oh the humanities!! (re: Third Culture)

John H. Stevens, Jr. (jhs14@CORNELL.EDU)
Mon, 4 Sep 1995 20:48:47 -0400

Dear Matt, John, James, Robert, etc., etc.,:

Matt started all of this (well, actually John did, but Matt got the current
permutation going. . .) with a rather innocuous observation/question:

"Personally, I have to wonder why the oppositional imagination is
so firmly entrenched in our discipline?"

Read Levi-Strauss. Next question!!

Seriously, this is something that our Revered Uncle Claude's
thinking can really illuminate. Also it is, of course, a false dichotomy,
since I know folks on "both sides of the fence" who cross-identify, and
other folks who vehemently stick to one side or t'other. But it is the
most basic, and as Uncle Claude has pointed out, in some way it underlies
the structure of human cognition, Anthropology started out as a science in
the nineteenth century (or, to go back to I believe Rosetti, the
Renaissance), *in the 19th century sense of the term*, when it was pretty
much acceptable to discuss human universals, progress, and the goodness of
Christianity in the same sentence without your friends spitting out their
bourbons with gales of laughter. Back then, there was just anthropology;
anthropologists generally did work in what we now consider to be the four
fields, all of them, sometimes simultaneously. I think that it was with
the changing notions of science after the turn of the century that folks
began to get skittish and start splitting things up, as specialization
began to create branches in the tree of knowledge.

John thinks this is an economic thing, but the emotions and rhetoric that
it spawns smack more of identity politics, only a part of which is
economic. I've heard people say it would be easier to make the split, to
create anthro the science and anthro the humanity (of course, who gets
custody of the name is an even livelier debate!),and not just to make a
clearer path to NEH grants over NSF. I think this is also more than, as
John McCreery put it, a "self-justifying" tactic of ignorant humanities
scholars and their social science cousins, many of whom are studying
science, some to "debunk it" as if it were religion (which for some folks
it is, all mystical, ritual, and incantation-filled), but others to come to
a better understanding of the practice and meaning of science both as it is
performed and as its fruits impact our lives.

And here is where I see the value of a humanities perspective, beyond James
Davila's historical-critical analyses and philology. Humanities scholars
still get to the stuff that makes us ponder, cry, get pissed, and grin,
stuff that in often not accessible to science. To reverse that, there's a
lot that science has done (like this mode of communication we're all using)
to makes our lives more interesting and to provoke us forward, to explain
the processes of life and the rhythm of the universe, to give us new means
of action. But what explains that action? IMHO, not Richard Dawkins! A
humanities perspective gives us insight into things that science doesn't
always see, and gives us fresh modes of absrobing that insight and
converting it into, if not wisdom, at least knowledge that makes our lives
richer, deeper, and more aware of how our world works (take that, RJ!).

I'd say more, but I gotta run!!!


John Stevens
Dept. of Anthropology
Cornell University