Blog Post

Conference Report: Science and Method in the Humanities, Rutgers University

Earlier this month, Natura, the interdisciplinary science and epistemology working group here at Rutgers supported by the Rutgers British Studies Center, organized and put on a conference entitled "Science and Method in the Humanities." This conference, featuring an opening keynote by Barbara Hernstein Smith (Duke), sought to explore interdisciplinary linkages between science and the humanities, as well as to foster emergent methodological discourses.

John Savarese, an organizer, and I, a presenter, live tweeted the event (#scimethod12), eliciting strong responses from members of our communities who couldn't attend the event. The inevitable Barbara Hernstein Smith vs. Stanley Fish moment, especially, raised eyebrows in the lecture hall as well across social media.

Professor Smith's most provocative moments came when she suggested that, contrary to what individuals on either side of the supposed science/humanities divide may think, the methods of each disciplinary cluster shouldn't be thought as that area's exclusive intellectual property. Quantitative methods, she argued, should not be confined to the sciences just as interpretive methods should not be confined to the humanities. While a so-called "scientific method" might have been designed to fulfill the aims of science, the underlying methodology can be applicable across disciplines.

John and I split our resources to cover two strands of panels. I covered "The Origins of the Scientific Method," and presented a paper at "Minds and Methodologies." The former session, as it turned out, might have also been subtitled "The Limits of Knowledge": Ari Margolin started out with a fascinating paper on Aristotelian and Galilean conceptions of science, drawing a fascinating distinction between ancient Greek and early modern notions of empiricism. Erin Kelly's talk on Francis Bacon emphasized how a theory of forms tempered Bacon's idea of empiricism -- as a concept limited by human reason. According to Bacon, via Erin, we change matter by shaping form from without; we change ourselves by changing nature from within. Colin Webster closed out the panel with a paper on the ontology of ancient Greek visual diagrams (visual aids: always a winner). He quite convincingly argued for an intellectual history wherein the ancient Greek diagram gained epistemological dominance over the object or phenomenon itself. A key example for Colin was that of rainbows in Aristotle.

After lunch at the Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis, Elizabeth Oldfather and I gave presentations on the "Minds and Methodologies" panel that seemed to take two sides of the same coin. Both of our presentations were concerned with the cognitive literary critical practice of mind-reading. Elizabeth argued for a submerged intellectual historical account to bolster the methodological underpinnings of this practice. My approach, which was admittedly less generous, argued for the necessity of a methodological discourse in all of biological literary criticism in order to justify the textual interpretative work these critical approaches lay claim to.

In all, it was a fascinating day of thinking about the intersections, correspondences, and methodological issues at hand in the sciences and the humanities. Natura attracted a group from across the nation, around the globe, and across disciplines -- a welcome heterogeneity that showed in the diversity of perspectives on display at every session.


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