Addenda

4 Mar

Getting It All Wrong: Bioculture Critiques Cultural Critique

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/04/07

A recent article in the American Scholar suggests that academics in the humanities should be challenged by the work of their colleagues in the sciences who have shown that reality is not socially constructed. In Getting It All Wrong: Bioculture Critiques Cultural Critique, author Brian Boyd states that the work of scientists reveals a givenness to reality; he addresses how knowledge of that givenness is manifested and the foundations upon which it is based. The findings of science, he explains, demonstrate that components of reality can be known with surety but also that such knowledge is complex and incomplete. These findings challenge both the postmodern notion that there is no givenness to reality (nor—even if there were—could people know it with any degree of confidence) and the modern notion that knowledge of reality is potentially complete. These findings also challenge the assertions of academics in the humanities, particularly those who study literary criticism and who claim that knowledge of reality is difficult if not impossible to attain, and always contingent on time and place. Boyd compares and contrasts the way the disciplines understand knowledge. He also attends to the different opinions literary studies and the biological sciences have about whether or not reality can be known.

Boyd states that scholars of literary studies critique works of literature in order to understand the culture that produced the work, not in order to examine the work's artfulness, nor to gain knowledge and wisdom about the world and the human condition. Such wisdom and knowledge—because it would apply in all times and places and because such all-encompassing truths do not exist in this worldview—cannot be known in general, and particularly cannot be known in literature. Boyd describes how the biological sciences' understanding of knowledge and truth differs from this view. The biological sciences, he states, have proven how difficult it is to discover knowledge of reality's givenness; when scientists test a seemingly straightforward hypothesis, they often find that it contains a more complex description of reality than they had first imagined it would. But through such testing the sciences have shown that knowledge is possible and that there are solid foundations upon which to base it. Scientific work indicates that some particularities can only be rightly understood in light of some generalities. It has suggested that situatedness (the idea that all statements of truth are only true for their particular time and place) can include the unique situation of being human (i.e. that some statements of truth apply to many times and places because human nature's essence is fixed). Boyd writes that these demonstrations call into question the anti-foundationalism and situatedness advocated in many literary studies departments.

Boyd's observations parallel those made by professor James K. A. Smith on volume 82 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. In the Journal interview, Smith discusses how postmodern thought accounts for knowledge of reality. Postmodern thinkers do not use dogmatic, objective statements to describe reality. Instead they tell stories about their experience in and of the world. Smith points out that while the stories vary, the fact that they are about the same sorts of things indicates that there is a givenness to reality and that people can know it with some amount of confidence.

The conclusions of both commentators indicate that the Church is on firm ground when it insists on the possibility of knowing truly. They also provide tools for the Church as it seeks to preach and to embody truth in an increasingly hostile culture. [Posted March 2007, ALG]