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September 6, 2013 / Tobin Craig

The Pinker/Wieseltier Debate

I’m sure Steven Pinker’s recent essay in the New Republic, entitled “Science is not your Enemy,” received much comment, and generated some fine responses, but I just came across Leon Wieseltier’s lengthy and powerful response, also at TNR.  An adequate treatment of the exchange would be worthwhile, and I may attempt it in a future post, but for the moment let me make a couple of quick observations.  As Wieseltier himself intimates, this quarrel reminds of the great Snow/Leavis debate on Snow’s “Two Cultures” essay.  But for all his fierce and learned eloquence, Wieseltier seems satisfied to play defense, that is, to insist on drawing a clear line between the sciences and the humanities, which he suggests corresponds to a distinction between facts and values, and perhaps also between man and the rest of nature.  Of course we are familiar with such boundaries; they are some of the most fundamental features of our intellectual world.  But they are problematic — and even ultimately unacceptable.  For man is among the natural beings.  And the whole is one.  To have to settle for two sciences, or two incongruent modes of inquiry, is to declare that ultimately the human effort to understand the whole is impossible.  So one or the other must claim primacy.  I think Wieseltier is correct in charging Pinker with a covert argument subsume the humanities into the sciences.  I also think he is correct that this is a doomed effort.  So then what?  I think an adequate engagement with this situation requires making the argument for the primacy of ‘the humanities’ — that science stands upon arguments that aren’t themselves scientific, and yet, for science to be anything serious, it must presume those arguments are true.  Moreover, that the is/ought or fact/value distinction is methodological principle, not an ontological distinction.  Our ‘values’ are decisively shaped by what we believe to be true about ourselves and our world.  Science is thus both more and less serious than its most vocal advocates suggest.  It is less serious, in that it cannot adequately justify itself (assert and defend its goodness) on its own, but it is more serious in that its findings really do matter to how humans understand themselves and so how they are — humans including scientists.  Can Pinker’s neuroscience (his scientific findings) really explain Pinker’s neuroscience (his activity as a scientist)?  And if so, would that not call into question the authority, admirability, and theoretical status of his findings?

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3 Comments

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  1. Alex Barton / Sep 6 2013 1:33 pm

    Nice post.

    Two related questions of clarification: You write that the “fact/value distinction is methodological principle, not an ontological distinction.” Do you think that the Pinkers of the world consider it an ontological distinction? And in what sense isn’t it an ontological distinction?

    • Tobin Craig / Sep 6 2013 2:34 pm

      Thanks Alex. Pinker strikes me as somewhat atypical in his willingness to consider moral/ethical implications of scientific findings, and so to transgress the boundary. But I don’t know. The latter question is massive. In this context, I would just submit that what we call ‘values’ are as real and as causative as any facts we think we know.

  2. Alex Barton / Sep 6 2013 3:10 pm

    But I thought the issue with–and apparent need for–the fact-value distinction is that we have no way of determining (so the argument goes) which values or opinions are true and which aren’t. I suspect I’ve misunderstood you, but I don’t think many scientists would deny that “values” are causative. Or are you pointing to something like the distinction between (for lack of better words) pre- and post-scientific experience found in Strauss’s work?

    In any case I don’t mean to involve you in a long discussion.

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