A serendipitous Benedict-ion on scientific humanism

Every once in a while, I read something serendipitously that I have no idea why I’m reading.  The proximate cause of my reading Ruth Benedict’s 1948 article, “Anthropology and the Humanities” was that it was in my electronic pile of PDFs to read this summer, and it was next on the list.   But why was it there?  The file’s creation/download date was 02/27/13, which was right after I got back from the Society for Anthropological Sciences meeting in Mobile, which suggests that someone there mentioned it in a talk, but I can’t for the life of me remember who or in what context.  Ah well, that’s the great thing about serendipity: ultimate causes are irrelevant.

The article is a revised version of the Address of the Retiring President that Benedict gave in December 1947 to the AAA, and which was published in late 1948 shortly after her death.  The article is available as a free PDF download along with a large number of other older AAA journals, so you can go download it and read it right now.  Go on, I’ll wait.  It’s only nine pages.  …   All right then.

The first thing that struck me is that in 1947, in stark contrast to today, Benedict needed to make the case for anthropology’s alliance  with the humanities – so obvious, she felt it to be, that anthropology was scientific that it was the opposite proposal that needed to be defended.    She suggests, interestingly, however, that the scientific ascendancy of anthropology was a historical contingency – because, in the late nineteenth century when the discipline was founded, Science was ascendant, anthropology’s allegiances became fossilized.     She invites us to imagine an alternate history where anthropology was founded a century earlier and had become profoundly humanistic.   (For instance, we could have looked to classics as such a field.)

But also note that the sort of humanism she is talking about, and to which she appeals, is not a sort of hopeless particularism or methodologically sterile navel-gazing, but a rigorous, thoughtful humanism that is no less empirical than social or natural science.  Everyone will have their own figures they think of at this juncture in their own field – for me, I suppose I would look to Walter Ong or G.E.R. Lloyd or Alexander Goldenweiser.  Benedict was no dogmatist and was not trying to fight the sorts of battles one would have seen fifty years later.   This isn’t about science vs. anti-science, or a crude critique of ‘scientism’.  To wit:

“My point is that, once anthropologists include the mind of man in their subject matter, the methods of science and the methods of the humanities complement each other. Any commitment to methods which exclude either approach is self-defeating. The humanists criticize the social sciences because they belabor the obvious and are arid; the social scientists criticize the humanities because they are subjective. It is not necessary for the anthropologist to be afraid of either criticism, neither of belaboring the obvious, nor of being subjective. The anthropologist can use both approaches. The adequate study of culture, our own and those on the opposite side of the globe, can press on to fulfillment only as we learn today from the humanities as well as from the sciences.” (Benedict 1948: 593)

And this is really the question, isn’t it, that Benedict leaves for us in some of her last scholarly words: how do we make this work?  What does it mean, other than platitudes and an occasional nod in the hallway, to be a scientifically informed humanist (or vice versa)?  Granted that there are epistemological gaps, how can they be fruitfully and productively resolved and integrated?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

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