©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Why the Human Sciences?
A Memorandum to Europeans

by Deirdre McCloskey
29 May 2012
Filed under editorials

1.) "Science" has a peculiar definition in modern English.

Thinking about "science" policy has a problem in modern English—and only in modern English among the world's languages. The science word has been narrowed for the past century and a half to the physical and biological sciences. Elsewhere, and before 1850 in English, too, the science word has the wide sense of "serious and systematic inquiry." Thus the Germans say die Geisteswissenschaften [the humanities, literally in English a very spooky sounding "spirit sciences"], or the French say les sciences humaines [serious and systematic inquiries concerning the human condition, literally "the human sciences," an impossible contradiction in modern English]. Thus Alexander Pope in 1711: "While from the bounded level of our mind/ Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind:/ But more advanced, behold with strange surprise/ New distant scenes of endless science rise!" He did not mean only physics and chemistry. John Stuart Mill used the science word in its older sense in all his works. Confining the word to "physical and biological science," sense 5b in the Oxford English Dictionary—which was an accident of English academic politics in the mid-nineteenth century—has tempted recent speakers of English to labor at the pointless task of demarcating one kind of serious and systematic inquiry from another.

2.) Know thyself.

Whatever the physical and biological sciences most gloriously know about, however, it is not about ourselves in anything but our physical being. Only an implausible reduction to the physical—you could call it the materialist dogma— would make irrelevant the study of ourselves psychologically or literarily or sociologically or economically or politically. It would be like saying it is irrelevant to study ecology, because after all the plants and animals studied are reducible to physics. Or astronomy, because after all we could deduce the universe from physics. An emblem of the materialist dogma is the wild popularity of "brain science," which is going through a new period of phrenological research. Yet finding that the frontal cortex lights up when thus and such is presented to a brain does not shed great light on that other, non-thing, the mind. By contrast, the observation of kula—giving among the Argonauts of the Western Pacific, or the reading of Strindberg's plays, or the study of the philosophy of mind or of phenomenology, does.

3.) It would be sad to slip into barbarism.

If everything is subordinated to "practical" use, we make ourselves unable to see anything else. We turn ourselves into monsters of prudence. Some of the social sciences, such as economics and social psychology, believe they can get along without studying the past, and regard themselves as enemies of the humanities. Such a "scientific" view is to be resisted. Prudence is a virtue. But it is not the only virtue. There are also justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love.

Without the study of philosophy or theology or literature we know less about the other virtues than we should know to be fully human, about justice according to Plato or about hope according to Augustine or about courage according to Hemingway. Yes, replies the barbarian, but we know so much more than these old folks, we moderns. As the poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot replied to such a remark, "Yes: and it is them, the old folks, we know."

4.) There is no merit in becoming a 51st state of the USA.

A lesser danger than wholesale barbarism, but a part of it, is the loss of, say, Swedish high culture. Without what the English speakers call the humanities and the social sciences taking place in Swedish the language becomes a merely practical one, good for buying groceries or discussing sports but crippled in its ability to deal with other things.

So dominant are English-speaking sciences in the broad sense that science administrators in a small country are liable to take up some special scheme—"Publish only in English journals!" or "Do things just as the Yanks do!"—that would be narrow even as a program for science in the state of New Jersey or North Carolina. To put it another way, we already have a New Jersey and North Carolina, which each have about the same population as Sweden. We don't need another. Large countries such as France or Britain are unlikely to fall into a program of 'practicality' modeled on what some small group thinks is happening the United States (though Margaret Thatcher tried). The problem with a small country is that the pressure to "compete" (a foolish word, by the way, according to the economists) is liable to result in foolish schemes for modernization and prudence and tough—minded concentration on "what we do best." One sees it in individual universities already. As a general policy for the country it would be a mistake.

5.) A small country does not need physical or biological sciences, but it does need its own human sciences.

And anyway, if "what we do best" is the criterion, Swedes do best at studying Swedish literature painting or music, not geology or evolutionary biology, which they can safely leave to the Yanks. One economistic reason to leave the non-human sciences to the Yanks is that the intellectual or practical benefits from such sciences spill over into small countries, whereas often the findings of the human sciences do not, being country-specific. Chemistry is the same universally; poetry is not. To get serious studies of the history of the Swedish language or of Swedish industrialization we need Swedes staffing the libraries and computers. North Carolinians will not do such a job.

6.) The physical and biological science are not the basis of modern wealth.

"But let's be practical," comes the reply. "Physical and biological sciences make for economic 'competitiveness'." No, they don't, though in any case the material benefits, to repeat, spill over, and so it is irrational for a small country to overinvest in them. But it is a finding of one of the non-prudence, non-material subjects, economic history, that most of even the material benefits we enjoy are not the outcome of high science. The inspiriting discoveries of a Newtonian clockwork universe, and the great mathematization in Europe of earthly and celestial mechanics in the eighteenth century, had practically no direct industrial applications until the late nineteenth century at the earliest. The historian of technology Nathan Rosenberg noted that "before the twentieth century there was no very close correspondence between scientific leadership and industrial leadership," instancing the United States, which had negligible scientific achievement around 1890 and yet industrial might, and Japan, ditto, around 1970.

Agreeing with this last point, the economic historian Joel Mokyr concludes that "the full triumph of technology was only secured after 1870 with the arrival of cheap steel, electrical power, chemicals, and other advances associated with the second Industrial Revolution," and associated sometimes with science. "Cheap steel," though, is not a scientific case in point. Another economic historian, Nicholas von Tunzelmann, notes that even in the late nineteenth century "breakthroughs such as that by Bessemer in steel were published in scientific journals but were largely the result of practical tinkering." My own early work on the iron and steel industry came to the same conclusion. Such an apparently straightforward matter as the chemistry of the blast furnace was not entirely understood until well into the twentieth century, and yet the costs of iron and steel had fallen and fallen for a century and a half.

If we make a word scienceandtechnology and say it quickly we can defend as "prudent" many impractical sciences like the hunt for the Higgs boson at great expense at CERN or the study of plate tectonics. But the defense is not itself very scientific even in the narrow English sense—as one can see in the behavior of space scientists, who turn rapidly to humanistic justifications, albeit uncritically handled, such as the High Frontier or the Hope of Humankind when someone questions why NASA spends 18 billion dollars a year—which would be enough to finance about 300 schools of humanities comparable to that of the University Chicago, each with 170 fulltime historians, linguists, philosophers, literary critics, musicologists, Assyriologists, theologians, ethicists. A few doctored photographs of distant galaxies or the wisdom of the ages? You choose.

7.) The Giesteswissenschaften are no less practical than the Naturwissenschaften.

We are persuaded in the modern world that physical and biological sciences have practical use. It is largely false as economic history and largely false as economics, but some parts of them do. Yet the same, and to the same degree, could be said of the humanistic studies, of ourselves. Without the study of folktales, for example, our plots would be impoverished. Without the study of economic history, we would think that scienceandtechnology made the modern world. Without the study of anthropology, we would be ignorant and scornful or worshipful of other peoples. Without the study of the psychology of fulfillment, we would not realize that success in life is a matter of "flow." Without literary criticism, we would have lost William Shakespeare and his plays, or Snorri Sturluson and his histories, or Homer and his epics. We would be poorer in much the same practical sense as we would be poorer, to speak of definitely practical fruits of high science concerning the physical or biological world, if the transistor had not been invented, or DNA testing for paternity.

If the world consisted only of physical objects, then news of how to manipulate them would be the only subjects of interest. But the human world consists also of mind and society, that is, our human selves and our interactions. The very concepts of "news" and "subject" and "interest," after all, are objects of study in the human sciences.