The transformation of science from a method to a metaphysic?
It is a platitude that we cannot defend the humanities without slipping into platitudes. Why is that? Part of the answer involves the corrosive impact of contemporary intellectual fashion. We are besieged by a resurgence of positivist scientism—the transformation of science from a method to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions. Yet while pop-neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists, and other defenders of quantifiable certainty have beaten back postmodern philosophical critiques, the postmodern style of ironic detachment has flourished. The recoil from modernist high seriousness, epitomized by the turn from Abstract Expressionist painting to Pop Art, has persisted long after Andy Warhol displaced Jackson Pollock as the celebrity artist du jour. As a signifier of the dominant cultural tone, the furrowed brow has been largely eclipsed by the knowing smirk. The commitment to searching out deep truths has yielded to the celebration of playing with surfaces (in the arts) or solving problems (in the sciences). The merger of postmodern irony and positivist scientism has been underwritten by neoliberal capitalism—whose only standard of value is market utility.
This convergence of postmodern style, positivist epistemology, and neoliberal political economy has turned a whole class of words into the stuff of platitude. Old words that used to mean something—ideals, meaning, character, self, soul—have come to seem mere floating signifiers, counters in a game played by commencement speakers and college catalogs. Vague and variable as their meanings may have been, there was a time when the big words of the humanities still carried weight. They sustained yearnings and aspirations; they sanctioned the notion that the four-year transition from adolescence to adulthood might be a time of exploration and experiment.
How times have changed. Nowadays “speak truth to power” has to be placed in inverted commas, to distance us from its earnestness. Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé. More.
Class, discuss. 😉
See also: Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away
“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”
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