Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Derrida and the 'two cultures'

I often find it amusing to rant (in appropriate company) about the lack of understanding of (or even interest in) science and mathematics shown by people in the 'humanities', even though at the same time, the exclusivity and inaccessibility of what I do can be a source of (shameful) joy.

But to be fair, the argument goes both ways. I like to think that I try to read and be aware of the arts (to whatever extent possible), but I know nothing about probably the most important literary theorist of this century, a revolutionary probably comparable to Einstein in the way he shook the foundations of his discipline.

Jacques Derrida died last week, and beyond the Cliff Notes-like 'Derrida... deconstructionism...text is meaning outside the text...', there is little I can say about his work.

Is it shameful ? Probably not. Should I stop complaining about the lack of awareness of the sciences among humanities folks ? Probably yes. Should I stop talking like Donald Rumsfeld ? Most certainly...


  1. Indeed, it's a remarkable occurrence to find a practioner in one "culture" also making deep and substantive contributions in the other. I was always impressed, for example, by the profound insights in this fine paper.

  2. Rats! I meant, of course, this one. The other one is more advanced, and can't be read without this introduction.

  3. I often find myself reflecting on the history of science, all the way back to Francis Bacon's Idols of the Mind and before that. The evolution of science has led us to rigorous rules and careful, exacting precision in our attempts to describe and understand the universe.

    Being more familiar with this culture, I've often found myself skeptical when it comes to humanists doing things like discovering hidden meanings in text.

    Years ago, I remember watching The Amazing Randi visit some Russian scientists who believed they'd discovered proof of telepathy. The scientists told their subjects to project an emotion after which the scientists would then pour over the brain wave charts until they found the emotion in question.

    "Oh, no, no, no!" said Randi, "this isn't a double blind experiment." Once the scientists were forced to attempt to find undisclosed emotions in their charts, the experiments all fell apart and they found nothing. The most amusing and in some ways frightening aspect of it all was the befuddled "Well, it was just working a second ago!" reactions of the Russian researchers.

    At the same time there are those with no scientific training whatsoever, those who don't even seem to bother to even reference any psychological research, who blithley discover all sorts of hidden meanings and concealed motives in text.

    Skeptically, I often find myself considering two possibilities. First, perhaps some folks have managed to find a superior means of acquiring knowledge by completely foregoing the scientific process. Second, perhaps someone has been clever enough to come up with nonsense complicated, obfuscated and contorted enough to fool even some of the brightest of minds.


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