- Fresh Networks:Science, Literature, Feminism, and Cultural Studies
In the current scene, in which science—especially evolutionary psychology and cognitive science—predicts that the laboratory will soon provide explanations for all human behavior, including the creation and consumption of art and literature, what should the response of the humanities be? Should we be "talking back" to the scientists, displaying their ignorance of the complexities of our fields, attacking the capacity of scientific reductionism to explain Shakespeare? Should new lines be drawn and fortified in the "science wars"? Should modes of understanding established in the humanities be extended to a rethinking of the sciences? Can insights and models from the sciences be imported profitably into the ways we think about literature and culture, as ways to reframe the questions we ask or to reinvigorate our theories and practices? In sum, how exactly should we be thinking about the relations between the humanities and the sciences? The six books reviewed here will not gain the notoriety attained by Consilience, E. O. Wilson's popular attempt to promote a unification of knowledge under the banner of scientific reductionism, or How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker's attempt to give a full account of the mind through evolutionary psychology. This is a shame, since they provide smart, often provocative attempts to rethink the territory between what C. P. Snow famously called the "two cultures." Together they also reveal the turbulence in this academic pursuit, since, while they have plenty of points of agreement, they sometimes differ radically in their stances toward science, their attitudes about the value of social-constructionist accounts of knowledge, their friendliness toward scientific method and reductionism, and their conclusions about the compatibility or possibilities of exchange between the sciences and the humanities.
One of the essays collected in Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human directly takes on "The Sciences and the Humanities Today," and much of the rest of the book is a brief for a constructivist understanding of knowledge—including knowledge in both the sciences and humanities. As such, it is a good place to begin. It lucidly (and polemically) lays out many of the fundamental conflicts at play in the territory between the sciences and the humanities. While this essay firmly sides with constructivism and an associated "relativism," the book works to defuse the caricatured positions in the so-called "science wars"—between the supposedly monstrous postmodern relativists and the supposedly naïve scientific [End Page 199] realists. Smith leans toward the side of feminist and antiracist critiques of science, but she distinguishes between constructivist and social constructionist understandings of knowledge, here making the case for the former. Social constructionism she characterizes as more politically engaged, focused on a cultural critique of the naturalization of beliefs about race, class, gender, and sexuality and of the ways such naturalization is implicated in sustaining dominant social and political formations. Constructivism, on the other hand, is more descriptive and explanatory, emerging most immediately from the work of Ludwik Fleck (whom Smith particularly champions), Thomas S. Kuhn, Michel Foucault, David Bloor, and Bruno Latour.
From the constructivist point of view, Smith explains, "truth" is not what a realist thinks it is (or at least hopes it could almost...