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Consilient Literary Interpretation

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 26, Number 2, October 2002
pp. 312-333 | 10.1353/phl.2003.0014

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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 312-333


THIS IS AN EXCITING TIME in the history of human self-knowledge. Like the two souls in Plato's Symposium, the life sciences and the human sciences are slowly coming to terms with their painful divorce and are increasingly on speaking terms. Thanks to important developments across a broad range of academic disciplines from biology and neuroscience to anthropology and psychology, we are starting to glean the possibility of a new conceptual integration that may have important consequences for our understanding of human nature. After hundreds of years of virtuoso variations on the theme of philosophical and scientific dualism, we have come some way towards bridging the gap between mind and matter, biology and culture, science and the arts.

From the perspective of literary studies, two recent developments have been especially valuable. The previous decade saw a growing recognition among social scientists of the explanatory force of evolutionary theory, and of the ultimate bankruptcy of the nature-nurture opposition that forces biology and culture into different compartments. Since the social sciences have always supplied literary studies with food for thought, it would be strange if such developments did not reflect on literature, too. Equally important has been the increasing impatience among scholars in the humanities with the radical skepticism, antiscientism, and dogmatic agnosticism that turns both science and literature into mere self-validating narratives and sees no significant difference between descriptive and normative statements. Together, these theoretical shifts have slowly begun to pave the way for a new dialogue between those who study biology, psychology, and cultural artifacts like literature. Since the mid-1990s, a number of literary scholars have taken the first steps towards merging evolutionary and cultural explanation in the study of literature.

One striking defense of such a conceptual integration between science and literature was delivered a few years ago in Edward O. Wilson's Consilience. According to Wilson, there is "only one way to unite the great branches of learning and end the culture wars. It is to view the boundary between the scientific and literary cultures not as a territorial line but as a broad and mostly unexplored terrain awaiting cooperative entry from both sides" (p. 138). While he concedes that the two cultures can and should be characterized by "radically different goals and methods," he also stresses that interpretation provides a "logical channel of consilient explanation between science and the arts" (p. 234).

While we have good reason to be optimistic about the potential of this joint endeavor, it is nevertheless fraught with massive problems. The current track record in interdisciplinary literary studies is uneven, to say the least. Strange confusions about the nature and status of theory abound, and these often take the shape of spontaneous raids into foreign conceptual frameworks that are bound to baffle the practitioners of the host discipline. As Richard Levin importantly points out, there are numerous reasons why current interdisciplinary literary theories tend to become self-validating. There are no negative tests; critics tend to choose theories on the basis of ideological preferences rather than the criterion of truth; and there is a widespread assumption that theories can simply be transformed willfully whenever they do not meet the requirements of the interpreter.

Many of the problems Levin points to can, I think, be remedied by something as trivial as a change in attitude within the discipline of literature itself. For example, something has obviously gone seriously wrong when the automatic spouting of political ad hominem arguments and genetic fallacies has become second nature to so many critics. But there are other and more fundamental problems that seem intrinsic to the whole question of interdisciplinarity. One of these, according to Wilson, is that as we move forward in the hierarchy of sciences, from physics to biology to literature, we encounter a rapidly accelerating complexity: "It is far easier to go backward through the branching corridors than to go forward. . . . Biology is almost unimaginably more complex than physics, and the arts equivalently more complex than biology" (pp. 72-73).

Evolutionary critics must thus confront, to paraphrase Wilson, the unimaginable complexity that accrues at the most complex level of interpretation. But...

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