Philip Kitcher: Why History and the Humanities are Also a Form of Knowledge.

Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Ethical Project (Harvard University Press). This article appeared in the May 24, 2012 issue of the magazine.

...Since the 1960s, historians have worked—and debated—to bring into focus the events of the night of February 13, 1945, in which an Allied bombing attack devastated the strategically irrelevant city of Dresden. An increased understanding of the decisions that led to the fire-bombing, and of the composition of the Dresden population that suffered the consequences, have altered subsequent judgments about the conduct of war. The critical light of history has been reflected in the contributions of novelists and critics, and of theorists of human rights. Social and political changes, in other words, followed the results of humanistic inquiry, and were intertwined with the reconciliatory efforts of the citizens of Coventry and Dresden. Even music and poetry played roles in this process: what history has taught us is reinforced by the lines from Wilfred Owen that Britten chose as the epigraph for his score—“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.”It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.”

The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, “scientism” has been criticized for its “mutilation” (Verstümmelung, in Dilthey’s memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.

The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

These familiar observations have the unfortunate effect of transforming differences of degree into differences of kind, as enthusiasts for the alleged superiority of natural science readily succumb to stereotypes and over-generalizations, without regard for more subtle explanations. Let us consider the five foundations of this mistake in order....

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