The Humanities: Are They Truly Scientific?

What are the criteria for being called a “science”? Usually we seem to associate scientific thought with notions like “facts”, “the truth” and non-subjective enumerations of “the way the world works”. This “normal” interpretation of science often comes down to the idea of science as being able to describe and explain the universe according to a set of formal or natural laws. However, not each discipline that we normally consider to be a science seems to occupy such an “indisputably scientific” position; an indisputable position like physics or chemistry does. Not all the sciences are about the predictable domain of nature. Some of them handle about what might be the most difficult entity to capture in terms of laws: the human being and its utterly unpredictable behavior. Therefore the following question seems justified: are the disciplines that are trying to grasp this interpreting and subjective animal called “human” worthy of being called a science? That is, are the humanities truly scientific?

By humanities, I am referring to disciplines like history, literature and likewise disciplines having the human, or its creations, as its research object. In order for these disciplines to position themselves as being a collective of genuinely “scientific” endeavors, they could try to shed any accusations of subjectivism by adopting an empirical and falsifiable method of inquiry. Being “scientific” in this sense means having a positivistic stance of gathering data and inferring logical conclusions from this data; a stance that isn’t interfered by any introspective or intuitional attempts to gain knowledge. By choosing the positivistic route, no doubts about the objectivity (as being the counterpart of subjectivity) of the humanities’ claims can be made.

However, applying this empirical method of inquiry, and presupposing an attitude of “just sticking to the facts”, might hollow out all that is the humanities. And although the humanities might not be objective in the sense that physics or chemistry are objective, they still seem to be able to contribute valuable insights to our shared pool of knowledge. Therefore, it might be more reasonable for us to make a distinction – within the humanities – between: (1) descriptive inquiries and (2) hermeneutic inquiries.

By making this distinction, full clarity can be provided about (1) the areas within the humanities that are striving to represent “the facts”, and thus should be interpreted to provide an objective description of any state of affairs, and (2) the research that strives to come up with reasonable interpretations of historical events, texts and any other product of human creativity. By explicitly separating these two types of research from each other, we might be able to get the best of both worlds: on the one hand (1) we can satisfy our need for “objective data”, and on the other hand (2) we are still able to come up with interpretations of human constructs. This would provide us with the completest picture the humanities would be able to offer us.

So let’s wrap things up. You could say that the humanities provide us with interesting reflections on what might be going on in those creative minds of our ancestors. However, we should not expect the humanities to adhere to the rules of scientific investigation as they are laid down by positivism. In order to avoid the harmful trap of condemning all of the humanities to the realm of subjectivism, we could try to come up with a sub-domain within the humanities that is confining itself to empirically verifiable facts. However, on a holistic scale, the humanities should be respected for the unique contribution they make to our system of beliefs; even though it might not be possible to capture their insights in terms of laws, and even though a certain part of the scientific community might have problems with calling the humanities “true” sciences.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

One thought on “The Humanities: Are They Truly Scientific?

  1. Pingback: Why Economics is Not Less Scientific than Physics | TheYoungSocrates

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *