Guest post: Looking in the mirror to find out if I am relevant (HUMANITIES TODAY). A view from Central Europe

The preceding contribution in the HUMANITIES TODAY series on this blog raised some important questions regarding the importance of humanities in the modern society. Alexandra reminds us how “social relevance” is a way too narrowly defined:

»The problems I think start when one needs to establish the frame of reference for this ‘justification’: if what is deemed as ‘socially relevant’ or with social impact is quantified in terms of material things/results, then this is very far from the purpose of these disciplines« (https://bodiesandacademia.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/and-your-relevance-is-by-alexandra-ion-humanities-today/).

Of course, we could easily note that it is hard to see the immediate material benefits or social relevance of some of the scientific endeavors such as attempts at charting the edges of the Universe (i). On the other hand, at least some scholars within the humanities do offer results that might have a practical application. For this occasion let it suffice to point to those who have something to say about various aspects of human communication: e.g. linguists studying structures and meanings in various languages can improve the way foreign languages are taught (and their data are actually applied for this purpose by linguists working in the field of glotodidactics) while anthropologists studying the way people communicate and manage their emotions in various cultures can prevent some of the misunderstandings between cultures coming into contact.

While I find the cited Alexandra’s remark to be a spot-on when it calls for the abandonment of using the material benefits as a criterion for the evaluation of disciplines, perhaps a radical change in our approach is needed. Maybe it is time to consider whether we frame the debate in the right way whenever we explicitly try to fight the disparity between the social status of humanities and that of sciences. After all, under these headings heterogeneous fields have been lumped and we should consider whether our attempts to make sound arguments are hindered by the fact that we do not operate with coherent categories in the first place.

Sometimes it is claimed that the difference between these two realms of research can be found between humanists’ struggle to interpret the world and scientists’ practice that is based on experiments and “hard data” (often quantitatively expressed). This argument, however, seems rather simplistic as both practices are more interlinked than it is usually acknowledged. This can be illustrated with an example from neuroscience, or more precisely from the ongoing research on the mirroring properties of the human brain (ii). It appears that neuroscientists, once they get their results with the help of sophisticated machines used for the observation of brain activity, still need to give their results a meaning through the process of interpretation. In other words, while technology allows observing mirror properties of brains of macaques or humans, creating hypotheses of what these mirror properties mean in terms of the functioning of the studied beings required a philosophical kind of thinking. And it was precisely the knowledge of philosophy what turned out to be useful in creating a reasonable hypothesis. Marco Iacoboni tells a story on how Vittorio Gallese has drawn on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty while devising the model for understanding the function of mirror neurons, as well as a story on how he cooperated closely with another philosopher – Alvin Goldman – while promoting this theory:

»(…) Gallese met coincidentally Alvin Goldman, a philosopher interested in the problem of other minds. Goldman is a paladin of the simulation theory, which holds that in order to understand what another person feels when, say, she is in love, we must pretend to be in love ourselves. He immediately caught the implications of this new mirror neuron research for his own thinking, and he and Gallese worked together on a paper that proposed for the first time that mirror neurons may be the neural correlate of the simulation process necessary to understand other minds« (Iacoboni, Marco. 2009. Mirroring People. The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. New York: Picador, p. 17.).

The value of collaborating with philosophers turned out to be a useful one even later – as evident from the frequency of collaborations of the philosopher Corrado Sinigaglia with neuroscientists such as Vittorio Gallese and Giacomo Rizzolatti. It turns out that even for a scientist working with hard data philosophical thinking can have a more distinguished function than being an idle talk. Getting the results is only one part of the process and we have to be constantly aware of the fact that results never conclude the story, but rather invite for new questions and new interpretations.

The benefits of philosophy in the development of the research on mirror neurons reminds me of the following statement found in Bertrand Russell’s The Value of Philosophy, where he explains how philosophy is important in teaching us how to ask the right questions:

»Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation« (http://www.ditext.com/russell/rus15.html).

As in any other sophisticated human endeavor, good philosophical thinking and the ability to ask the right questions requires a long practice. This is where we can see the value of those school subjects that are nowadays categorized as Humanities. It seems to me that it is precisely through these subjects where children might and should learn how to form their own questions and build arguments. I think it would not be an overstatement to claim that one can hardly expect from an average teenager to creatively question the issues pertaining to chemistry, physics or biology. For a number of reasons their participation in such courses is doomed to be rather receptive, as anything else would require an advanced knowledge of these fields. However, given that each student can think about the world on the basis of their own experiences, they can be stimulated to think about it from an original angle. Given that each child approaches a literary work or a work of art with a unique set of experiences, the said work can always be understood from a unique angle and unique arguments can be found to support the stated point. Then I wonder whether we can develop more sophisticated arguments that will insist on the importance of certain subjects in the school curriculum as well as on the importance of having skilled academically trained teachers to run such courses. It also provides us with some space for arguing for the importance of us working in the academia. After all, there might be a link that explains why precisely better providers of academic education are often better in research too…

(i)     Please consider the distances of the objects listed here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_most_distant_astronomical_objects. This, however, is only used to make a point and presents no attempt to discredit the work of astrophysicists. Oh, when it comes to this topic, I shall also mention that I adore the following video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21iUUe-W8L4. Needless to say, many of the scientists do not insist on the practical application as the only thing valuable. Although bashing the humanities is not something Richard Feynman was unknown for, perhaps we could find an ally in his thoughts expressed in the essay The Value of Science where he stresses the importance of “intellectual enjoyment”: »Another value of science is the fun called intellectual enjoyment which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about it, and which others get from working in it. This is a very real and important point and one which is not considered enough by those who tell us it is our social responsibility to reflect on the impact of science on society« (http://alexpetrov.com/memes/sci/value.html). However, one can easily be sceptical about whether this common motivation is going to appeal to the policy-makers, given that we live in a rather antintellectual climate where scientists already experience troubles in general, and those interested in “curiosity-driven science” are not likely to fare well in particular. Please see Brian Cox’s presentation of how actually small share of the U.K. budget is alloted to science: http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_cox_why_we_need_the_explorers.html (the slide appears on 0:52).

(ii)   For a nice overview of the research on mirror neurons see: Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Corrado Sinigaglia. 2008. Mirrors in the Brain. How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions. Translated by F. Anderson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A novice to these topics might start with Christian Keysers’ Empathic Brain becasue this book provides a more readable/popularizing approach than the one written by Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia. For more details on Keysers’ book, please consult: http://www.empathicbrain.com.

This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector

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