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Servant of the arts, or slave to the sciences?

by Roger Scruton

University and the people who teach in them are increasingly assessed on their output of ‘research’. Pressed to justify their existence, therefore, the humanities begin to look to the sciences to provide them with ‘research methods’, and the promise of ‘results’. To suggest that their principal concern is the transmission of ‘culture’ is to condemn the humanities to second-class status. Culture has no method, while research proceeds by conjecture and evidence. Moreover, while culture means the past; research means the future. 

History of art offers an interesting illustration. Generations of students have been drawn to this subject, in the hope of acquiring knowledge of the masterpieces of the past. The field of study emerged during the 19th-century in German universities, under the influence of Burkhardt, Wölfflin and others, to become a paradigm of objective study in the humanities. The Hegelian theory of the Zeitgeist, put to astute use by Wölfflin, divided everything into neatly circumscribed periods – Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, neo-classical and so on – and the ‘comparative’ method, in which images were shown side by side and their differences assigned to the distinguishing mental frameworks of their creators, proved endlessly fertile in critical judgments. Look at the works of Wittkower, Panofsky, Gombrich and the other products of this school of thought, and you will surely conclude that there has seldom been a more creative and worthwhile addition to the curriculum. 

But the very success of art history as a form of learning casts doubt on its future. Is there any more ‘research’ to be done on the art of Michelangelo, or the architecture of Palladio? Is there anything to be added to the study of the Gothic cathedral after Ruskin, von Simson, Pevsner and Sedlmayer? And how do we confront the complaint that this whole subject seems to be focused on a narrow range of dead white European males, who spoke clearly for their times, but who have no great relevance to ours? All in all the subject of Art History has been condemned by its own success to a corner of the academy, there to be starved of funds and graduate students – unless, that is, it can be re-branded as ‘research’. 

In 1986 Patricia Churchland published Neurophilosophy, arguing that the questions that had been discussed to no effect by philosophers over many centuries would be solved, once they were rephrased as questions of neuroscience. This was the first major outbreak of an academic disease which one might call ‘neuro-envy’. If philosophy could be replaced by neuroscience, why not the rest of the humanities, which had been wallowing in a methodless swamp for far too long? Old disciplines that relied on critical judgement and cultural immersion could be given a scientific gloss when rebranded as ‘neuroethics’, ‘neuroaesthetics’, ‘neuro-musicology’, ‘neuro-theology’. hence art history has sought to rescue itself as ‘neuroarthistory’ (the subject of a book by John Onians: “Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki”). 

In opposition I would maintain that the humanities are real disciplines, but not sciences. Rebrand them as branches of neuroscience and you don’t necessarily increase knowledge: in fact you might lose it. Brain imaging won’t help you to analyse Bach’s Art of Fugue or to interpret King Lear any more than it will unravel the concept of legal responsibility or deliver a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture; it won’t help you to understand the concept of God or to evaluate the proofs for His existence, nor will it show you why justice is a virtue and cowardice a vice. And it cannot fail to encourage the superstition that I am not a whole human being with mental and physical powers, but merely a brain in a box. 

Locke saw philosophy as ‘handmaiden to the sciences’. At the time there was much to be said for that idea: the scientific revolution was in its infancy and the fields of scientific enquiry were uncertainly defined. The task identified by Locke endures today. In areas like the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language our discipline continues to contribute to scientific advance, and absorbs from the associated sciences a distinct intellectual polish. However, there is another and more important task for the philosopher, which is to distinguish genuine science from mere scientism. Philosophy is, and ought especially to be, a handmaiden to the humanities. It should be active in resisting neurononsense of the kind put about by Samir Zeki and John Onians. It should use its best endeavours to show why the attempts to rewrite musicology, architectural theory, literary criticism and the rest as branches of evolutionary psychology are destined to fail. It should be intent on distinguishing the human world from the order of nature, and the concepts through which we understand appearances from those used in explaining them. It is for this reason that I believe aesthetics to be the core of philosophy, far more important today than any other branch of the subject, even if dependent on those other branches for its central discipline. 

How do we combat scientism? A start is made if we give up the fantasy that the humanities are really fields of ‘research’. As I see it, the task of philosophy is to show the place of humane education in the wider self-consciousness of human kind. When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view. The subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part of the empirical world. It lies on the edge of things, like a horizon, and could never be grasped ‘from the other side’, the side of subjectivity itself. If I look for it in the world of objects I shall never find it. But without my nature as a subject nothing for me is real. 

If I am to care for my world, then I must first care for this thing, without which I have no world — the perspective from which my world is seen. That is the message of art, or at least of the art that matters. And that is why philosophy is fundamental to humane education. Philosophy shows what self-consciousness is, and explores the many ways in which the point of view of the subject shapes and is shaped by the human world. The Germans are right to refer to the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften: for Geist, self-consciousness, is what they are all about. 

Roger Scruton is a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall and Visiting Professor at Oxford. He is the author of many books, including “The Aesthetics of Music” and “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction”, both published by Oxford University Press. His Stanton Lectures at the University of Cambridge will be published next year as “The Soul of the World”, by Princeton University Press, and his novel “Underground Notes” is shortly to appear from Beaufort Books, New York. 

Oxford Philosophy 2013, p.28-31
Tags: arts science
Reposted bysciencePhilosophy02mydafsoup-01randomuser

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