Image: Malte Baumann via Unsplash
It’s a sunny and quarantine-free afternoon. Red Wine Socialist an artisanal cappuccino sipping hipster, meets their friend Robocop, proud member of the elite STEM crew. They embark on the age-old discussion on the superiority of their fields. Who brings about social change? The philosophers and historians of our time, or the engineers and data scientists? As their voices rise and expressions tense with frustration, our friend the Red Wine Socialist begins:
Red Wine Socialist:
“It seems that today, Adorno’s fear of a scientific world-view has become realised; all this hubbub around ‘innovation’ and ‘technological change’ has finally bullied the humanities off centre stage. We look towards our doctors and techies to solve the problems of tomorrow, and in the same act we pass sentence on the humanities as having become obsolete. Even the study of law has been subordinated to maintain its recognition in the role of administration and regulation. 'Real change', it is said, is brought about by the newest vaccine, or the latest innovative crop. But let me ask: what is the point of bringing about material change without any directive from the Warum and Wofür?”
“Not to be a cynic, but who can afford to think about the why and what for? What direct use does the study of ancient Rome, or that of Shakespeare, have for handling the real problems we have? How many historians, philosophers, music, film, literature and classics experts does the world need? When we speak about ‘real change’, it is not the humanities but the sciences that truly have an impact. Take women emancipation as an example.
For all the talk on feminist pamphlets and protests as determinants for emancipation, one should credit the vacuum cleaner and contraception for giving women the most valuable gift of all: time. With time, thinking, writing and forming identities finally became possible. The discussions on the impact of class structures in eighteenth century Gothic literature are not the factors actively shaping the material conditions of our time; the doctors saving lives and the environmental engineers tackling climate change are."
Red Wine Socialist:
“It may be true that material advancements were the foundation on which social changes were possible; perhaps they did give rise to historical changes such as the formation of a feminist discourse. And I neither dare nor wish to engage with the question of the chicken or the egg about which comes first, material circumstances or ideas. My worry, however, is the following: any technological innovation created for a certain purpose already includes normative ideas about the way the world should be.
If we do not want technology to carry us towards the future as if by the force of inertia, we need to cultivate the areas of study and scholarship that give us the ability to commentate and to criticise, to see and articulate the limitations of science. Historians can do so by interpreting narratives of the past, philosophers by way of their analysis, and writers through thought-provoking language. Understanding a virus through a medical lens alone obscures that the origin and development can only be uncovered through understanding our social organisation.. Critical thought is required to analyse problems we have today and direct and guide us towards the future."
“I agree that it is crucial we challenge current knowledge - critical thought is indeed one of the building blocks in the construction of a positive future. My frustration, however, lies in envisioning humanities and their ability to produce critical thought as the silver bullet towards progress. Critical thought is not reserved to humanities only, the greatest scientific discoveries - that the world was round, or the discovery of vaccination - have emerged from critical thought. Moreover, by fixating on critical thought alone, one ignores the essence of change, which is action.
Complaining and critiquing is easy, the real challenge arises with what actually has to be done. Although there are countless mistakes inflicted by science in dealing with the current pandemic, at least they try. The humanities reside in the world of ideas, the sciences among the people.”
Red Wine Socialist:
“I concur that there is a threat of locking oneself up in an ivory tower. And I agree that merely thinking about problems is not enough to bring about change. But to devalue these activities of thought to an idiosyncratic enterprise is misleading too. All I maintain is that, along with the direct, practical solutions to problems today, we require an effort of articulating what we are doing and what we are doing it for.”
"I see your point, and perhaps your position has merit. It seems that we agree that the sciences have the direct impact we need to drive the force of change, and that the humanities challenge the ideas that are contained in these developments. Curiously, it seems that we are working towards a similar goal; a world of positive progress. We may both be well-advised to get off our high horses, and recognise this common ground; our different academic practices present the chance to enrich and unify: let us take it then .”
And so, the Robocop and the Red Wine Socialist set aside their disagreements and lived happily ever after. Although these two friends have embraced their identity as cliché cartoon characters, this does not imply that such reconciliation is an intrinsic end goal. Is it truly possible to foster interdisciplinary thought, and are there limits to such a practice?
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor