We Americans are fundamentally bourgeois. Most of our lives entail the pursuit of material interests governed by egalitarian visions and democratic sensibilities. Our high esteem for the natural sciences, then, makes a lot of sense. Scientific research yields the technological advances that enable our comfort-driven society. Furthermore, the scientific method establishes an equal playing field for scientists, such that thinkers are judged by tangible success, not by erudition or authority.
Because natural science comports so well with the interests of our society, we sometimes give it a privileged status: We accept natural science as the most important field of study for human flourishing. Indeed, this elevation seems justified because, of all the branches of knowledge, the natural sciences seem the great success story in the history of higher learning. They constitute the field in which the application of reason to experience yields a tangible value — progress toward greater material prosperity.
In the last few centuries, as the natural sciences succeeded in furthering knowledge time and again, practitioners in the humanities became jealous. Universities, Yale among them, fostered the development of new disciplines that attempted to bring the scientific method to bear on the study of society and individual humans. If other disciplines could be made scientific, the thought went, we humans would be better able to adjudicate between various political, societal and philosophical theories. The major pursuit of the new disciplines was a general law applicable to human behavior that would parallel the natural laws of the sciences.
This transformation had two consequences. First, the humanities, traditionally the focus of intellectual activity at universities, were less emphasized as a result of competition from natural and social sciences. Second, because the humanities did not attempt to produce scientific theories or claim any other foundation for certainty, their claims went undervalued.
Yale today is an heir to these developments. It is true that Yale devotes many of her resources to the study of and training in the humanities. Yet on an intellectual level, the humanities are maligned. For example, consider the fact that the idea of free will is broadly rejected at Yale. One reason for this rejection is that insofar as the social scientist searches for a general law applicable to human behavior, he must reject the idea that humans are fundamentally free. But another, more prominent reason that many students and professors have adopted is the view that man is nothing more than a material creature. Since matter acts according to natural laws, and since indeterminacy in physics could only produce chance, any completely material being could not be truly free.
It should be clear that the reduction of man to mere matter — physicalism — necessarily means the belittlement of the humanities. All of human greatness is reduced to the interactions of physical stimuli, so that art, political theory and philosophy become materially determined phenomena subject to disinterested and meaningless study. And because in physicalism humans are not fundamentally free, moral judgment is unjustified and originality is undermined. Under physicalism, the humanities are a deeply flawed discipline.
Yet the humanities still grip our imagination. Inscribed upon the temple to Apollo at Delphi in classical Greece was the inscription “Gnothi seauton” — “Know thyself.” This phrase has a magnetic power; the admonition strikes at the heart of an inner turmoil undetected until now, stirring the spirited faculty of our soul to embark on a quest for understanding.
We intuit that science and social science, while important and valuable disciplines, cannot exhaust the command. And as creatures of our society, we do not know where else to begin. We are in the habit of looking to science to answer questions, but this question demands something more; it demands a deeper tradition. We must return to the humanities, to the conviction that humans are free and cannot be explained or controlled by the scientific method.
The humanities constitute a rich tradition of expression in the attempt to understand the human condition. If there is wisdom, if there is a robust vision of the good, if there is a true understanding of man, we can find it only by looking to and orienting ourselves by our intellectual forebears. We hold ourselves duty-bound to embrace these founts of wisdom.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.