Interdisciplinary Epistemology and the Future of the Humanities/the Individual

by Mark Wallace

Interesting new article on interdisciplinarity, particularly what it means for humanities: “Bachelard, Cassirer and Early Interdisiplinary Humanities“, by Maria-Ana Tupan (Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, 8:4, 2016). Tupan quotes Sowon S. Park on the role of humanists in this new interdisciplinary dawn:

[H]umanists bear some responsibility for making accessible the rich observations of human mind to scientific research. The translation of literary terms into cognitive terms and vice versa, which is one of the primary activities of cognitive literary criticism, render a valuable service to the course of consilience by opening up the possibility of the two cultures talking to one another.

This “making accessible” of observations to scientific research still places humanities in an apparently subservient role to science, but at  least so far as their place within academia is concerned, humanities do seem destined for such a role – at best – in the foreseeable future. Any less modest claim than this may be doomed to failure.

Tupan’s central contention is that epistemology is no longer unified. At the level of possibilities for personal identification, this means that the scholar is dead and gone, and replaced by the research man. This idea is from Heidegger, quoted by Tupan:

The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written

This is a recognizable portrait. The individuality of the scholar gives way to the need to co-operate and compromise that the researcher deals with. Cultivating erudition is not something that one can be expected to make a career out of; rather each epistemological decision is made within a much more present social and economic context, with an ever-increasing need to justify one’s research according to the latest metrics.

Finally, citing Niklas Luhmann, Tupan writes: “In a highly developed society, discourses are not reflective of individual minds but connected to a higher order which is the communication system of society. ” This notion of the entire subsumption of the individual mind in the “communication system” may be disturbing. Can we really commit to consider the communication system a “higher order” to which our very minds are subservient – not just our behaviour, but our epistemology as well? This truly would mark the end of the enlightenment and of Kant’s “public use of reason“. Instead of “Think, but obey!“, we face the injunction: “Don’t think. Also, obey!”