June 19, 2009
Jonah Lehrer and The Fourth Culture
I should have read Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist a long time ago. Jeffrey J Cohen’s excerpt at In the Middle just bumped it to the top of my list. Here’s Cohen:
Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I’d like to quote this morning.
And here’s Lehrer (as quoted by JJC):
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow’s original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan’s] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? … While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved … When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art … No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.
For my part — and it’s taken me a looooong time to come around to this view — I think one of the paradigmatic approaches to this problem of disciplinary edges is to spend a lot of time thinking about media. You simply HAVE to think about the brain, the body, culture, languages and codes, history, society, politics, commerce. Guys like Pinker want to settle old scores, spend a lot of time worrying about relativism. The people who are thinking seriously about media (inside and outside of the academy) have already moved on.