Skirmishes between the two cultures in an anti-intellectual age

The two cultures are, of course, those identified by C. P. Snow half a century ago:  the humanities and the sciences.  A lament of Snow and others is that the practitioners of these cultures are drifting apart, making an integrated intellectual life impossible.  There are worse things than ignoring each other, though.  Resources are finite, and status is always a zero-sum game, so competition and fighting are to be expected.  Snow himself thought English universities favored the humanities too heavily; proposals for reconciliation are usually to be on one party’s terms or the other’s, with a corresponding adjustment of relative status.

The two cultures differ both in subject matter and, I think, in fundamental goals.  One could say that both aim at the augmentation of knowledge and at the cultivation of students’ minds, but the first is more dominant in the science departments and the second is (or should be) more dominant in the humanities departments.  Science rests its claim to status on possessing a uniquely reliable and far-reaching method for acquiring truth about the world.  Its weakness is that it is mute on normative matters, so its competitor will always claim uncontested moral superiority.

As to the question of who should be king of the university, the answer must be philosophy, because even to adjudicate the various claims one must step into the role of a philosopher.  And what is philosophy?  Is it a science or a humanity?  One might say that the two traditions of philosophy, analytic and continental, represent the two possible answers.

I’ve read many English professors lamenting STEM’s supposed domination of the universities.  In terms of funding, this may be true, but clearly the humanities culture has a more dominating influence on thinking and action both inside and outside the university.  Consider that a humanistic dogma like “systemic racism” has had a greater influence on the contemporary mind than Newtonian mechanics, atomic theory, and the theory of evolution by natural selection all taken together.  Or consult the lists of most important nonfiction books of the year that highbrow periodicals sometimes put out.  Or consider the books that are assigned university-wide to incoming freshmen.  People don’t care about the natural world; they care about the wars for social status on which the sciences have little influence.  All of this should put worries of a STEM takeover to rest.

Let us sharpen the question by focusing on the kings of each culture.  Philosophers are pretty clear on who those are.  Physics is the king of sciences.  The world is just a bunch of particles, and physics tells us how those particles act, right?  (The second statement, at least, is true, in an aspirational sense.)  All other physical sciences (astronomy, chemistry, etc) have essentially become branches of physics, and most biologists will tell you that their subject is ultimately reducible to physics, since they are eager to avoid being accused of believing in an elan vital.  “To be understood” means, at least by this way of thinking, “to be reduced to physics”.

Among the humanities, the situation was less clear until recently, when critical theory ascended to his throne.  The categories of white male oppressor and other oppressed is now the universal hermeneutic, the lens through which all art, history, and social phenomena must be interpreted.  This is a pity.  Critical theory is a crude, barbarous mentality, a Manichean worldview whose solution to every problem is to hunt down the scapegoat, a totalitarian mania, a reversion to pre-civilized thinking.  “To be understood” means by this way of thinking for the white patriarchal culprit to have been exposed.

So, for modern man, the question is, which tells the ultimate truth about the world, physics or critical race theory?  It’s not a very attractive choice, scientism or mob obscurantism, but between the two I would much prefer the first for maintaining at least a truncated connection to the Logos.  Unfortunately, science has already surrendered, with journals, laboratories, and collaborations making grotesque proclamations of anti-white bigotry and promising stricter policing of the beliefs of researchers.

Ever since the great purges following the communist victories in 1945, to prove that one is to the Left of one’s opponent is ipso facto to win the argument.  When “The Two Cultures” was written, it was possible to insinuate that English professors were backward-looking romantics with a soft spot for fascism, while scientists were the harbingers of progress.  Today, the humanities have gotten decisively to the Left of the sciences, despite most scientists–like everyone else with intellectual pretensions–considering themselves men of the Left.  After all, ideological conformity is not yet enforced in engineering and the hard sciences, so there are bound to be a non-negligible number of quiet intellectual nonconformists in their ranks.

More damning yet, science has been thrust into a structurally conservative position.  The majority of scientists, run-of-the-mill liberals but wanting to devote their time to research rather than politics, are not only behaving the same way as their secretly conservative colleagues; they are performatively endorsing a key conservative position.  For it is today a matter of disagreement whether any organization is allowed to devote itself fully to goods other than social justice.  The Left is openly totalitarian, declaring that all organizations must be not merely non-racist but actively anti-racist (i.e. anti-white), that neutrality (“silence”) is itself a form of intolerable racism.  Few dare openly dispute this (hence I said a matter of “disagreement” rather than of “dispute”), but it must be disconcerting to moderate liberals and those rightward of them.  A research collaboration simply carrying about its business and failing to “take action” and “speak out” against “white supremacy”, treating such things as beyond its scope and competence qua scientific collaboration, is engaging in a radically reactionary act.

Some time ago, the collaboration of which I am a part decided to issue a Black Lives Matter statement.  Heaven knows what made them think they had the competence for such a thing.  They wanted all the senior members to sign.  Only I refused, and so a small outpost of the Logos officially joined the Enemy.  I should still be grateful that we have had only one anti-racist struggle session, with the next a semester away; my parish church has had two already.

8 thoughts on “Skirmishes between the two cultures in an anti-intellectual age

  1. JMSmith is the sole dissident in Texas. I’m the sole dissident in Washington State, or rather the sole dissident in a particular multi-institution, fairly well-known collaboration. Regardless, we intellectual nonconformists are indeed a small group.

  2. Did you have to explain your refusal to sign the statement? In a truly liberal order, this sort of thing would be banned for disparate impact, since support for BLM has nothing to do with job performance. There may be no fanatics in your collaboration. The willing signers may just be unscrupulous on this particular point. But fanatics are watching to see who doesn’t laugh at the joke, who doesn’t eat the ham, who doesn’t bow their head, etc., etc. The real shibboleths are negative shibboleths, since mouthing shibboleths is no proof of sincerity. To flush out their enemies, fanatics must find something their enemies will not do. Spitting or trampling on the cross was once a negative shibboleth among anti-Christians. We now have many social justice committees, workshops, etc. Attendance is voluntary, and they therefore serve as a mild sort of negative shibboleth. They serve to flush out the unsound people who have scruples about attending these things.

    • Hi JMSmith,

      I did have to explain, but I arranged, in a clever or cowardly way, to do this as quietly as possible. I skipped the meeting where I expected it to be discussed, knowing there was no way I could affect the outcome and not wanting my presence to be an automatic endorsement. Then the head PI emailed me to ask me to sign, and I replied that I thought such a thing would be an abuse of my authority. The statement was, after all, primarily being sent to our students and postdocs, and I said that it is not my place to tell them to endorse a political movement or do anti-racist study or action rather than work for a day. This was certainly the safest ground for me to stand on, and it is my genuine belief.

      • Raising an exquisite and slightly baffling scruple was a good tactical move, but the tactic only works as part of what I will call a larger strategy of personal obfuscation. You need to cultivate a reputation for exquisite and slightly baffling scruples, so that most people see your refusal to sign manifestos as a personal foible, rather that a personal counter-manifesto. In a comment on Richard’s recent post, I mentioned that I have just learned the expression “go grey” from a survivalist website. I’m not that kind of survivalist myself, but I am interested in survival. The general insight of “go grey” is that sticking out is not a survival strategy. This is tricky for people with unpopular opinions, since personal integrity will in most cases forbid outright lying. As I wrote in the comment to Richard, we must “teach each other how to be faithful to our convictions without painting the word scapegoat on our foreheads.”

  3. Hi Bonald,

    Nice post.

    Do you expect to suffer any consequences for your refusal to sign? Is this list of signers (and by implication, non-signers) made public to students?

    • Hi Ian,

      See my reply to JMSmith on the details of how I refused. The list was published to students, and this was the grounds of my objection.

      I doubt I will suffer any consequences this time. The PI said he understood my position, which I will interpret to mean that he respected it. He’s an older liberal and so probably not too enthusiastic for political purges and associated drama. It’s the younger members that I’ll have to worry about, especially the one who took the diversity officer position we unfortunately created a year ago. So on the one hand, there are people who will continue to push this stuff. On the other hand, as protests get off the front pages, there will be a tendency to redirect the “antiracism” focus to more useful and appropriate internal issues like “welcoming atmosphere” and minority recruitment. I have a very good record with recruiting and working with women and minorities, so I’m not worried about this. As I’ve written here before, things like implicit bias training have some quite sensible practices underneath the false and hateful ideology used to recommend them.

      I’d guess I’ve got a year or two before being kicked out, a bit of time to devise an independent research program. Each year some black guy is going to be shot resisting arrest. Nothing can be done about that. Reduce policing, and criminality will increase until it gets the same pushback. So we’ll probably have riots each summer, accompanied by orgies of anti-Western and anti-white rhetoric. What we’ve all learned from this iteration of it is that the number of people who won’t bend the knee or sign the statement is very small, and operations would not be significantly affected by just purging all of us.

      • When these Chekists mobilize, does anyone report their activities to friendly (well, friendly-adjacent, at least) contacts in the State government or in the press?

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