The news is completely dominated by COVID right now. And one of the things that people are really concerned about is the importance of paying attention to scientific and medical experts. Let’s make one thing COMPLETELY clear: you ABSOLUTELY should be paying attention to people like scientific and medical experts. This is not a debate about THAT. But there’s been some interesting things happen in public discourse over the last few weeks that merit some attention from a social scientific and even humanistic POV, as well.
On April 16th @SciencewithKaye tweeted: I didn’t get why we were required humanities in undergrad. I was a science student! But now, when the world’s attention is on a virus—a topic I’ve spent my whole adult life studying—what I think about most are social structures, inequality, and sacrifice. I think about people.
There’s been this tension between the sciences and the “soft sciences” and the humanities for FOREVER. And they ARE very different ways of seeing the world…kind of? But they are not incompatible. So today we’re going to talk about an old rivalry and what that looks like TODAY, as in RIGHT NOW. Because COVID has made the need for multiple ways of understanding the world really evident. We need to be able to recognize observable, objective patterns, we need to be able to recognize power relationships, we need to recognize humanity, we need to recognize proofs in a variety of forms, we need to recognize the power of messages, and the necessity of the arts.
So in order to understand all of this we’re going to turn back the clock a bit. Let us consider two thinkers that you may not have given a lot of thought to before – Rene Descartes and Giambattista Vico. So, if you would, join me in a brief look at the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Rene Descartes is one of the most important people in Modernity. He famously said “I think therefore I am” and for many people, that’s all they know of him, if they know anything about him at all. And that’s okay. We’ll talk a bit more about what he did in a minute. But let’s just consider that phrase for a moment.
That’s a REALLY powerful statement. The problem of existence is a long-standing philosophical issue. How do we know we really ARE? How do we know anything is real? Questions about reality and what we can know to be true are kind of at the heart of philosophy.
So Descartes is making an awfully bold statement. He is claiming, undoubtedly, that he exists. Think for a moment how grand a statement that really is. There’s some history there. In the bible when God sends Moses to the Israelites from the burning bush Moses asks him who should he say is sending him, and God tells him “I AM.” I AM is LITERALLY God’s name. To proclaim your existence is not just an observation that you are there – it’s a bold proclamation that you are part of creation – you’re kind of god-like. You’re not just a shadow on Plato’s cave – you’re REAL.
The value of existence has been debatable, however, throughout the years. For example. Stephen Crane famously wrote in 1899
“A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
So there’s some perspective that is needed here. On the one hand it is very bold to say “I am! I exist!” But that is not the same thing as saying “I cannot be ignored.” Still, it’s pretty confident for a person to think about all there is to doubt in the world and decide that you can say the same thing about yourself that God says defines godliness.
But how does Descartes know he exists? What makes his existence? Because he can think. That’s weird. How does thinking prove one exists? Thinking doesn’t act upon the world, it does not provide empirical evidence of anything – there is no effect thinking has that shows that a person IS. So how does Descartes know?
Because Descartes is a kind of a skeptic. Descartes is sitting around basically doubting everything. He sees a fire, but can he trust his eyes? He feels with his fingers but can he trust his hands? He is sitting in a chair but can he trust that he is really doing that? All of that could be an illusion. The one thing he really knows is that he is THINKING about his state. He is THINKING about whether he sees the fire or whether he is sitting in a chair. My students tell me Descartes sounds like a big old stoner just staring at his hands going, “Whoah, is this REAL? Like, what if this is all JUST AN ILLUSION?” Maybe. But Descartes was lucid enough to know that he was thinking about this stuff. He KNEW he was thinking. He could be assured that even if he was just a brain in a jar his mind was active doing something. So even if his senses were flawed and the world around him wasn’t real, he knew he could think. THAT he could trust in. And so, he must be real because he had no doubts about that. He did not doubt that he had a mind and it was operating. Even if nothing else WAS his mind definitely WAS. So, he gave us what became a really important maxim: I think, therefore, I am. The evidence of thought proves the condition of existence.
But Descartes did more than just give us some philosophical footing in the modern age – he kind of gave us the foundation for all of science. Descartes basically invented the scientific method. He said that we should strive for as much clarity as possible by using deductive reasoning to test hypotheses. The test of a truth is the clarity by which it can be proven. For Descartes truth was observable and testable (so it may surprise some people to hear that he was a devout Catholic). Descartes approach and methodology revolutionized science and all other disciplines. It called for healthy skepticism and demanded that everything be tested and proven for it to be accepted. It produces what you learned as the scientific method when you were in school – begin with a hypothesis, design experiments, measure the results, repeat the experiments, and come to conclusions. Rationality was EVERYTHING. There was no room for subjectivity. Clearly a group like the Sophists, as we discussed in earlier episodes, would have been an abomination. Truth was objective.
Descartes’ methodology and philosophy changed all disciplines. Clarity and objectivity became the goal of everybody and everything, basically. It all came down to what could rationally be tested and proven. Between Descartes and Kant (who we’re not going to go into now) you basically had the basis for the Enlightenment. (Okay, there are a few others big names – Locke, Newton, Smith – but Kant and Descartes provide some of the bare bones.)
And this is really important to understand as a turning point in human history. The Enlightenment is a huge revolution for western civilization. We moved from a society that was grounded in faith and dependent on monarchy to a society grounded in rationality and that believed in natural rights. Enlightenment thinkers believed that humanity could ultimately perfect itself through the power of the mind – the Enlightenment was all about progress. Descartes gave us a process of scientific/rational thinking and it literally changed the world.. And a lot of that was great. But in some ways it made for a much more antiseptic world, too.
Which brings us to Vico.
Giambattista Vico was a professor of Rhetoric in Naples. He had grander ambitions but he never made it out of that position. To be honest, Vico was never appreciated while he was alive. It wasn’t until 100-150 years later that anyone noticed or cared much about Vico’s work. But when the world took note of Vico they took note in a big way. In many ways he is the father of the social sciences and semiotics. Vico took issue with Descartes. He believed there were other ways to see the world. And he had a unique vision of truth and humanity that is worth talking about today.
Vico criticized Descartes for arguing that math and science are the only legitimate forms of knowledge and treating other kinds of inquiry like history, law and art as inferior. Vico argued that rhetoric was a superior philosophy because all knowledge is based on argument.
Let’s consider that for a moment – is science rhetorical? Do you make an argument with science or is it just objective fact? In actuality we have seen many ways in which science is rhetorical. We have seen people try to use science to prove one race is inferior, which other scientists have shown is blatantly untrue. We have seen some scientists argue that women are inherently worse at some subjects, which other scientists have shown to be clearly false. These are people who are making arguments with the “facts” they observe. And think about the very issues with science in the public now. Think about the issue of climate change – can you think of a more rhetorical issue? Or vaccines? These are things people are arguing about on a daily basis! So even when the facts are CLEAR science HAS to make an argument.
So Vico objected to Descartes refusal to accept the importance of language in producing knowledge. Language, according to Vico, reveals the process of reason, passion, imagination, social convention, historical contexts, national language, and has socialized us.
Vico described something he called the sensus communis, or common sense that was just as important, if not more so than the Cartesian method. Common sense doesn’t mean for Vico exactly what it means today. When we say common sense we mean a kind of practical understanding of the world. Vico mean the sense that we have in common – our shared understandings. What are those things which we have in common which connect and bind us together which give us a shared understanding of the world around us?. Language gives us access to that common sense
History is made by people, and people are not always rational. So our methods for discovering knowledge might not necessarily be scientific and mathematical. We may need the rhetorical and the artistic to understand the world around us because the world is created by historical, cultural, and linguistic forces.
Vico is one of the first, then, to think in terms of historical context. He argued the historical circumstance determine the actions of people and social institutions. So people who study history should think of the standards of that historical period, not their own time, when they evaluate history.
Vico was just as interested in truth as Descartes was, but he had a much more nuanced understanding of it than Descartes did. Vico maintained that there were abstract truths which were general or eternal. These may be transcendental or even scientific. But there were also concrete or specific truths which change from situation to situation or in the moment. These are both important – and you need different methods of inquiry to understand them.
In Vico’s understanding of the world reality is constructed rhetorically. Think of it this way – if you have to make a decision in your daily life, you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide who to marry you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide what to have for dinner you don’t use the scientific method. When you decide who to vote for you PROBABLY don’t use the scientific method. And life is made up of THESE decisions. Our reality is crafted not by mathematical, scientific questions, but by arguments we make to each other and with ourselves. And so, we need methods of inquiry outside of the scientific method. We need to understand truth and reality outside of just what can be tested.
Now I want to bring all this back to the proverbial real world. We can talk all day about a bunch of old dead guys but if they don’t help us understand the world we live in today why am I telling you any of this? But I think Descartes and Vico give us a lot of insight into our current situation living under the shadow of COVID-19 and the way people are dealing with it.
One – Descartes was absolutely right about science and in a time of pandemic we need to be listening to that. What is rational and can be tested is of the ultimate important. There are somethings that are just more rational and I guess “true” than other things.
Facts matter. What can be proven objectively should guide our policies, our daily decisions, and our approach to this crisis.
As of early May America had 28% of COVID deaths even though we only have 4% of the world’s population. This can largely be attributed to the fact that our population and our leaders have not listened to science, reason, and fact. This is a time when the scientific method and process matters. Our refusal to acknowledge the importance of science and rational thought processes has cost thousands of lives. This is just the initial problems that COVID presents us with. Obviously there are economic, educational, and psychological issues that will plague us for years because of this crisis. Each of these will require evidence-based approaches to problem-solving.
We have seen how other countries (not the USA) have responded (like Germany, South Korea, and New Zealand) and there are huge disparities in outcomes. There are obviously cultural differences to account for (hello, Vico) but the truth is that in these countries there has been a much greater deference to science and expertise. But the core issue is a scientific one – this is a medical problem. This virus cannot be solved with military solutions or economic sanctions – we must understand the scientific nature of this problem and come to scientific solutions.
But that is not all there is to the story. Vico has a great deal to tell us about the world we are living in as well. This is a cultural problem, as well.
For one thing, this virus is hitting Black Americans so much harder than it is hitting White Americans. There has been a lot of talk about comorbidities, but in order to understand this problem you have to understand some cultural and rhetorical truths. You have to understand some things about institutional and legal racism. You have to understand the way history works – not science and math, but the way Black Americans have been historically, legally, and politically subjugated in this country. You have to understand that Jim Crow was, in fact, an effort to keep Black people sick, and that the effects are still being felt. That’s a communal truth, not a scientific one. What is causing these issues are historical truths, not scientific and mathematical ones.
There is also the question of WHY America is not paying attention to science. Americans have historically distrusted experts. It goes back to the Puritans and the colonial eras. Americans are so invested in individual liberty that putting their trust in an institution like the government or the scientific community seems like a political or ideological betrayal. This is a matter of history and identity. For many Americans it is a matter of common sense as Vico understood it – what we share, what we understand together is that the establishment, in its various forms is untrustworthy. What we trust is the market, and science is in opposition to the market in this scenario, therefore we cannot trust science. This is definitively a rhetorical truth, and one that cannot be combatted with the scientific method alone. It takes an argument and identification – it takes a rhetorical response because these are rhetorical issues not rational ones.
The decisions that guide Americans are rhetorical decisions, not scientific ones, and as a result it will take a rhetorical framework to address the problems we have.
At the same time, some of the ways we have chosen to address our problems have been through rhetorical and artistic means. We have reached out to each other through Zoom happy hours. We have immersed ourselves in the arts, which have become much more available (movies, music [including opera], and books). We have looked to history to see what to expect from the future. In all of these ways we are using language, rhetoric, the arts, and human, common sense to address our most serious problems. We are constructing our best realities not through scientific means but through contact with people and the arts – methods of inquiry which Descartes thought insignificant. Our daily decisions are not being made mathematically, but rhetorically
So what we see, I hope, is that the world in which we are living right now cannot survive without both methods of inquiry. We need science to survive this crisis. But we need rhetorical, historical, and artistic methods of thinking no less. We can’t understand (or survive) the world without a firm grasp on both. So the tension between science, social science, and the humanities, is nothing less than dangerous. The world is incomplete without each one. And our understanding of the world is incomplete if we deny them.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.