When I stumbled upon the future, I was actually looking for the past.
In the 1990s, I was trying to write a book about why the concept of language had so dominated the intellectual history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At some point, it occurred to me that I should take a look at the ways that language was being discussed outside the large but still closed circle of the humanistic discourses of philosophy, religion, history, and literary studies. What I found was both reassuring and disconcerting. Taking a break from a professional convention in the waning months of the previous millennium, I wandered over to the publisher’s area, and came across a little book that seemed perfectly suited to my needs called The Origin and Diversification of Language, published in a series called “The Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences.” I bought it and took it along to sessions in case the discussion sagged. As it turned out, I was able to get through the entire volume in a single day.
On that day, my research project, already complicated enough, became nearly unmanageable. According to the eight essays in this volume, language was indeed the definitive human trait, just as humanists had always insisted, but the descriptions of language were, to my humanistic sensibility, decidedly un-human, and included references to mitochondrial genes, phylogenetic reconstructions, Algic pronomials, basal metabolic rates, and the evidence provided by various kinds of brain damage. Several of the authors focused on evolution, including Steven Pinker, author of the bestselling 1994 book The Language Instinct, who described the “informavore niche” occupied by homo sapiens, and the way the linguistic “machinery” was “put together to encode and decode digital propositions.” But perhaps the most interesting—in fact, fabulously entertaining—was an article on “The Foundations of Human Language” by Leslie C. Aiello, an anthropologist at University College, London, who spoke not of the mind but of the body. Aiello had constructed a thoroughly documented but quite fantastic tale of the way that the evolving body of homo sapiens had undergone an enormous change about half a million years ago when our ancestors switched from eating fruits and vegetables to meat. It’s a long story, but it involves a shrinkage of gut tissue (since a “big vat” was no longer needed for processing vegetation) in exchange for a growth of brain tissue, which was now needed for the social intelligence required to collaborate with each other in the pursuit of prey. The upright posture and bipedal locomotion needed for the hunt had the excellent side-effect of repositioning the head so the back of the tongue was bent downwards, which enabled us (as I’ll call those budding informavores) to produce subtly differentiated noises of the kind that became, eventually, language. Once we got a taste of meat, Aiello and her seventy-five empirically sound sources argued, we were off and running.
I cannot overstate the cognitive shock of my furtive reading of this volume while sitting in convention sessions devoted to subjects such as “Forms of Abjection in the Lyric,” or “New Directions in Prosody.” Humanists had always presumed that because language was the defining trait of humanity, we had privileged access to human self-understanding. But according to the authors of these essays, progress in understanding the human could only be made if language were wrenched from the dry dust of the humanities and re-potted in the rich soil of science. The text-and-document-oriented humanities were predicated on the biblical assertion that “In the Beginning was the Word,” but science was now telling humanists that they lacked the tools necessary to grasp the “beginning,” and that everything that humanists had busied themselves with—Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne, the Magna Carta, etc.—were just the more or less predictable products of “machinery” in the evolved brain, the recent after-effects of an immense span of fitness trials beginning deep in the prehistory of the species. The key to our future understanding, according to the scientists, was to be found in the past, but a past inconceivable to the humanities.
If science succeeded in this brazen attempt at topic theft, humanity would become a disenchanted subject—not a permanent mystery or miracle but a set of algorithms and transcription factors encoded in the chromosomes. With the triumph of science, the project baptized by the biologist E. O. Wilson with the name of consilience would be largely accomplished. Knowledge would be unified under the leadership of biology, evolution would be the dominant paradigm, and other disciplines would contribute supporting evidence if they could. If they could not, they would die a quiet and ignoble death. History would become subordinate to anthropology, literature and the arts would be reduced to providing interesting symptomatic instances of reciprocal altruism or mating strategies, and philosophy would simply wither away, an unlamented form of confusion grotesquely ill-suited to its announced goal of helping people lead the examined life.
From a species perspective, these losses would be insignificant compared to gains in knowledge and mastery. But from my own more limited standpoint, they would be catastrophic.
By the time I arrived at the National Humanities Center in 2003, I had become convinced that while most of the “crises in the humanities” I had been hearing about for so many years were overhyped, this one was real because it concerned not the environment in which the humanities find themselves but their very legitimacy as a way of knowing. In 2004, I convened a planning group, which emerged after two days of intense discussion with a consensus that yes, the new perspectives on human being emerging from empirical disciplines—both those concerned with animals and those focusing on machines—represented a challenge to which the humanities would have to respond. As a way of focusing the issues, the group decided, in the course of one of those rare sessions where a group comes to a collective realization that had eluded all the individuals, to highlight the terms autonomy, singularity, and creativity as concepts traditionally associated with humanity that were now in danger of being radically redefined or denied by the new sciences of the human.
With generous support from our local university partners and others, we launched a multi-year initiative called “Autonomy, Singularity, Creativity: The Human and the Humanities” (ASC) that brought to the Center such people as E. O. Wilson (who noted, in his 2005 talk, that as a boy in Alabama, he had “answered the altar call and gone under the waters”), Ian Hacking, Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, Frans de Waal, Steven Pinker, Robert Sapolsky, Raymond Tallis, Patricia Churchland, Peter Galison, A. S. Byatt, Anthony Appiah, Oliver Sacks, and many others. We invited computer scientists, historians of science, cultural anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, Darwinian literary scholars, experimental philosophers, students of cognitive cultural studies, and primatologists. Some fur was ruffled, and on occasion, some flew. But in retrospect and in general, the entire project was extraordinarily collegial, with virtually all participants recognizing a common investment in a conversation with unusually high stakes.
The three-year project ended in 2009, but Gary Comstock, who was part of the original planning group, refused to let it die, and undertook to edit, with Parker Shipton, Sally Haslanger, and William Lycan, “On the Human,” the website you are reading now, which has provided a forum for dozens of scholars and hundreds of respondents, a number that was multiplied by many times on those occasions when an “On the Human” posting was simultaneously published by the philosophy blog in The New York Times called “The Stone.” To read “On the Human” for the past three years has been to feel one’s finger on a pounding pulse of intellectual energy. As this project has demonstrated, the subject of the human is being opened up to a wide range of methodologies and perspectives, and there is no doubt that human self-understanding is advancing in seven-league boots, and in many directions at once.
The contemplation of all this activity is gratifying to all who have played a role in the project. But I confess that I have developed a stubborn resistance to the cause of the unification of knowledge and would be disturbed if that cause were advanced as a consequence of all our work. One of the few convictions I have that has been hardened rather than softened as a consequence of “On the Human” and its progenitor ASC is that the difference between the various disciplines enables rather than hinders the advance of knowledge, and that the humanities in particular represent a precious resource that must not be subordinated to an imperial science. This view has had some support among those who have participated in ASC and OTH, but it has not been a majority position. My immediate predecessor in this space, Alex Rosenberg, has just published The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, and in this and other writings, he has taken a very hard pro-scientific line, arguing that science produces the only knowledge worthy of the name, and that the humanities contribute little more than tissues of meretricious fantasy that might yield some distracting, momentary, and decidedly mere “pleasure,” but are, as he says at the end of his (in my view misguided) Guide, “nothing we have to take seriously,” nothing that qualifies as “knowledge or wisdom.”
I’m sure that Alex would be disappointed, even miffed, if I failed to respond indignantly to this disciplinary insult, and so in a spirit of reciprocity, I would like to conclude these comments, “On the Human,” and the entire eight-year shebang with a defense of disciplines and specifically of the humanities based on a ringing affirmation of pleasure.
Academic disciplines were not created in order to establish a transcendental truth. They were instituted as limited games, each with its own objects, and methods that, if followed, can yield a high degree of confidence, even something approaching certainty. Disciplines concede human finitude, fallenness, and variousness. The notion on which the idea of consilience is based—that we can and should overcome disciplinary divisions and apprehend the truth directly and holistically—may be held by some who call themselves atheists, but it is essentially a religious notion, and attracts those who have answered the altar call and drunk the Kool-Aid. Arbitrary and limited as they are, disciplines represent a more modest and thoroughly secular approach. They attract to scholarship not only limited dullards content to play their little games but also those who understand and respect the limitations of human knowledge. They also attract a few iconoclastic or insubordinate types whose deepest fulfillment lies in transgression.
Disciplines protect knowledge from encroachments by power, but in creating boundaries and limits to their authority, they also create zones of freedom where the conventions that govern a particular discipline do not apply, or where the question of which conventions apply is unresolved. This is not an invariably creative space, as the advocates of interdisciplinarity sometimes argue—often, the most radical or innovative energies well up within disciplines themselves—but it is one possible space for innovation, and it would disappear if the disciplines collapsed.
Something else would vanish as well. The humanities are weak when it comes to predictive power, weak when it comes to formulating general laws, weak in the understanding of nonhuman processes or materials, weak in many ways that science is strong. But they are singularly powerful when it comes to something else that we ought to value: freedom. In the scientific mindset, conclusions are compelled by facts. In the humanistic mindset, we are examining artifacts in search not of facts but truth, not quantities but qualities, and not empirical knowledge alone but something more elusive—the mind of the human being who was responsible for the appearance of the object. The ultimate goal is not knowledge of nature but human self-understanding, which is achieved through a study of manmade objects. This, like science, is an “infinite quest,” to recall Vannevar Bush’s famous phrase. But whereas in science the quest is infinite because there will always be more facts to discover, in the humanities, infinitude is a consequence of the fact that the mind behind the object can never be known directly, but only speculated about. In short, in the world of the humanities, conclusions are suggested but not compelled by the facts, and even some of the facts themselves are but sleeping dogs, conclusions achieved by prior suggestion. This stress on cognitive freedom may sound epistemologically disreputable, but the best instances of humanistic scholarship have an enduring pertinence that can pass for wisdom, while science is forever on to the next fresh discovery. When the announcement came of the speedy CERN photon that apparently traveled a few nanoseconds faster than the speed of light over a distance of 450 miles, one scientist was quoted as saying, “If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything.” No humanist would be so cavalier in disposing of his own tradition.
I may disagree with Rosenberg about the status of humanistic knowledge, but I agree completely with his identification of the humanities with pleasure. In fact, my disagreement with his first point follows directly from my agreement with his second. In my view, pleasure is supremely important as both a driver of human behavior, while in Rosenberg’s almost flamboyantly ascetic view, it is trivial, especially when compared to the severe ascetic satisfactions of science. I am no scientist, but Rosenberg’s view of pleasure seems to me radically unscientific.
What does Darwinian science tell us about human uniqueness? Some might point to our big brains as the key. But a more powerful and more properly Darwinian account would ask why our brains grew so big, and this would necessarily lead to a consideration of the kind and degree of the pleasure humans seek. Our preferences, which drive evolution, register a search for pleasure, which, as Paul Bloom says in his 2010 book How Pleasure Works, “[motivates] certain behavior that is good for the genes.” Now the pleasure centers in mammalian brains might be largely similar across the species, but the extraordinary flexibility of human intelligence gives us access to a vastly wider range of pleasures than other species. Compared to other species, we take pleasure from different things, and in many cases derive a different kind of pleasure from the same things. Only humans, for example, can take a wicked or guilty pleasure from pressing the sugar button; and only humans experience tragic pleasure in a depiction of disaster.
Creating such depictions is the domain of art, and understanding them is one of the tasks of the humanities. According to Darwinian literary scholars, art serves the evolutionary purpose of orienting us in a complex world, providing a kind of conceptual “home” that is as essential to us as the homes made instinctively by bats, spiders, and beavers. I see no possible objection to this general proposition, but it does not yet engage the difficult question of pleasure, or rather, the question of difficult pleasure, the kind of pleasure we take in art that challenges, disturbs, or affronts us. I cannot know what it is like to be a bat, but I am certain that no bat would willingly subject itself to a bat-version of King Lear. The extremely high value we place on difficult or deferred or complex pleasures reflects our singular capacity to extract pleasure from pain, often in the name of some other, perhaps “higher” reward associated with aesthetics, ethics, or science, all of which reward our arduous labors with distinctive forms of pleasure. This capacity does not represent a denial of our instinctual nature. It is part of our instinctual nature: human instincts include the ability and the drive to negate primate or organismal instincts out of obedience to our own complex nature. Our intelligence makes us freaks in the natural world, a perpetual source of dissonance in the universal harmony, and so we create difficult or challenging representations that body forth our own dissonant position in the world, thus crafting our own kind of home.
So I proudly concede Rosenberg’s point that the humanities are where we come to understand pleasure—as well as everything else about human activity from the beginning of human time. By this means, and in respectful collaboration with science, the humanities can now engage, in addition to its traditional subjects, the topics of human nature, human being, human potentialities and limitations, and the place of humans in the natural order. This is the future, and it gives me a great deal of simple pleasure to think that “On the Human” has helped to point the way.