On the Humanities and Naturalistic Inquiry

I cannot think of many who had the same depth of insight and breadth of interest as David Hume, and his accounting of history and its relation to the sciences remains apposite. Consider his well known, and still controversial, declaration of the study of history in An Inquiry

Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them

This view also underpins his Of The Study of History, whom he, oddly for us, addressed specifically to women, for there he writes

There is nothing which I would recommend more earnestly to my female readers than the study of history, as an occupation, of all others, the best suited both to their sex and education, much more instructive than their ordinary books of amusement, and more entertaining than those serious compositions, which are usually to be found in their closets. Among other important truths, which they may learn from history, they may be informed of two particulars, the knowledge of which may contribute very much to their quiet and repose. That our sex, as well as theirs, are far from being such perfect creatures as they are apt to imagine, and that Love is not the only passion which governs the male world, but is often overcome by avarice, ambition, vanity, and a thousand other passions


There is also an advantage in that experience, which is acquired by history, above what is learned by the practice of the world, that it brings us acquainted with human affairs, without diminishing in the least from the most delicate sentiments of virtue. And to tell the truth, I know not any study or occupation so unexceptionable as history in this particular

Hume’s elevation of the passions over and above reason, contra the usual way we like to conceive of ourselves, is of the first importance here. One can, moreover, discern a disagreement between Hume and Chomsky, for the latter has often argued that perhaps the deeper veins separable for further study of the well springs of human nature are to be unearthed through literature. Hume held that history should be accorded this status, in “Of the Study” explicitly addressing the claims of literature, for at least history can have some empirical grounding.

I should think that David Hume had the better of Noam Chomsky here, and I think that Hume makes an especially powerful observation.

History, of course, is a part of the humanities of which literature, the dramatic arts and so on are also. The humanities, as we know, are one of the, many, victims of the neoliberal order. Our universities increasingly function as profit generating enterprises less concerned with the love of wisdom and more concerned with churning vocationally oriented graduates for the corporate form.

Many, such as Martha Nussbaum, have rightly argued that this diminishes society and strikes against the very purpose of a liberal education in a democratic society. It is interesting to observe that a degrading of the humanities in the academy is a feature of authoritarian societies, and we see here in microcosm how neoliberalism functions as a power driven dynamic of reaction and reassertion unfolded in response to the year 1968.

But we also see something deeper still. What we call the humanities has been central to human life, to borrow from Hume, in all times and all places and so its diminishing in a society demonstrates that the social order fundamentally confronts the natural texture and fibre of human beings. That it is contrary to human nature. I can only speak for myself, but I get a sense that students are increasingly aware of this and reacting against, this, in many and not just the most obvious, ways. For example, the relative lack of engagement, I would argue, is reflective of an understanding that university life is a contractual arrangement rather than a devotion to the attainment of understanding. That is not the manner in we usually are led to conceive of a market based neoliberal society, for we are led to believe that it is reflective of human nature. Indeed, unlike with any society in history, a neoliberal market driven order is a, indeed the, natural order.

That affairs are the exact opposite of this is attested by the vast public relations industry whose role, from cradle to grave, is ubiquitous to the neoliberal order and one of whose central tasks is to perpetually construct and reconstruct the acquisitive and utilitarian self.

Though that is all true, it is not really my motivation for writing. The status of the humanities has also been a feature of debate within intellectual society, most especially with regard to the social sciences. On one side we, roughly, have the humanities such as history, philosophy, literature and the like and political science, economics, sociology and so on. A good example of this is the controversy over the perestroika movement in the political sciences. The social sciences attribute to the humanities a certain wishy washiness whereas the social sciences exhibit theoretical rigour through model building and quantitative methods.

David Hume, often regarded as the arch empiricist, falsely in my view, and the bedrock of logical positivist thought, again falsely in my view, from which this temper among the social sciences derives would surely not agree. At any rate, I hold we ought not interpret him as so agreeing.

When you study history, for example, you really do get a feel for human nature. It is not that you just learn about a place, a time, or an affair. You really learn something about human nature, and as such history is a type, I submit, of naturalistic inquiry. When you study the politics of a time and place as the historian does you so much more about politics among human than you ever shall from linear programming. The humanities make much more for naturalistic inquiry than political science or economics despite the dependent and independent variables, the variant, invariant and covariant, and the theorems, proofs, and lemmas.

This latter are all done to discern some causal relationships in the pattern of social interactions, processes, and structures, perhaps even the full fledged development of laws following upon the discernment and establishment of causality.

The social sciences develop their conceit upon a false premise, namely that the sciences, naturalistic inquiries if you will, are characterised by their methodology. Science is not characterised by its many and varied approaches to methodology, much less the one and central “scientific method.” Consider for instance the profound way that Ernst Mayr contrasts the assumptions and methodologies of the physical and biological sciences.

Science is characterised by its results. In the social domain those results, I would regard, are theoretically ambiguous which is not the same as saying they do not provide understanding of the contextual and contingent. Nothing exists in the social sciences anywhere near as comparable as classical mechanics, say, or Maxwell’s laws, or the modern evolutionary synthesis, the chemical bond and so on. The reason for this should be clear enough. No such laws are to be found. Sui generis laws do not govern capitalism apart from historical context, for example, nor representative democracy, international conflict, nuclear non-proliferation, nor any other social system or matter of social concern that one can think of.

The fundamental, necessary, basis of human social affairs, as Hume informed us, is to be found in human nature and it is the humanities, especially history, that provides insight into how human nature is translated into social conduct within context. That is as close as we have, thus gar, gotten to naturalistic inquiry in what Hume would have called the moral sciences.

Consider economics. One surely cannot seriously believe that the use of topological methods to reinforce traditional, though wholly false, verities about general equilibrium carries more scientific weight than, for example, Keynes’ more revolutionary insights in The General Theory themselves developed upon an analysis of “the animal spirits” which is to say human nature?

The question is not even rhetorical, for those inured to general equilibrium theory did not, for they could not, foresee something like the global economic crisis as a possibility whereas those more accustomed to the animal spirits could, and did, see the tsunami long before it made shore.

If judged by method then one might regard the former as science, but if by result surely we must regard the latter to be more the scientific.

I think we could make this even stronger still. For history to be a type of naturalistic inquiry it ought to tell us something about science itself, perhaps even more profound than the philosophy of science. It is not hard to imagine Hume being more favourably disposed to the history of science rather than the philosophy of science. Peirce had argued that a faculty of abduction, wrongly attributed by most interpreters as inference to the best explanation, underpins science. When one studies the history of science one is struck by the recurring hypotheses that come to the mind of men and women of science, furthermore one is struck by the permissible hypotheses framed at a certain moment, based on a certain intellectual heritage, access to certain information, the possibility of attainable experiments given the state of understanding and technology, and the manner in which science settles upon one hypothesis over another.

To study the history of science in a way Hume perhaps would have is to look for the bounds of humanly permissible or attainable hypotheses, and to see this as providing a window into the cognitive basis of the scientific enterprise. We may drop the qualifier, “perhaps”, when we consider another of Hume’s justly famous refrains

The science of man is the only solid foundation for the other sciences. [All the other sciences] have a relation, greater or lesser, to human nature. ‘Tis impossible to tell what changes and improvements we might make in these sciences were we thoroughly acquainted with the extent and force of human understanding, and could explain the nature of the ideas we employ, and of the operations we perform in our reason

Something similar was stated by Steven Weinberg in an article on “the trouble” with quantum mechanics

Thus the instrumentalist approach turns its back on a vision that became possible after Darwin, of a world governed by impersonal physical laws that control human behavior along with everything else. It is not that we object to thinking about humans. Rather, we want to understand the relation of humans to nature, not just assuming the character of this relation by incorporating it in what we suppose are nature’s fundamental laws, but rather by deduction from laws that make no explicit reference to humans. We may in the end have to give up this goal, but I think not yet

We see in quantum mechanics not just scientific inquiry into the nature of the physical world but an intimation of scientific inquiry into our relationship with the physical world, which one might want to regard as another of the traditional domains of the humanities. We may yet see the day when the humanities become physics and physics becomes the humanities. The social sciences, by contrast, one can be rest assured will neither be here nor there.