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SCIENCE AND THE HUMANITIES IN THE UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE
by Robert M. Young
It is an odd sensation giving an inaugural lecture four months before one's retirement. One consequence is that insofar as such lectures are promissory notes I trust you will agree that it would be prudent not promise to achieve much in the remainder of my tenure. Fortunately there are other purposes for such occasions. One is meant to stand back and take stock of something and locate one's place within a research tradition. Since I am so near the retiring age, I feel I have a special license. I can say more or less what I like. Not that what I have to say is particularly rude or retaliatory, but it does involve some plain speaking. Here is an example. The relationship between science and the humanities is in an awful mess, and if we don't sort it out the role of the universities in husbanding and enhancing human civility will probably wither away. Something similar is true of the wider culture. I have held important positions in three universities and have had major access to several media, in particular, publishing, television and radio. Throughout the nearly forty years I have been so placed, things have got more or less steadily worse, and the people in charge have, on the whole, accelerated that process. Our scientists do not learn enough in their education and training about the humanities, in particular, about the moral, political and ideological forces and issues from which their work emerges and into which it feeds. As C. P. Snow rightly observed in his memorable lecture on 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution', our arts people know even less about science and technology and are by turns sneering and culpably diffident. The people who try their damndest to mediate between the sciences and the humanities get sniped at and undermined from both sides. That is the space within which I have conducted my academic career. It's a case of something approaching killing the messenger.
I have had extensive education on both sides of this stupid divide. That has given me some interesting vantage points, and I have been present for some serious complacency. When I was in medical school I recall a professor beginning a lecture on cardiac dynamics with the remark, 'Before we get serious, let's have some history'. I have seen the eminent English don, F. R. Leavis, snarl at scientists, and I have been present when Watson, Crick, Brenner, Dawkins and Wolpert have haughtily said genuinely philistine things about philosophy, religion, social science and morality.
Now to my title. All of its key terms are problematic and fiercely debated. As to the first, the world view and boundaries of science are much disputed and are idealised and despised in different quarters. Learned scientific societies and promoters of the discipline calling itself 'the public understanding of science' assure us that there's nothing more exemplary of humanity's highest aspirations and achievements, while people who mount critiques of scientific and technological rationality claim that for all the achievements of science, technology and medicine, the world view underlying them is alienated and alienating and is leading to serious pollution, premature deployment of new developments, e.g., in pharmaceuticals and GM crops, and in debasement of the labour process, a subject upon which I have dwelt in several papers. The extension of the methods and assumptions of science beyond rather strictly drawn boundaries is called 'scientism', and it underpins reckless avoidance of the political and moral debates which should be part and parcel of scientific work at every stage from hunch to formulation and from funding to application. Scientists fiercely fight against what they consider to be the intrusion of politics and ideology into their putatively value-neutral and objective research, but the values are there, albeit often implicit. They do so with consequences which are often disastrous. I will return to some of the baleful consequences of the claimed separation of facts from values. My own position is that science, technology and medicine -- far from being value-neutral -- are the embodiment of values in theories, things and therapies, in facts and artifacts, in procedures and programs. I also believe that all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden and all values occur within an ideology or world view.
The humanities, my second key term, are conventionally set over against science in the prevailing world view and in the choices our children face at alarmingly young ages. I would welcome some comparative data on this matter, one which bears fundamentally on whether we can integrate our debates about values with our scientific and technical developments. The traditional definition of the humanities in Renaissance humanism included grammar, rhetoric, history, literature and moral philosophy. The rebirth which constituted the renaissance was a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin texts, the study of which was opposed to sterile mediaeval scholasticism. Our list of subjects in the humanities would be longer, reflecting the growth of disciplines in the 19 th and 20th centuries. As late as the mid-19th century one could only study mathematics, classics or divinity at Oxford and Cambridge. Universities such as this one -- so-called redbrick universities -- were created to broaden the base of university education to include the sciences and, above all, technology. Technological education has, relatively speaking, eschewed the arts cultivated by the leisured class, while technology has become more central to our lives in successive waves. Along with these developments the separation of the consideration of technological development from moral, aesthetic, political and ideological determinations has become increasingly problematic. This separation impoverishes those trained in science, technology and medicine, and ignorance of the scientific and technical side impoverishes those who study the humanities. It is a disastrous and growing split.
The essence of the humanities is the exploration, husbanding and conducting debates about values. That is central to literature, the theatre, fine art, much of philosophy, cultural studies, history, classical studies and much else. Our culture is riven. It is characterised by sharp dichotomies, each and every one of which is a false dichotomy, but our belief in them precludes unified deliberations about the scientific and the moral. Here is my list of them:
humanities - science
society - science
culture - nature
qualitative - quantitative
value - fact
purpose - mechanism
subject - object
internal - external
secondary- primary (qualities)
thought - extension
mind - body
character - behaviour
I will not have time on this occasion to explore all of these, but I will seek to undermine some of them.
To get to the bottom of the issue I will have to do what the Renaissance humanists did and try to recover some ancient wisdom. The separation of fact and value which we associate with modern science was an innovation in the seventeenth century. The framework of explanation which prevailed in ancient, mediaeval and Renaissance times was the Aristotelian one in which causes or aitia (literally, the 'comings to be' of things) always occurred in fours: the material, the efficient, the formal and the final cause. If you did not come up with all four causes you did not have an explanation. Most of them are familiar to our modern scheme, because versions of them were carried over into the paradigm of explanation of modern science. The material cause told you out of what raw materials the effect came -- the matter. Our modern concept of matter, including the periodic table of elements and of fundamental particles, corresponds to this. The material cause of an ordinary chair would be wood. The efficient cause is that which imparts energy to it and would include intrinsic ideas of energy not altogether unlike our own but also that which imparted change, in this case, the carpenter. The formal cause was hugely important in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, but we can only dwell on certain aspects -- what type it was, where is sits in a classification. The chair partakes of the form of 'chair-ness', but the formal cause can embrace architect's plans, formal arrangements, structures, shapes, types, taxonomies. There was a form for everything -- the good, the true, the beautiful, for humankind, for dishonourableness, for dirt, for shit. As I say, there were and still are huge debates about forms or types or concepts -- where they come from and how we get them into our heads. People like Locke, Piaget, Chomsky and, in psychoanalysis, Wilfred Bion, have pondered such things. The fourth and last explanatory factor was the purpose or use or aim and was called the final cause. The final cause of a chair is to provide somewhere to sit.
As I said, three of the four Aristotelian causes found their way into the explanatory paradigm of modern science, but the final cause or purpose was considered not objective and was split off and relegated to the mind of God and of people. It is not part of a scientific explanation, at least not a reductionist or materialist explanation. That's the official story at least, but it kept sneaking back in, for example, in functional explanations in anatomy, physiology and medicine, in evolutionary theory, in the functionalist tradition in the human sciences which was based on biological analogies, e.g., structures, functions, organic analogies. But make no mistake, strictly speaking, they had no place in the explanatory paradigm of materialist science which allowed only matter, motion and number.
René Descartes, whose Discourse on Method was published in 1637 and is often called the founding document of modern science, redefined the basic furniture of reality. He divided the world into two sorts of things -- extended substances and thinking substances. Extended substances had extension, figure and motion and made up the world of matter, while thinking substances were defined negatively as that which does not pertain to matter, and their essence was will. We were left with a world of minds and bodies — since called Cartesian dualism. This radical definition of reality was very useful for certain scientific purposes, but it left a dreadful legacy of unsolved problems, for example, how minds and bodies interact. Many, many philosophers have lamented this split. One of my favourites is Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote Science and the Modern World, in which he had this to say about the modern world view:
The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematicians, for the use of mathematicians… The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter… on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact.
Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the… scientific scheme of the seventeenth century (Whitehead, 1925, p. 70).
Edwin Arthur Burtt reflected on the consequences of this world view for any attempt at understanding human nature.
...it does seem like strange perversity in these Newtonian scientists to further their own conquests of external nature by loading on mind everything refractory to exact mathematical handling and thus rendering the latter still more difficult to study scientifically than it had been before. Did it never cross their minds that sooner or later people would appear who craved verifiable knowledge about mind in the same way they craved it about physical events, and who might reasonably curse their elder scientific brethren for buying easier success in their own enter enterprise by throwing extra handicaps in the way of their successors in social science? Apparently not; mind was to them a convenient receptacle for the refuse, the chips and whittlings of science, rather than a possible object of scientific knowledge (Burtt, 1932, pp. 318-19).
I have quoted the profound and searching critiques of Whitehead and Burtt to indicate where we need to look for the metaphysical foundations of the science-humanities split and the philosophical defensiveness of the human sciences. This is particularly pertinent to the restricted range of approaches to human nature adopted in most psychology departments, a feature which disappoints and bewilders many students. In a better world, for example, biography would be a discipline taught in psychology curricula, not to mention psychoanalysis.
Now we can begin to see why my research has had the trajectory it has. I set out to find a scientific basis for the moral and psychological issues which worried me as a young man. I thought I could do so by understanding the theoretical basis for the sciences underlying mental functions, i.e., brain physiology. That's why I studied the history of cerebral localization. The natural classification of the aspects of human nature would, I thought, be the natural classification of the functions of the brain. But the brain turned out not to speak its own classification. There are many overlays of mental functioning -- primary sensory modalities, balance, proprioception, higher mental functions, associations, emotional functions, etc. The more you think about it, the more you realize that you can ask the brain how it does anything; you can bring any overlay to it. There are as many psychologies as there are -- what? -- as there are views of human nature, as there are value systems, as there are ideologies or world views.
I did not see that far at first. I asked myself where classifications of mental functions came from. In research on cerebral function in the early and mid-19th century they came from physiognomy then phrenology, especially the work of Franz Joseph Gall, whom I studied for a time. The next generation created an evolutionary psychology inspired by Herbert Spencer, to whom Darwin deferred in matters of psychology, then aphasia research, then John Hughlings Jackson's clinical neurological studies of evolution and dissolution of functions. Then Freud used them as a basis for his early work on aphasia and then on hysteria and then the magnificent model of the mind in Chapter VII of The Interpretation of Dreams, which brings us up to 1900. What I am trying to convey is that the context of brain research turned out to be associationist psychology, clinical neurology and evolutionary theory. The context of evolutionary theory was, in turn, natural theology, uniformitarian geology and Malthusian population theory. The context for these was debates about science, theology, positivism and the theory of ideology in the nineteenth century. I contend that to understand these matters we have to work with little or no recognition of boundaries between science and the humanities. We must go wherever the multidisciplinary history of ideas leads us.
I looked into all of these matters and wrote a history of ideas about the functions of the brain, followed by a series of studies on the 19th century debate on 'man's place in nature' (as it was then called), which I published as Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture. This research led in another direction in the context of the ferment of the 1960s -- into the historiographic traditions in thinking about Darwinism and the relationship between science and ideology, a topic which had been debated since the school of Idéologie of Cabanis and Destutt de Tracy in Napoleonic France. Idéologie was a discipline first embraced than reviled by Napoleon. It began life as the meta-discipline to which science was accountable. The idéologues' intellectual programme was 'to subject the ideas of science to the science of ideas', something rather like metaphysics, Aristotle's discipline which came after and was 'meta' to physics. But when he fell out with this group, Napoleon gave the term a pejorative connotation of polluted knowledge, one which it has largely retained. It was that sense Marx and Engels invoked in their study of The German Ideology, where, as in other places, they argued that the ruling ideas of an age are the ideas of its ruling class, a proposition being revived in the 1960s during the Vietnam War in the critique of the role of the academy made by radical scholars. Along with other academic disciplines, science was not being allowed to claim that it was above the battle of contending ideologies. Scientific and technological and medical rationality were seen as much as part of the problem as part of the solution. This critique was led by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, for example, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas, and it was during this period that there was a movement for social responsibility in science which attracted, among others, the Nobel laureate, Maurice Wilkins. It also evoked a number of radical science periodicals, one of which I edit. You may think I have strayed from my theme, but I believe that I have been exemplifying ways in which the strict dichotomies I listed above are problematic. I am suggesting that science is part of culture, that how we see nature is, too, which is why the journal I just mentioned is called Science as Culture and is based on the assumption that research traditions cannot be reasonably claimed to be set above the prevailing world view of the epoch. This is a radical version of the research programme of the sociology of knowledge and is known as social constructivism in science.
One particular manifestation of this point, an experimentum crucis, has been a recurrent theme in my research. Darwin tells us in his notebooks, his pencil sketch of 1842, his longer sketch of 1844, in On the Origin of Species and other writings, in his letters and in his autobiography that Malthus' population theory -- that populations increase geometrically while food supply only grows arithmetically -- provided the key insight that led to his formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The gap between population growth and resources created the pressure in the struggle for existence. I traced this link with some care and gave a paper in Oxford entitled 'Malthus and the Evolutionists: The Common Context of Biological and Social Theory' (1968). You would not believe the howls which came from orthodox biologists. What I'd found meant that putatively pure biology, the holy of holies of Darwin's mechanism for evolutionary change, the foundation stone of modern biology, was in debt to, in bed with, tainted social theory of an avowedly conservative kind. There has been a running battle about this since I first wrote about it over thirty years ago. I think it is now the consensus that my account has prevailed. The scientific ideologues continue to hate it, though. I take great pleasure in the integration of Malthusianism with Darwinism, because I think history happens in that way. Assumptions about human nature and society contribute fundamentally to approaches taken to nature and living nature which are then extrapolated to account for human nature and society. It was always so. Indeed, a number of studies influenced by mine have made this point over a wide variety of scientific disciplines. I think the best of all of them is the magnificently detailed and meticulously written research of Donna Haraway, whose magisterial volume Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989) traces the wide range of determinations which gave us the biological science of primatology, the study of the animals closest to us in the evolutionary tree.
I cannot sufficiently stress how furious it makes many scientists when scholars in the history, philosophy and social studies of science, technology and medicine draw attention to the social forces at work in the origination, funding and deployment of scientific research, in the foundations of scientific disciplines and even in the scientific world view. There have been scholarly writings on these issues for as long as people have reflected on nature and human nature. Yet the education of scientists in recent times has left out any study of the history and philosophical bases of ideas about science and scientific rationality, with the result that they think people who do think critically about the philosophical and other dimensions of science are mad, bad, polluting -- threatening the very fabric of rationality and society. They hate it. They declare war. I am not exaggerating; the phrase 'the Science Wars' is current in America and elsewhere. Lobbies for science have largely succeeded in eliminating governmental funding for history, philosophy and social studies of science. I have seen this problem at first hand. Directors of studies in science and medicine in Cambridge were hostile to and satirical about the History and philosophy of Science Tripos, never mind that the RAE gave a 5* to the department, more than the university's distinguished philosophy department got. I find that students who did their undergraduate degrees in science, engineering or medicine tend to have such reactions. They take it that studying social determinations means that it is claimed that there is no rationality, no fabric of reality. They tend to become witch-hunting and aggressive. I have been unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of this sort of stuff at every stage of my academic career. Having been the object of it in my time as a historian and philosopher of science, I was less than delighted to get it again (sometimes from the same ideologues) as I debated them in my role as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and as a scholar in psychoanalytic studies.
Come to that, a new colleague said in his very first intervention at our weekly the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies seminars that he had been discussing things with the vice-chancellor at his last university, who had said that humanities research was a luxury universities could no longer afford and would have to become a private hobby. At least one member of staff took that intervention to be a defining moment in the history of the centre. What it conveyed to him was that a group of accomplished humanities scholars could not find a congenial home inside a medical faculty, because that faculty would be so hostile to and uncomprehending of qualitative, scholarly book research and would insist on experimental or at least quantitative research, something for which one can get grants. I thought he was being alarmist, but I think that in the long run he his likely to be proved prescient
I now want to turn to a strong sense I have of what underlies this view -- the pecking order of disciplines based on the pre-eminence of natural science. What characterises science? A method. As I've said, since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many have also argued that science strives to produce explanations in terms of matter, motion and number, the framework of ideas associated with Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, Hobbes, Newton, Locke, etc. An explanation in these terms is said to be better and more basic than one couched in other terms. This is the reductionist/materialist programme of modern science and is explicit in many of the dismissive remarks natural scientists make about the humanities. It is also implicit in the ranking of disciplines which places mathematical and material sciences, e.g., physics and chemistry, above biological ones. Among the biological ones molecular biology and biochemistry rank above physiology, morphology, taxonomy, ethology and evolutionary psychology. Biological scientists, in turn, peck behavioural and social scientists. The medical sciences are all over this map, since some are exquisitely experimental and quantitative, e.g., neurochemistry and endocrinology, while others are far from being so, e.g., psychiatry. Psychotherapy and especially psychoanalysis, are hardly on the map, according to some, and hardly funded, even though psychological difficulties constitute a large part of the reason people go to doctors. Outside all this -- beyond the pale -- are the humanities
One discipline which strikes me as helping us to see that natural science does not shed enough light on human nature for us to rely solely on science is the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology (which I shall mention again later). I recently went to a millennial celebration of Darwin at his old school in Shrewsbury at which Matt Ridley defended Darwinian reductionism, though he granted that there was such a thing as greedy reductionism, which he deplored. By Darwinian reductionism I mean the appeal to evolutionary selectionism to explain aspects of human character and personality without allowing due consideration of more proximal explanations drawn, for example, from psychodynamic psychology, philosophy and literature. I expect to learn more from 'Othello' about jealousy than from explanations appealing to natural selection and competition for mates drawn from Darwinian psychology. I suppose I mean that I don't want to be placed in the position of having to choose between them. Why should I, unless evolutionary explanations are somehow thought to be better than the insights of Sophocles or Shakespeare or Freud? There is a militancy in the representations of Darwinian psychologists, for example, the people who mount the programme called Darwin@LSE, which frightens and affronts me in the same way the assertive anti-humanities ways of Richard Dawkins and Louis Wolpert affront me. I would gladly say 'Go in peace' to them, but their explanatory imperialism strikes me as not allowing due space for explanations drawn from the humanities. It is as if only reductionist sciences can provide real explanations.
You could say that Darwinism provides the bridge between human nature and the sciences. Let's place Darwin in the great scheme of the history of ideas. There have been a number of blows to human arrogance. The concept of the solar system dethroned the Earth from being regarded as the centre of the universe. Darwinism showed that humanity is not the specially created pinnacle of all living beings. Marxism showed that economic and ideological forces fundamentally condition what humans do. Freud showed that we do not even have access to the greater part of our motivations, which are unconscious. These explanations mitigate our conception of the human species and our planet as central in the firmament and our humanity as adequately characterised by rational intentionality and conscious control over our actions.
If we look at Darwin’s theory as one of the great ideas in the history of science, we can characterise it in two ways. Evolution ranks with gravity, the central concept in physics, and affinity, the key idea in chemistry, as one of the most basic concepts in the natural sciences. Beyond that, however, evolution by natural selection is a widely-applicable theory in two senses. It is the law which binds all of life together and defines its relations with the physical environment — how the history of living nature relates to the history of nature. And, of course, it binds humanity by causal laws to the rest of life and nature. Evolution by natural selection is the process which accounts for the history of living nature, including human nature. It is arguably the most important idea in the history of the natural and the human sciences
All of the above is fairly common knowledge, though the breadth and depth of the scope of Darwinism is rarely adequately presented. However, there is a huge problem which is left unresolved -- or perhaps I should say it is in some hands too easily resolved -- by evolution. If we take evolution to be an all-embracing explanation of living, including human, phenomena, then it includes human psychology, society and culture within the causal nexus of deterministic scientific laws. If this is so, what is the basis for morality? Put another way, how should we think of the role of values and morality in human nature? At its most stark, evolution by natural selection proceeds by competition for resources and/or mates to achieve viable offspring which live to reproduce. How can this conception of the interrelations between creatures be subtle enough to include processes which transcend competition — altruism, charity, generosity, self-critical reflection. How can it explain the diversity of customs and mores in different cultures? Providing such explanations is, I take it, part of the project of the new Darwinian sciences, in particular Darwinian (sometimes called Evolutionary) Psychology. As I've said, the answers they tend to provide often strike me as less useful than the ones we can gain from more traditional ones employing human purposes, consciously conceived and/or discerned in unconscious motivations, which do not rely on selfish genes and competition for resources and/or mates.
It seems to me to be approaching things the wrong way up to claim that Darwinian explanations provide the most basic accounts for the subtleties and complexities of human relations when literature, philosophy, theology, analytical psychology and other cultural approaches evoke and explore them so well. Perhaps I should say, rather, that it seems wrong-headed to me to offer Darwinian explanations as superior to or as replacements for traditional explorations of such matters derived from the arts. It may be, of course, that evolution explains humanity and all its works, but we must still find a way of paying due respect to established forms of reflection on human nature and not run headlong into a single explanatory paradigm -- and a reductionist one, at that. The general applicability of evolutionary explanation is not the same as its replacing other explanations or as being seen as more appropriate or basic than them. Hence we need science and the humanities; neither will do alone now or, in my opinion, ever.
For example, I expect the discipline of biography to have an enduring role in understanding human nature. It can weave together the strands which make up a person's inner and outer lives. It can illuminate character, the moral dimension of who we are. Writings in literature and history can also shed light on civility, on generosity, on compassion, on sectarian and nationalist conflicts and on the rise and fall of societies and civilizations that I simply do not expect to get to anything like the same degree from evolutionary explanations. They are too crude and general, while biography, history and literature are exquisitely particulate in their piecing together the vicissitudes of lives of individuals, families, groups, societies and cultures.
You will not be surprised to hear that one reason I mind about this stuff is that, along with other anti-humanities zealots, its advocates relentlessly attack psychoanalysis -- as a theory of human nature, as a method of investigation and as a therapy. It was not always so. Freud was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society when he emigrated to England in 1939. Indeed, the British Medical Association undertook a careful assessment of psychoanalysis in the late 1920s and (not without making some criticisms) gave it its imprimatur. I think the flak that has come the way of psychoanalysis is in some ways very obvious and in some ways very odd, unmerited and even perverse. I'll start with the unmerited bit. There is an increasing number of writings coming from inside the psychological and psychoanalytic community which assess it as a therapy by high standards of clinical assessment and give it good marks. (Our own Professor Glenys Parry contributed to one of the best of these.). They demonstrate with great care that psychoanalytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis work. Indeed, one shows that people in therapy benefit as much as people in full analysis, but three years later the people who had full analysis have gone on improving, while those who had less sessions per week are no worse than at the end of treatment but are also no better. Other studies, including a huge one overseen by the President of the American Psychological Association, have shown that various sorts of psychotherapy work. More therapy yields more benefit, and more training means more likelihood of benefit. There is also a thriving and growing body of research going on, including an international society and a journal entitled Psychotherapy Research.
The vehement critiques of Freud and psychoanalysis do not take account of these careful findings, ones which are growing apace. Those who mount the critiques, on one side, and those who defend it, on the other, make up what is known as 'The Freud Wars' and engage is polemics strikingly reminiscent of the attacks on the history, philosophy and social studies of science, technology and medicine in 'The Science Wars' which I mentioned earlier. Another parallel is that their ranks, along with other forces in medicine and its funding, have succeeded in all but pushing psychotherapy out of psychiatry. There is a new and important book deeply lamenting this trend, Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry by T. M. Luhrmann (2000). She traces the growing polarization of treatment regimes, almost exclusively at the expense of talking cures. What they have put in place of psychotherapy, as is well known, is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,
I think there is a deeper reason for the ideological attacks on psychoanalysis: dumbing down. It is a widespread movement, widely commented upon. I am sorry to say that think that the same deeply superficial forces are at work in attacks on humanities and the disciplines which reflect on science as are aimed at psychoanalysis -- a mistaken belief that all truths are truths of the surface, that our inner natures, what Kleinians call our inner world, is not to be taken account of, looked into, that we should not seek to take responsibility for our unconsciouses and change. Moral struggle, which is at the heart of psychoanalytic work, is just too tough for these times.
There is an appropriate movement, to which I have alluded, for testing the efficacy of psychoanalysis and other psychotherapies. In this sense it is rightly accountable to science. However, to tell the truth, I am not personally much in sympathy with those who seek to prove it is a science, though I am quick to grant the importance of outcome studies. You could say that I am happy to have a science of outcomes but believe that what the outcomes are outcomes of is a humanistic relationship, a disciplined, empathic dialogue. I am speaking up for a humanities 'take' on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. As I have said, I am quite happy to grant -- even celebrate -- that the understanding if human nature is well-served by the insights gleaned from the humanities. I am content, nay pleased, when people write about Freud and Judaism, Freud the moralist, or the religious and romantic roots of psychoanalysis. I am not a theist, though I sometimes nostalgically wish I could be. I am, however, a believer in the collective wisdom contained in religious traditions, just as I appreciate the insights gleaned from literary traditions. I appreciate the story of Job as I do the religious philosophical writings of Kierkegaard, as I do those of Kafka, all much in the same vein. Come to that, I celebrate Freud's lifelong exploration of the depths of the meaning of the Oedipus myth for the human family, just as others find in 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear' keys to intergenerational dynamics.
Psychoanalysis, in turn, has had an important influence on literature, and on literary studies, especially biography, the novel and film, but it has also importantly influenced history and was at least once (1957) the subject of the Presidential address of the American Historical Association. The same can be said for social theory and for the study of groups and institutions, where its influence is growing. Indeed, psychoanalytic studies has been established as an academic discipline in the midst of the Freud Wars, and innumerable new books and journals have also come on stream.
I want also to make a claim for the role of the humanities in illuminating science. Here we have literary and philosophical methods employed in studying the writings at the heart of the natural sciences. The current senior professor of English Literature at Cambridge, Gillian Beer, founded her reputation on a close study of Darwin's Plots, and she and others continue to contribute to the study of science and literature under a single umbrella. Our own Professor Sally Shuttleworth has made a number of studies of the relationship between Victorian psychology, on the one hand, and literature and the broader culture, on the other. I have made detailed historical and philosophical studies of the basic concept in Darwin's explanation of evolution, the metaphor of 'natural selection', and have demonstrated the central role of teleology and anthropomorphism in the theory which lies at the foundations of biological science. Margot Waddell has studied both the influence of scientific ideas on George Eliot's novels and (with Meg Harris Williams) the literary origins of the psychoanalytic theory of the mind (1991). There are studies of how Newton influenced poetry, how Darwin influenced literature, how hermetical and alchemical traditions were at the heart of renaissance and Elizabethan letters and in Newton's philosophy of nature. Scholars study the philosophical assumptions and the forces in the society and values of particular times which led scientists and whole movements in science to ask the questions they did and to settle for the kinds of answers they did. I have no time even to list the ways in which fiction and science fiction explore science, technology and medicine from Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus' to 'Jurassic Park'. Nor can I do more than mention how science itself is illuminated by traditional humanities genres employed by scientists, e.g., James Watson's The Double Helix. There is, I am glad to say, no end to it.
Yet, for reasons I have tried to begin to illuminate, at the level of the rhetoric of the press and the literary press, in the halls of learned scientific societies, in granting agencies and charities, scientific rationality is waxing at the expense of studies in the humanities. I call this philistine and seriously dangerous. I think it is at work in this university, among others. When I proposed the expansion of the CPS into an institute of human relations on the model of the ones established in the last century at Yale, at Harvard, at the Tavistock Centre and at the New Bulgarian University, the proposal got nowhere with the powers that be in the School for Health and Related Research SCHARR (of which our centre is a member). The reason, I was told, that it was a non-starter was that no one could see how it would generate research funds and quantitative research relevant to our RAE rating. I disagree profoundly. I put it to you that bringing together various approaches to human nature from the humanities including literature and philosophy, the human sciences and the helping professions could be a distinguished and illuminating project to which eminent scholars and researchers would, I promise you, flock. In the immortal worlds of Kevin Cosner in 'Field of Dreams', 'If you build it they will come'.
You may have noticed that I have not explicitly discoursed much on the third term in my title, human nature. It is at least as problematic as science and the humanities. Indeed, some Marxists have claimed that it is only an ensemble of human relations, while others have written excellent books rebutting this reading. Althusserians, deconstructionists, Lacanians and postmodernists have reduced human nature to a hook onto which inscriptions and on which constitutive forces act. I defy you to make it go away. It is, of course, a subject of debate in every newspaper and periodical, and I once collected titles of a large number of books on my own bookshelves with the phrase in their title. It is what we wish to fathom in deciding what we are up against in ourselves and others, what we can hope for, what we may even achieve: part biology, part socialization, part striving. For me it is (you may find this limp) a mixture of good and bad, loving and aggression, but all my studies and clinical work and family life have taught me that it can to a degree be shifted for the better, as Freud once put it, from unbearable misery to ordinary human unhappiness. My own views are close to Freud's tempered pessimism, a sort of stoicism, but let's keep on trying. In the last of his New Introductory Lectures he claimed to have no weltangschauung or world view, while vehemently attacking leftist views on human nature. I -- and I trust you -- do not suffer under the delusion that I am free of ideology, but discerning its role and picking and choosing among the philosophies of human nature available to us is a task which is never-ending.
In my opinion psychoanalysis, seen as a discipline in the humanities, is centrally complementary to biological approaches. As Jonathan Lear has put it,
The point of psychoanalysis is to help us develop a clearer, yet more flexible and creative, sense of what our ends might be. "How shall we live?" is, for Socrates, the fundamental question of human existence — and the attempt to answer that question is, for him, what makes human life worthwhile. And it is Plato and Shakespeare, Proust, Nietzsche and, most recently, Freud who complicated the issue by insisting that there are deep currents of meaning, often crosscurrents, running through the human soul which can at best be glimpsed through a glass darkly. This, if anything, is the Western tradition: not a specific set of values, but a belief that the human soul is too deep for there to be any easy answer to the question of how to live (Lear, 1998, p. 28).
Among the most Socratic books I have read are two which I have recently had occasion to re-read and give to my children. Both are about many things, but the first looks centrally at what's gone wrong with our conceptions of the relations between the technical and the world of values -- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). The other is not as celebrated. Seventeen years after Robert Pirsig wrote Zen… he wrote Lila: An Enquiry into Morals. The central question in the book is whether a derelict, feckless, mendacious wreck of a woman had value. Throughout the book the issue hangs in the balance. I want to live in an academic world in which it is thought important and even natural that students in science, technology and medicine should read and reflect upon those books.
In conclusion, I stand before you a venerable and bloody but unbowed survivor of the Science Wars and the Freud Wars, both of which are ongoing. I am suggesting, even pleading, that if we do not make peace between the sciences and the humanities and seek to reintegrate the metaphysical foundations of science with values, we will sink into an ever-deepening pit of philistinism, false consciousness, reification and moral decay. If we do, as a result of great struggle, manage to reintegrate them, we can seriously hope to achieve and to bear ordinary human unhappiness.
Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic Studies, Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 25 May 2000.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM