complexity and nonlinear dynamics, we might develop a general vocabulary of creative emergence. The fourth is the information theory and cybernetic route: learning from the extraordinary difficulties and successes of computer science in modeling the human mind, we might develop a deeper theory of literary meaning. This approach might include game theory, and the information theory of Claude Shannon and John von Neumann. The fifth is the ecoscience route: the study of the humanities as a complex ecological system, recently emergent upon the planet, in the context of other living organisms, especially domesticated plants and animals.
Of course such a refounding would be fraught with difficulties. Perhaps the greatest would be simply professional pride. It is hard to eat crow and acknowledge that Naturwissenschaft had a better path to the workings of the human spirit than did Geisteswissenschaft, that the study of the neurobiology of perception tells us more about our experience than does the humanistic field of phenomenology. But the rewards are enormous and we have little left to lose.
If we seek for scientific foundations, there are those who would raise theoretical and political objections to foundations and foundationalism. The answer is that all contemporary antifoundationalisms, however poststructuralist, are already foundationalisms in disguise–often good enough to fool themselves. It is part of the orthodoxy of contemporary avant-garde thought that one should claim to be “anti-foundationalist.” Antifoundationalism is the claim that there is no prior presence or authority or transcendental signified to base our ideas and actions on–and that one can therefore think and do what one likes. The postmodern humanities have tolerated, under the broad umbrella of antifoundationalism, a variety of positions whose radical contradictions are starkly revealed when we consider them together.
Let us briefly list some antifoundationalist positions. One maintains that since everything we can know depends on how we see it, there is no fundamental reality (phenomenology). A second reminds us of Wittgenstein’s dicta: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” and “the limits of my language are the limits of the world,” ignoring the subtle and deliberate self-contradictions in both aphorisms, and maintains therefore that since everything we say depends on how we say it, there is no fundamental reality (linguistic philosophy, deconstruction). A third points out that because everything is dependent on its context within a structure, there is no fundamental reality (structuralism). A fourth sardonically points out that whenever anyone says anything, they are naturally following their socioeconomic interests, partly crystallized into the form of cultural values, and that therefore there is no fundamental reality (Foucauldian discourse analysis, neomarxism). A fifth reminds us that everything that is said is said in a determining historical context, and thus there is no fundamental reality (the new historicism). A sixth insists that the psyche that says anything is an illusory construction anyway, and that therefore there is no fundamental reality (the neofreudianisms of Lacan, Deleuze, and Guattari). A seventh denies the objectivity of science, because science is made up of a society of persons with ideological and economic interests, and therefore there is no fundamental reality (the scientific antifoundationalism of Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Habermas). An eighth points out that whoever says anything has a sex and a gender, usually male, that irremediably distorts what is said, and therefore there is no fundamental reality (feminist epistemology). And so on; and we can now add a ninth, that maintains that all human views of reality are only human views, and that since we cannot know how Nature sees things, there is no fundamental reality: the view of the radical Greens and Deep Ecologists, such as Arne Naess and George Sessions.
Of course the secret of all these antifoundationalisms is that they are really foundationalisms in disguise. Number one really says: sensation is the foundation. Number two says: language is the foundation. Number three says: the logic of structure is the foundation. Number four says: economic power backed up by coercion is the foundation. Number five says: history is the foundation. Number six says: psychological development is the foundation. Number seven says: the sociology of legitimation is the foundation. Number eight says: sex is the foundation. Number nine says: nature (excluding human beings) is the foundation.
Once we see the unspoken foundationalist assertion in each position, two things become immediately obvious. One is that a sort of competition is going on between specialized disciplines, conducted in rather peculiar terms: each delegitimizes the others by asserting the groundlessness of all assertion, while tacitly excepting its own point of view. It is is like contemporary political election campaigns, which do not so much assert the virtues of the candidate as the dishonesty of his or her opponent. A cynic might speculate that the motivations are not dissimilar, and that what is really at stake are tenured chairs, graduate fellowships, and full-time faculty lines; but this would be to fall into the neomarxist view. . . .
The other obvious conclusion is that stated in their positive form these positions do not particularly contradict each other. In theory, if the candidates did not impugn each other’s honesty, they might all be honest! And this conclusion might lead us, by an odd but perfectly legitimate turn of logic, to the positive assertion that all these implied foundations are indeed foundational–sensation, language, structure, power, history, psychology, legitimation, sex, and nature, and that probably there are dozens of other foundations as well. Foundations, then, need not be mutually exclusive; and the interesting thing might be to work out how all these foundations are related to each other. A universe crammed with partial foundations, that have not ceased to interact, and that thus leave open a huge future space where they are unpredictably going next–this is what we see if we escape the feverish loyalties of a particular ideological camp.
We might as well declare ourselves foundationalists, since we cannot avoid being so. But this does not answer the political objections to foundationalism–that it is authoritarian, restrictive, totalizing, etc. Is it really, though? Consider a view of the world which is anchored, relatively fixed, and unitary at one end, and open-ended, changeable and multiple at the other–a tree structure. This would give us the benefit of a common deep language and a protean and creative surface language. This is what I propose–a past that is relatively fixed and knowable, though never absolutely, and a future that can grow in whatever direction we and all other desiring and imagining beings may desire or imagine. Such a world is free enough for me; perhaps it is not free enough for you.
Let us reexamine the tenets of scientific realism, correct and modify it in the light of the germane modern and postmodern criticism, and adopt it as the basis for a renewal of the humanities. By realism I mean the position that there is a real world upon whose nature there can be reasonable agreement. Why realism? Why should this position, of all those available, meet our requirements? For various reasons. The first is that realism contains the assumption that there is such a thing as truth, and that truth can be legitimately sought and sometimes, in part, found. The concept of a truth that must be cooperatively inquired after, and which involves a submission of one’s private will to evidence and reasoning, is in itself ethically beneficial. It would be so, paradoxically, even in a universe with no inherent reality, subject totally–as in the view of poststructuralism–to individual and group perceptions of it, since it would encourage the self-doubt that breeds tolerance and accomodation. If I believe, as for instance the Nazis evidently did, that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so, then in Dostoyevsky’s words everything is permitted. Rorty’s and Habermas’s notion of a conversation without any belief in a reasonable conclusion about the truth of the matter requires a temperament, like theirs, which is already morally civilized by habit; it has no incentive to continue but for the eccentric pleasure some academics have in exercising their rather rare talent for discourse, and no way of defining moral evil but for the academic’s fear of losing an interesting conversational partner. If I were a Jew in a French village in 1942 when the S.S. arrives, whom would I trust to hide me–the neighbor who believes as Rorty does, or the Jehovah’s Witness whose belief in an absurd truth is absolute? I’d pick the Jehovah’s Witness.
But realism is superior to relativism on logical and cognitive grounds as well as moral ones. In evaluating different philosophical positions–even if we assume they have different canons of acceptability for their propositions, different axioms and different standards of proof–we are in a similar case to that of Gödel, confronted with the proposition “this statement is unprovable.” We can, in fact, with logical consistency declare the statement true but unprovable, thereby solving the paradox; but the solution requires the idea of truth itself. Thus it is reasonable to ask which of two positions is true, even if neither can prove that truth within its own system of axioms. If one system–relativism–contains an axiom that there is no such thing as truth, it will always rightly lose any contest for legitimate acceptance with a system in which truth is a possible term–even a system of absurd beliefs! Relativism is the only philosophical system that on its own admission must be less true than any other.
A third reason for the adoption of scientific realism is aesthetic. The universe as revealed by scientific inquiry is so beautiful and so remarkable that a discipline of the humanities which ignored it would be wretchedly impoverished. No cycle of cosmogonic myths, no tribal cosmology, no religious theology of creation, no totemism or animal fiction or artistic Peaceable Kingdom or courtly civilized game by itself can match it in majesty, subtlety of detail, splendor of general design, fractal depth and self-similarity, or gripping suspense of narrative. Speaking as a poet, there has never in the history of the world existed so rich and so unexploited a store of artistic materials as the present body of science. The myths, the cosmogonies, the theologies, the totemisms, the fictions, the utopias, the games–all those cultural worlds studied by the humanities–take on in fact a wildly richer and deeper significance when placed within the scientific narrative; their partial illuminations and local delights resonate into greater grandeur and pathos within the larger spaces of the real.
Indeed, a fourth reason to adopt realism as our foundation is, paradoxically, precisely to protect the integrity of the fantastic, the counterfactual, the surreal, the “imaginative.” If there is no distinction between reality and art, no dividing line between the regimes of power and knowledge and the inventions of the text, then nothing is safe from the totalitarianisms of the right and the left. Only if we accept the existence of the real can we permit the strange and subversive fictions of art. If a real act and an imaginary one are ontologically indistinguishable, then we should punish imaginary crimes just as severely as real ones–or not punish real crimes, and thus permit them. The present trend toward the evaluation of texts for political correctness–which, despite the opposition to it by principled intellectuals and the ridicule of the general public, continues apace–is not only the result of mediocrity’s hunger for power and philanthropy’s well-meaning attempt to legislate human nature. It is also, more fundamentally, the symptom of a sort of cultural psychosis, the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality; and the humanities must share the blame for trying to deligitimize reality. True fantasy can only exist where there is an open frontier, a realm where the writ of the real does not run; but that fantastic “state of nature,” that dreamland, absolutely requires that there be a country of waking reality from which we can escape and to which we can return to tell the story.
Related to this advantage is the fifth reason to adopt realism: it is the only worldview that has produced an intelligible account of creativity. When non-realist worldviews attribute all real creativity to God, they have no explanation or even language to express how he does it. Some non-realist worldviews, such as those of Parmenides, Plato, and some contemporary physicists, deny the reality of time, thus rendering creativity impossible. Approaches such as Lucretius’ brand of atomism, existentialism, phenomenology, idealism or logical positivism are usually either reduced to randomness as the only explanation of creativity, or else assert that everything is determined and thus that nothing can appear in the universe that is not the causal result of what went before. They thus, like the religious positions, turn creativity over to some original unmoved mover. Realism, however, postulates an actual universe changing in time, and thus made possible the theory of evolution, which, in its iterative feedback of mutational variation, selection, and hereditary reproduction, can create new entities and species in the universe, including those human productions that we now know to result from a similar evolutionary process in the human brain. Evolution is the only intelligible account of creativity. Other worldviews contain only one or two of the three necessary ingredients of evolution–the randomness of mutation, the determinism of selection, and the temporality of heredity; none of them has the essential method of combining them, the feedback process of iteration itself. In other words, realism is the only position which affords an explanation of how the subject of the humanities, that is, human creations, could come to be.
The final reason for the humanities to adopt realism is what has driven philosophers away from realism again and again–precisely those elements of heaviness, slowness, friction, clunkiness, death, occlusion, and darkness that bedevil our lives. We would much rather have this world be a miserable illusion from which we will wake, or be revealed to make a perfect inhuman sense under the surface. Worse still, realism does not give us a completely meaningless and disordered world either–it is exactly the most annoying mix of charming emergent meaning and encroaching mess one could imagine. The richest field of information is right where realism suspects it is: between the completely random, in which each element requires its own individual description, and the completely ordered, in which one formula describes them all. And that richness, that far-from-equilibrium condition, is generative of new forms of order, as Prigogine has shown. Worldviews such as existentialism and many poststructuralisms, that accept the world as totally meaningless, in urging us either to go with the flow of meaninglessness, or to assert our freedom by means of random gratuitous acts, are just a more sophisticated kind of escapism. Our actual experience always contradicts our revelations of the unity and simplicity of things; but it also gives us tantalizing hints of a reconciling perfection in the very midst of the chaos, and so contradicts any relaxation into the mess. Realism welcomes this most difficult of all possible worlds, and thus gives us the purchase, the resistance, the genuine pressure of otherness, the alienation that inspires the finest works of humankind. Morality requires dignity; there is no waste in the death of what has no dignity. And dignity comes from the weight we accumulate by the struggle to make meaning out of an only partly ordered world.
But this call for realism is not meant to turn back the clock. Excellent as are their ambitions and their political ethics, such bodies as the National Association of Scholars and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics have not absorbed many of the gifts of modern humanistic scholarship. The only twentieth century achievement they have fully accepted is the technique of close reading. But though individual members of these institutions may be exceptions, at the institutional level these bodies are essentially reactionary in the intellectual sense. Here are some of the things they have downplayed or would rather not think about in a systemic way.
The discovery of the categories of performative statements and speech acts.
Nonlinear logical systems, of the Gödelian type: self-referentiality and iteration are not just forms of infinite regress.
The powerful analogies between DNA and linguistic coding.
Neuroscience, endocrinology, immunology, neuropharmacology, and other humanistically-relevant human biological topics.
The study of human and animal ritual.
The neuroevolutionary basis of language and the arts.
Science fiction and SF criticism, the cultural effects of prolonged lifespans, space travel, cyberspace, etc.
Sociobiology and evolutionary aesthetics.
The theory and practice of interdisciplinarity in general.
The observer effect, including the challenge of Kuhnian “paradigm” theory to all claims of objectivity.
The interesting twentieth-century merging of epistemology with ontology.
Indeed, the realism I am proposing here will have to be profoundly modified, relative to traditional realisms. Since, as it appears, matter itself is a relatively late and not pervasive feature of physical reality, our realism cannot be a materialism. That is, information structures are more basic than matter; though the information structure that is matter is a prerequisite for any advanced development of higher information structures. Moreover, information structures are dynamic phenomena, and cannot exist except in a temporal medium provided by themselves and by their context.
More important, the challenge of paradigm theory, the observer effect, speech act theory, and the collapse of epistemology with ontology, which together have been taken to justify the presently dominant idea of the social construction of reality, is a real one. My suggestion is to accept the idea of the construction of reality, but to insist that we not be species-centered, or even carbon-based-lifeform-centered, in our qualifications for who or what gets to do the constructing. If observers vote on the constitution of the world, I would simply extend–or rather, recognize–the franchise and observerhood of everything else in the universe, from animals and plants to atoms and elementary particles. Thus for beings like ourselves who like to see things as texts, the universe is to some extent a text, but there are many entities that do not experience the world in those terms, and if we ignore them, we will come to grief. Feyerabend thought that humans constructed atoms; I would reply, yes, and atoms construct us also. Indeed, there are cases, as when Feyerabend’s own world-constructing activity entered into contest with that of his and the world’s molecules, when human observers lose the vote and must, tragically, die. Reality is consensual, yes; but the consensus rather massively includes all the energy and matter in all the stars and galaxies. Science is nothing more than the method by which we poll the vote of other world-constructors than ourselves; scientific knowledge is the sum of everything that has ever surprised us by turning out different from what we expected.
Thus we can keep the poststructuralist critique of objectivity with perfect conscience, while remaining able to assert the large truth of scientific laws as they are continuously refined and modified according to the evidence. Radical ethnic and feminist critiques of science remain valid but with a hugely reduced relevance, since the critics are always free to go canvass the nonhuman part of the real universe for themselves, and submit themselves to its arbitrement in the form of successful prediction; such postmodern critiques then become legitimate nitpicking. The new neuroscience shows us how subtly the human and animal brain compensates for any distortions in its perception, how the eye for instance corrects for perspectival errors; and evolutionary science shows how such a bias toward “objective” truth is dictated by species survival. The world provides, with its marvellous economy of structure and process, nine tenths of our intelligence; the senses are primarily the peripherals whereby we cannibalize that natural intelligence of the physical universe for our own. Mimesis in poetry and art is among other things an enhanced way of doing the same thing, to retrace the child’s tuition by nature.
Armed with such an epistemological realism, we will be able to renew the mission of the humanities. And it is a much-needed mission. Technology and the business economy desperately need the guidance of the humanities, not just as a corrective to check abuses, but as advice to improve their effectiveness and profitability. Huge changes, requiring the humanistic vision, are on the horizon or already here: biotechnology, cyberspace, gene therapy, neurotechnology, immortality, nanotechnology, the artificial enhancement of animal and human intelligence, possible life on other worlds, the colonization of planets, and so on. Our present linear conception of time itself is straining at the seams and may require to be modified by branchy or nonlinear additions, which have already been imaginatively explored by the artists and poets.
Most important of all, the market, “MERX”, the domain of the god Mercury and all his linguistic progeny–merchants, commerce, merchandise and the great free gift of Mercy–urgently needs to be rejoined with the realm of humanistic scholarship. All the statisms of socialism, communism, fascism, even state liberalism, are dying. The new century will be the age of the market, and it will be a market in which all mechanically-produced goods will have become vanishingly cheap. Where the money will be is in all the activities and services by which human beings charm one another or lead others to the great charms of the universe: cuisine, tourism, education, entertainment, adventure, religion, sport, fashion, art, history, movies, ritual, personal development, politics, the eternal soap opera of relationships. It will be an economy that is noncoercive, merciful, wealthy, global, and unpredictable. The market, with its free nonlinear continuous exchange of goods, ideas, and services, is the inheritor of natural evolution and shares in the biological capacity for emergent ordered complexity.
Mercury, the bearer of the snake-entwined rod of the caduceus, the DNA double helix of life, is not only the psychopomp who conducts us between life and death, the star at the threshold between night and day, the metal that flows and glitters, and the god of messengers, thieves, liars, and merchants. He is also, as Kit Marlowe and Shakespeare knew, the god of scholars and poets. Let us invoke the realism of Mercury for the humanities of the twenty-first century.