Progress and Values in the Humanities

Progress and Values in the Humanities: Comparing Culture and Science

Volney Gay
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/gay-14790
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  • Book Info
    Progress and Values in the Humanities
    Book Description:

    Money and support tend to flow in the direction of economics, science, and other academic departments that demonstrate measurable "progress." The humanities, on the other hand, offer more abstract and uncertain outcomes. A humanist's objects of study are more obscure in certain ways than pathogens and cells. Consequently, it seems as if the humanities never truly progress. Is this a fair assessment?

    By comparing objects of science, such as the brain, the galaxy, the amoeba, and the quark, with objects of humanistic inquiry, such as the poem, the photograph, the belief, and the philosophical concept, Volney Gay reestablishes a fundamental distinction between science and the humanities. He frees the latter from its pursuit of material-based progress and restores its disciplines to a place of privilege and respect. Using the metaphor of magnification, Gay shows that, while we can investigate natural objects to the limits of imaging capacity, magnifying cultural objects dissolves them into noise. In other words, cultural objects can be studied only within their contexts and through the prism of metaphor and narrative.

    Gathering examples from literature, art, film, philosophy, religion, science, and psychoanalysis, Gay builds a new justification for the humanities. By revealing the unseen and making abstract ideas tangible, the arts create meaningful wholes, which itself is a form of progress.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51981-6
    Subjects: General Science, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-7)

    The campus is quiet in the morning. A university police car glides across an empty parking lot, the end of the night shift. Steam rises from my carryout coffee as I wait for the walk signal on 21st Avenue. I peer across the street at three buildings in front of me. On the right, against the gray sky, I see the spire of Vanderbilt Divinity School. It is a brick three-story building constructed in 1960. It houses some 30 professors and serves 180 divinity students and about 100 graduate students. Directly in front of me is Vanderbilt’s central library—abrick...

  5. 1. A NEW ANSWER
    (pp. 8-31)

    The question of progress in the humanities is an ancient one. To offer a new answer, I suggest we compare the objects of humanistic inquiry to the objects of natural science. They are radically different. To show this, I use an unusual device: the magnifying lens. Using the magnifying lens, we can distinguish two types of object: one type (objects amenable to natural science) can sustain magnification; the other type (objects typical of humanistic inquiry) cannot. I demonstrate this thesis in two slide shows; the short version summarized above, and a longer version entitled “Magnification” on my web page.¹ These...

  6. 2. MAGNIFICATION AND CULTURAL OBJECTS
    (pp. 32-52)

    In the previous chapter, I argued against the notion of “depth” in depth psychology and similar forms of humanistic inquiry. It serves little purpose when we use it to think about progress in the humanities. I have not concluded, therefore, that there can be no progress in humanistic enterprises. On the contrary, we can point to numerous moments of humanistic success. They are not cumulative in the way that science is. This demarcates something important about humanistic enterprises, namely that they begin anew with each new generation.

    Of course, we can draw on humanistic traditions. In subsequent chapters, we will...

  7. 3. BACK TO FREUD, BACK TO THE GREEKS!
    (pp. 53-78)

    It is easy to say what counts as progress in some endeavors: an economy progresses when it produces more wealth and better jobs, when the standard of living goes up and child mortality goes down. A science progresses when its theories explain more, with fewer anomalies, and it enhances our ability to control phenomena of interest. Medical science progresses when it helps increase the quality of life and eliminates a disease like polio. In all these cases we feel justified in using the word progress because we can cite agreed-upon measures of success. Poverty, ignorance of natural laws, diseases and...

  8. 4. SEVEN OF NINE AND FIVE OF NINE
    (pp. 79-107)

    The good clinician, like the good pastor or rabbi of religious traditions, learns quickly that to help people get better we must link them to their and our myths, that is, to our narratives. For American psychiatrists and many psychotherapists, this means we should use the “five-of-nine” rule and similar rules announced in the DSM-IV, the bible of psychiatry. However, by doing so we find ourselves uncannily associated with science fiction and religion and their vast efforts to solve the problem of human being. Neither science fiction authors nor we can wait for rigorous science to solve questions that arise...

  9. 5. CANALS ON MARS: EXPLORING IMAGINARY WORLDS
    (pp. 108-132)

    The primary task of the humanities, especially the arts, and theories about the arts, the work of humanistic research and scholarship, is to help us understand what it means to be a human being. This has two consequences for the issue of progress in the humanities. The first is epistemological. Anyone confronting this kind of gap, this murky area of not-knowing, whether labeled humanist or scientist or historian, will tend to project onto the noise one’s favorite theory. The second is that in confronting this epistemological gap we often rely upon “great” persons whose intuitions about human being offer plausible,...

  10. 6. SEARCHING FOR ESSENCES: FREUD AND WITTGENSTEIN
    (pp. 133-160)

    Sigmund Freud, still the most cited person in psychology, began as a scientist looking intensely at the nervous system. The need to earn a living to support his family, and perhaps Viennese anti-Semitism, drove him out of the research university and into private medical practice. There, treating neurotic patients, he developed the discipline that was to become psychoanalysis. In doing so, Freud moved from the study of a natural object, the nervous system organized like all natural objects into hierarchies, to the study of the brain and the mind, the latter a natural object and a cultural object. To the...

  11. 7. HIGH ART AND THE POWER TO GUESS THE UNSEEN FROM THE SEEN
    (pp. 161-198)

    “There’s my hometown!” I shout. I catch a murder mystery set in Portland, Oregon. It’s about a pretty woman, a handsome man, and a villain hell-bent on harming her. Also, her outdoor furniture, it happens, is the kind I’d bought a month before. “Look!” I announce to the room, “There’s Sellwood Bridge! I rode across it every day going to college.” These insights are pleasurable to me alone. Others, no matter how kindly disposed, do not find scenes of a bridge and rainy streets interesting. My fascination with Portland defines sentimentality. Like other people’s photos of their grandkids, my recollections...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 199-226)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 227-232)