Humanities, sciences, and historicism

For some time now I’ve felt that the distinction between humanities and sciences is an important one, but it is also one that I’ve found very difficult to put my finger on.

I remember speaking to a locally renowned scientist when I was a teenager and being told that if a scholar of literature wasn’t in some way using the modern scientific method to reach conclusions, the work was by definition worthless. Ever since, my sense of the boundaries between the two realms has been really conflicted and uncertain, even though at the same time, of course, we all in the modern world have some deep intuitive sense of the difference.

I find the sciences fascinating. I love to learn about them, about the work the do and the way they work and especially the findings that are most relevant to us (especially findings about the human body, within the natural sciences, and findings relevant to political life, among the social sciences). But my intellectual vocation is not to the sciences. I am irresistibly drawn, instead, to the humanistic disciplines.

At the same time, I have also generally felt only half at home even in the humanities. I love the work done in, say, philosophy and literature, but I cannot feel entirely settled in it. I always feel that I am at most translating my thoughts into the sort of language that is appropriate to the contemporary humanities, and translating their work into the language of my own way of thinking. That’s different from the experience I have of reading the sort of humanistic work that was being done during the Renaissance, in which I feel far more at home.

Reading Leo Strauss has led me to wonder whether the difference might be located in the phenomenon of historicism. The non-historicist Straussian of the contemporary world, and the historicist, will both focus on many of the same things and with many similar questions, but with very different goals.

Leo Strauss, and some others who are like him, do not assume that past thinkers must be superior to us, but he approaches them in a way that is open to treating them as being at least our equals, and as teachers from whom we might indeed have something important to learn. The historicist majority instead looks to the past to narrate the origins of our current wisdom, or, even more often these days I suspect, in order to contrast the horrid vices of our ancestors against our more enlightened contemporary sensibilities.

To me, the latter feels like a self-congratulatory waste of time, and lacking self awareness to boot. The former is what I want to give all my time to. I want to spend years and decades straining to know what the theoretical alternatives are, to hear each argued as well as it can be, and so to begin to construct some conclusions of my own. The humanities is where that can happen, although it will necessarily today be often a parallel or parasitic activity alongside what most contemporary humanists want to work on.

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