Dennett on Wieseltier V. Pinker in The New Republic [1]

Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism. Consider, for instance, this obiter dictum from Wieseltier:

It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.

In what sense irreducible? What inwardness, exactly, are we discussing? How has its autonomy as a category been established? In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope. And notice the ambiguity: is the study of those many expressions itself a matter governed by the rules of empirical research, or is it just another set of expressions of inwardness, interpretations of interpretations of interpretations? 

In short, who says? Wieseltier says, on behalf on the humanities, which thus declares itself authoritative with all the pomposity of a fake pope

Philosophical matters are those that demand answers that can stand up to all things considered and hence cannot be addressed without suspending the enabling assumptions of any more specific field of science or inquiry. Wieseltier seems to believe that these matters are the exclusive province of philosophers, professionals who have been licensed to hold forth on them because of some advanced training in the humanities that qualifies them to do this important work. That is a common enough illusion, fostered by the administrative structures of academia, and indeed many (paid, professional, tenured) philosophers cling to it, but the plain fact is that every discipline generates philosophical issues as it advances, and they cannot be responsibly addressed by thinkers ignorant of the facts (the findings, the methods, the problems) encountered in those disciplines.

A philosopher in the sub-discipline of aesthetics who held forth on the topic of beauty in music but who couldn't read music or play an instrument, and who was unfamiliar with many of the varieties of music in the world, would not deserve attention. Nor would an ethicist opining on what we ought to do in Syria who was ignorant of the history, culture, politics and geography of Syria. Those who want to be taken seriously when they launch inquiries about such central philosophical topics as morality, free will, consciousness, meaning, causality, time and space had better know quite a lot that we have learned in recent decades about these topics from a variety of sciences. Unfortunately, many in the humanities think that they can continue to address these matters the old-fashioned way, as armchair theorists in complacent ignorance of new developments.

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. 

Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.