I can appreciate this new trend because it mirrors part of the intellectual dynamic between me and my girlfriend, who is an English/Theatre major. From The New York Times:
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said â€œitâ€™s a new moment of hopeâ€ in an era when everyone is talking about â€œthe death of the humanities.â€ To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, â€™80s and early â€™90s â€” Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis â€” has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.
Word! The ground here is fertile. The politically charged and arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s – early 90s are mostly scientifically false. Discussions of them are quaint, like alchemy. By embracing neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, analysis of literature can reach a new level of intellecual rigor. This is similar to what philosophy has done — many philosophers study neuroscience and cognitive science with great interest.
Here’s another quote from the article:
Interest has bloomed during the last decade. Elaine Scarry, a professor of English at Harvard, has since 2000 hosted a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts. Over the years participants have explored, for example, how the visual cortex works in order to explain why Impressionist paintings give the appearance of shimmering. In a few weeks Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard, will give a talk about mental imagery and memory, both of which are invoked while reading.
You’d think this would be an obvious thing to look into, so it’s great that people are looking into it! Neurosicence and other brances of cognitive science are one of the best ways that we humans can come to better understand ourselves. Cognitive science and evolutionary psychology have given our species more concrete self-understanding than thousands of years of meditation, self-reflection, mythological theories, and navel-gazing.
Some people are uncomfortable with evolutionary psychology because it maintains that human beings are “just” animals that evolved features to deal with complex adaptive challenges, but many have realized this was true essentially since Darwin. Even though this can make evpsych unappealing, its explanatory power is so extensive that it will keep creeping into the humanities whether established professors like it or not. Confusing and complex topics demand explanatory theories.
H/t to Futurisms for the link, where Ari Schulman complains:
The crisis of the humanities implicit in the title of the Times piece arises from a sort of malaise of academic purposelessness, which is in turn related to a larger societal phenomenon wherein we increasingly believe that science is the only solid rock we have to stand on for understanding the world and how we should function in it.
Yes. “Science” is nothing more than “understanding the world”. “How we should function in it” is considerably more subjective and outside of science, however. It’s 2010, and people are still objecting to science as a means of understanding the world and ourselves? Very quaint.
The Futurisms folks should understand that we can embrace science for its explanatory power, but that doesn’t mean that we should use science to upgrade our bodies willy-nilly. The two concepts are not and shouldn’t be connected. We should be very careful about how we approach human enhancement, and not embrace it all uncritically just because it has to do with “science”.