The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategyon February 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm
The Servants of Strategy
The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.
Why We Do What We Do
The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.
The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.
The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.
A Division of Labor
These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.
Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.
Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.
Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…
I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:
1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?
These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.
What You Do
It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.