Two tribes? Science and art are more like than unalike

The case for research funding in the humanities is stronger if we recognise the similarities, argues David Eastwood

March 19, 2015

Source: Nate Kitch

What is presented in most TV and radio programmes is history ‘as it really was’, with the need for further research implicitly, and dangerously, denied

Making the case for the humanities, and more specifically making the case for research funding in the humanities, matters. In times of plenty, this hasn’t been difficult. In funding terms, the past decade and a half has been a golden era.

But after the election and in the next Comprehensive Spending Review the situation could change dramatically. Making the case for the humanities will be urgent and critical. And too often, the case is not made as adroitly as it might be.

First, scholars in the humanities often argue for conceptual, and sometimes moral, differences between research in and values ascribed to the humanities and the sciences. This, in essence, is an attempt to make the “two cultures” work in favour of the humanities.

That biomedical research, for example, saves lives is a proposition of a different moral order: true, but irrelevant; although sometimes countered by the facile proposition that it is the humanities that make life worth living. The latter is a normative claim of rather breathtaking simplicity.

A second justification is populist. The humanities, we are told, bestride the media in a way that science can only, and does, envy. My own discipline, history, comfortably eclipses science on the television, in the book reviews, and as a popular and popularised discipline. What, then, do humanities scholars have to worry about? The public is on their side and has a consumer preference for the kinds of knowledge that they generate, or at least impart. These defences seem to me to be as ill-advised as they are flawed.

Take television history and compare it with television science. Ironically, science presents itself popularly in a more historical manner and as more provisional than history. It generally explains the evolution of understanding, one scientist standing on the shoulders of others in a shared and contested endeavour.

In contrast, in most television and radio history programmes there is no sense of the way in which understanding has been developed, or challenged. No sense of the contingency of discovery, the primacy of method, or the power and centrality of theory. What is presented is history “as it really was”, with the need for further research implicitly, and dangerously, denied. Too easily we allow critics, viewers and readers to conclude that problems are solved, with events, processes, texts and creative objects fully understood and contextualised.

Those of us within the humanities must acknowledge responsibility for this misunderstanding. The recognition that knowledge is contestable and that understanding is provisional is central to our methodologies. We should acknowledge this precisely in order to make the case for research funding and the health of our disciplines.

Seen in this way, the congruence between the humanities and the sciences is profound, and the case for research, and by extension for research funding, is of the same kind, although funding entitlements will not be of the same magnitude.

The cumulative power and explanatory possibilities of humanities research are strikingly apparent to those of us who read, admire, think, but no longer research in the field.

Like many historians, I was once inclined to assume that works of synthesis, general texts covering grand vistas or capacious themes, were less original because they were somehow derivative. I now see much more clearly that they are dependent on an expanded scholarship but in no pejorative sense derivative of it.

Indeed, general texts are often, unintentionally, the most powerful celebrations of what research in the humanities has done. Looking back at texts published in the 1960s, it is abundantly clear that humanities scholarship has attained a greater capacity for explanatory sophistication, not because its practitioners are intellectually “better” but because research has enabled them to think and write in still richer ways.

The same is true of explanation and understanding in the sciences. Thus we come to funders with the same urgent imperative: to know more and to understand better. That, of course, makes the funding debate and funders’ decisions still more difficult. If we accept, at a profound level, that knowledge is neither segmented nor hierarchical, we cannot fund by some implied taxonomy of intellectual worth.

We can accept that some problems are more socially urgent, some research more likely to benefit us in terms of health, economic prosperity, technological advancement or addressing the grand challenges that we might believe we face as a national or global community.

Weighing priorities in this way is as legitimate as it is now conventional, particularly when it is the taxpayer that funds most, but not all, of the research we undertake. We should not, however, assume that this prioritisation represents either an intellectual ordering of the importance of research questions, or a sufficient conception of what might most effectively promote well-being.

Put like that, the challenge to our funders and ultimately to the public is that reducing research funding would mean doing less of almost everything. It cannot and should not mean stopping all or most of something. It is precisely the universality of the quest to understand that defines the legacy of the Enlightenment; and it is the shared quest to know that animates universities and elevates humanity.

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Reader's comments (2)

This guy works in "the humanities"? Please note how he is totally unable to reference anything from any of the humanities: no line from any poem, no character from any novel, no plot from any film. Instead we get wonk-talk: "cumulative," "congruence," "synthesis." Yes, "the humanities" and the sciences do resemble, copy each other. All divvy up into departments where, for careerism, all honor the taboo against seeing or referencing anything in anyone else's department. All want a literacy stripped of humane references. Goodbye outside perspectives. Hello claustrophobia of dehumanized wonk-speak.
Aristotle first divided the arts from the sciences and, on balance, I think he got it right. Works of art are unique and stand forever. However, scientific discoveries are always in danger of becoming obsolete - for example, Newton's laws of motion were blown out of the water by general relativity and quantum field theory. History, however, is an interesting case - it is clearly part of the arts and humanities but historical theories can (and are) often rendered obsolete with further research.

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