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A Science of Literature?

Great Idea, So Long As We Get Actual Scientists Involved

Literature in binary code SOURCE: SP New proposals to revive literary scholarship with scientific methods could build a bridge between two long-separated academic worlds. The result could be a better understanding of both science and literature.

Back in 1997, I was an unhealthily driven Yale undergraduate in pleated khakis. An English major—I wanted above all to become a writer—I was rapidly losing my faith. Not only did the theory-laden literary scholarship that I encountered seem little more than jargonish, impenetrable sound and fury, but the sciences appeared to have much more to offer. I followed in real time as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins engaged in ferociously exciting debates in places like The New York Review of Books. Here was a clarity, an urgency, and a series of battle cries that I, the grandson of a creationist-despising evolutionary biologist, could relate to.

Those were the days of the “Science Wars” in the academy, a clash between literary post-modernists (“po-mos”) and scientists over whether the scientific process could lay claim to any truly objective means of describing reality. And thanks to people like Gould and Dawkins, I had slowly been turned. I was a mole within the humanities. That’s not to say I’d stopped loving literature, but I felt I had to flee a ship that seemed without a rudder—and in the decade since then, it appears I’m hardly the only one.

Writing recently in The Nation, none other than a Yale English professor—William Deresiewicz—painfully bemoaned the “dying” state of literary studies. Colleges are hiring fewer and fewer English profs to teach fewer and fewer English students. Meanwhile, observes Deresiewicz, university priorities are “shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money.”

Remake literary studies with a firmer scientific foundation, so that the field can generate reproducible knowledge rather than running around in theoretical circles.

In this atmosphere, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find another literary scholar, Washington and Jefferson College’s Jonathan Gottschall, unveiling a seemingly radical proposal: Remake literary studies with a firmer scientific foundation, so that the field can generate reproducible knowledge rather than running around in theoretical circles. In the process, perhaps the study of literature can share in one of the most exciting and appealing aspects of the sciences—the sense of optimism, progress, and accumulating knowledge as one attacks a truly conquerable problem.

Writing in the Boston Globe ideas section, Gottschall describes in detail what his science of literature would look like, something he can do because he and his colleagues have already performed some early experiments. They’ve crunched data comparing Western and non-Western literatures to determine if one is more sexist than the other (in the sense of constantly describing whether female characters are attractive). Result: There’s no difference. They’ve used statistical methods to determine whether reader reactions to the personages described in great texts, like the works of Jane Austen, are completely variable or confined within a fairly small set of responses. Result: The latter.

And then there’s one of the most impressive literary scientific techniques—“stylometrics,” which uses computers to pore over massive texts, compare their phraseology, and thereby determine whether or not they had the same author. We all have ticks in our prose, favorite phrases and flourishes, “stylistic fingerprints” that give us away and make it possible to put literary sleuthing on a firm empirical determination, so as to really determine the authorship of contested texts.

Ultimately, if literary study travels down the road proposed by Gottschall, it won’t be long before it intersects with the burgeoning field of cognitive science. After all, I suspect there is a core biological reality underlying our powerful responses to certain types of narratives. That’s not to say that literature or art can simply “reduce” to biology, because there’s a lot more going on. It is to say, however, that the course of study that Gottschall proposes might have helped a disillusioned young English major, like myself ten years ago, get excited again.

However, in the course of that past decade, as I’ve buried myself in science writing, I’ve learned that literary scholars aren’t the only ones who have their ivory tower foibles. Their chief weaknesses appear to be three: failing to produce really firm knowledge; often disguising left-wing politics as scholarship (something else Gottschall condemns); and writing in impenetrable jargon. The sciences, in contrast, do a very good job of producing progressive knowledge and weeding out biases—but they do not avoid the final weakness. Rather, science also fails to communicate broadly beyond a few specialized disciplines, and connects neither with English departments nor with the rest of society.

So while I find Gottschall’s proposal enticing, I think it must emphasize more strongly a critical component. The new science of literature needs the help of the sciences, the direct importing of statistical, computing, cognitive, and biological expertise to focus on literary mysteries and problems. After all, there’s a lot of data to crunch, and scientists could benefit greatly by having to study a very different kind of research object, e.g., the great text. Minds might open on both sides, and at long last we could realize, as Gottschall puts it, that “The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it.”

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.


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