A recent article and subsequent Room For Debate piece in the New York Times look at the growing incorporation of cognitive and evolutionary psychology research into the work of English departments, and asks, “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?” Answer: no.
The crisis of the humanities implicit in the title of the Times piece arises from a sort of malaise of academic purposelessness, which is in turn related to a larger societal phenomenon wherein we increasingly believe that science is the only solid rock we have to stand on for understanding the world and how we should function in it. (See our recent New Atlantis symposium for more on this.)
Humanities professors have become accustomed to being asked what their disciplines are useful for — hence the efforts by some professors to make their disciplines mirror the language and methods of always-useful science. But by the time the humanities are working to justify themselves in scientific terms, they are already conceding defeat by showing that even their preservers and practitioners no longer recognize their distinctive value.
In the Times debate, Emory English professor William M. Chace puts it eloquently:
[UPDATE: A related follow-up post over on Alan Jacobs's Text Patterns blog.]Let’s hope that the relationship with brain research will prove a productive meeting of equals, between scholars uniquely qualified to interpret the meanings, in their subtlety, of literary texts and scientists now proceeding upon a terrain that is still largely unmapped....
Those scientists hardly claim to have the answers; theirs is a pioneering spirit tempered by modesty about what they really know. Rather than naively assuming they have met their betters, English professors might help those scientists by luring them on into the truly complex networks of mind and imagination that words alone, words in all their intricacy, can generate.