:: Article

The new paideia

By Felipe De Brigard.

During Greece’s Archaic period (800–480 BC), the population of its city-states (or poleis, plural of polis) increased massively through immigration. As people came from all sorts of geographical points, poleis also became more diverse. Political and educational changes were thus required to transform individuals into the best possible citizens for the new growing and culturally enriched polis. Governors all across Greece, but particularly in Athens, established a comprehensive system of education known as paideia, on the assumption that the ideal member of a polis should be well-rounded, and master both the sciences and the humanities. Such an executive decision undoubtedly paid off, as Greece went on to become the most powerful empire of the time, and to experience an unprecedented explosion of intellectual, political and economic development.

The task many university administrators face today is not unlike the task of educational reform faced by political leaders in ancient Greece. The world we inhabit has become an extraordinary megalopolis, and universities are in a unique position to offer the kind of education that would best allow individuals to become ideal global citizens. Needless to say, their task faces many obstacles. What is surprising, however, is that one such obstacle is been bolstered by academics themselves. I am talking about the ongoing and aggressive debate between scientists and humanists; a debate that has received a lot of play lately, with characters such as Steve Pinker on the side of science and Gary Gutting and Leon Wieseltier on the side of the humanities.

In this debate, both scientists and humanists use the wrong standards to evaluate their disciplines. While science advocates typically defend the worth of the humanities by whether humanists have generated theories that eventually bore practical fruit, humanities’ stewards defend the worth of the science on the basis of their contribution to human understanding. Simply put: scientists judge the worth of humanities with the same bar with which they judge the worth of the sciences, while humanists judge the worth of sciences with the same bar with which they judge the worth of the humanities. Here is where the mistake lies. For if this is how the debate is to be settled, how can it not be attractive for a university administrator to side with Pinker, thus lending all her support to programs in the sciences, which are more likely to bring about practical products, with the added bonus that they may also contribute to human understanding? Sounds to me like a win-win.

Humanists don’t agree, of course, but their aggressive retort—as exemplified in Gutting and Wieseltier’s columns—has been, I think, misguided. After begrudgingly acquiescing to the undeniable fact that science has had an enormous impact on the way in which we conceive of ourselves and the reality we live in, these authors quickly point out how science has been unable to solve perennial enigmas thought to be the sole province of humanists. From there they jump to the unsupported conclusion that such issues are off limits, beyond the grasp of anything empirical approaches can ever tell us something about. This line of argument, however, misrepresents the way in which scientific results impact the humanities. Questions humanists have been interested in for ages interface with questions scientists have been interested in for ages at many points and at many levels. For example, epilepsy was long thought to be caused by demonic possessions, so the having of a seizure was thought to be a manifestation of an evil character. Neuroscience then proved that seizures are produced by abnormal electrical discharges of brain cells—a discovery that has allowed scientists to manufacture effective treatments. The impact of this finding on our understanding of ourselves was profound, of course. It discharged the moral indictment of such behavior (you don’t have seizures because you’re evil), and it also unveiled yet another way in which we can fail to be in control of our motor behavior—a difficult issue that affects our conception of self as an agent.

But notice that the very possibility of such a finding in neuroscience was afforded, in part, by theoretical developments in the humanities of the time. For only in an intellectual environment in which certain human behaviors can be seen as mechanically produced, one in which humanists have challenged prevalent conceptions about the relationship between the mind and the body, could a pioneer neurophysiologist such as Hughlings Jackson even conceive of the possibility that the locus of epileptic attacks was to be found in the brain. The ways in which science and humanities interact with one another are not always straightforward, and it is not easy to know in advance which area of research, which particular discovery or which conceptual development, both in science as well as humanities, will shed light on the most fundamental questions about ourselves and the world.

Precisely because the interaction between science and humanities is so nuanced, it is disheartening to witness how often some humanists pejoratively refer to certain areas of scientific inquiry as mere techniques, able to produce second-class knowledge at best. The truth is that the hardest questions do not come wearing their answers on their sleeves. So, instead of dismissing entire research areas as irrelevant, it behooves humanists to study them; they will be missing out if they fail to do so. Sadly, however, it is not uncommon to find humanists criticizing scientists for being ignorant about some philosophical issue or another, and then, in the same breath, dismissively mischaracterizing a scientific discipline out of utter lack of knowledge. A case in point is Gutting’s recent critique of the philosophical impact of priming studies, wherein he completely misconstrues behavioral economics as “a common but odd name for applications of psychological research on priming”. It is not.
The reverse holds too. It is fine for humanists to encourage scientists who are making claims about human nature to attend to developments in the humanities. But that is not because humanists are the ultimate arbiters of what truly constitutes knowledge about our place in the world, but rather because much of what happens in disciplines such as philosophy, literature, or history is worthwhile, and scientists might be missing out if they fail to pay attention to them. Defenders of the humanities thus are right in pointing out that whether or not universities should keep programs in the humanities has nothing to do with whether or not they produce as much tangible impact in the world as programs in the sciences. But they are wrong when they try to base their defense on some alleged set of questions that can only be reached by humanists. This way of framing the debate misses the point. Instead, I’d like to encourage both humanists and scientists to base their cases on the advantages that being expose to diversity and interdisciplinarity can afford to intellectual development.

Which brings me back again to the proposal of the new paidea, and the current task of university administrators. Rather than trying to write off entire lines of study, on account that they may be “underperforming”, academic officials should rather focus their efforts in strengthening the main purpose of education: to form well-rounded ideal citizens for this challenging globalized megalopolis we live in.


Felipe De Brigard is Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy Center for Cognitive Neuroscience in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, Duke University.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 7th, 2014.