Sunday, October 9, 2011

_1984_ And Life After The Humanities (Was_1984_ in 2011, Redux)

 A couple of weeks ago I started rereading 1984.  Last week I finished.

This book is many things, but one of them definitely is a horror story depicting Life After The Humanities.  You want to know what it's going to be like when you get rid of the Philosophy, English and History Departments and keep only Engineering, the Health Sciences, and "Transformational Leadership"?  Read 1984.

Probably you remember that in 1984, the Party controls everything, and they make sure people believe what they're supposed to believe.  But do you remember how sophisticated they are about it?  They don't just fuck with your head; they fuck with the actual evidence.

Indeed, Winston (the main character) works at writing corrections into every edition of every newspaper to make sure the record reads to fit the current regime.  If Oceania is at war with Eurasia they have always been at war with Eurasia.  There must be no proof of anything to the contrary.

Winston is perplexed throughout the book by the problem of evidence and truth.  He knows that it matters that Oceania hasn't really always been at war with Eurasia.  He knows that it matters that the Party destroys all evidence of the truth about the past.  But how the "evidence" part works he can't quite figure out.

At one point he recalls a moment seven years before in which he held in his hand a mistake:  a piece of paper showing, conclusively, that what the Party said happened wasn't what happened.  He destroyed the paper.  But now he thinks:  it actually really matters that I held that paper in my hand, because it proves ... well, what?  He can't figure it out:  how can a moment that has disappeared into the past show anything about other moments that have disappeared into the past?

At the end, Winston is tortured and reprogrammed to believe what the Party wants him to believe.  His old pal O'Brien, his intellectual superior, needles him about his beliefs.  "Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?" Winston isn't sure.  O'Brien forces him to acknowledge that the past doesn't exist "concretely," but only in records and in people's memories. And as long as the Party controls those, they must therefore control the past.

Among the many profound ethical and political morals of this story, surely one of them is the affirmation of the importance of thinking for yourself, making up your own mind, and taking into account the evidence.  One thing that is terrifying and horrible about Winston's story is that he is prevented, unable, to do this.

And this -- this sacred activity, so basic to democracy and freedom -- is what we teach in the humanities every day:  how to think about complex matters for yourself, how to make up your own mind, rather than believing what some person put on a powerpoint presentation or in a textbook; how to consider and question evidence for yourself, about what you ought to believe.

Now I know scientists do this too, but there are serious differences.  First, in humanities teaching we do this all the time, with every level of student, about everything.  There aren't years of simple information you have to get through before you can become critical of what is already believed.

And second, in the humanities you do it for yourself.  You don't need a lab with a bunch of people and equipment.  You just need you and your own brain.  You can question anything, and you can do it yourself.

This is one reason I am skeptical of the push toward large collaborative projects in the humanities.  If you're going to stand up for what you believe against a bunch of other people, and defend a literary interpretation, an ethical principle, a belief about the nature of the universe or the causes of the French revolution, you're pretty much going to be doing that all alone, not as part of some giant research project.

Thinking about what to believe based on the evidence:  often you have to do it for yourself, and thus by yourself.  Please support your local humanities education!  I can only say this:  if you don't you'll be sorry.


Tim Kenyon said...


There's a lot to say about this, but lacking the time to remotely do it justice, I will just say: 1. Great post. 2. Crispin Wright uses that very exchange between O'Brien and Winston to introduce a paper on truths about the past.

Patricia said...

Thank you, Tim.

I didn't know that about Wright -- that sounds like a great use of a novel in philosophy. Simon Blackburn also discusses 1984 in a disagreement he has with Richard Rorty over the nature of truth. An amazing amazing guy, Orwell.

Tim Kenyon said...

Okay, a bit more time now.

Two things that really resonate:

(1) "sacred activity". I had never thought of competent evidential reasoning as an activity so important to democracy that it should be considered sacred. But seems a deep truth, now that you put it that way. This is maybe of a piece with a new-ish trend for (typically young) epistemologists to be interested in the socio-political overtones of the knowledge, and the interaction between information and voting.

(2) Winston's epistemic perplexity. So true. I've always thought the intellectual warning of _1984_ to revolve around the prospect of inducing a conceptual, hence expressive, poverty. But you're right, there's something very different going on at the epistemic level as well. It can be a hard (and in some sense unnatural) thing to understand how bits of evidence fit together, and what they entail, over and above recognizing just that one thing is importantly related to another thing. Lots of disciplines provide relevant training and practice in quite specialized respects, but I think the humanities are particularly good at providing domain-general habits of critical reasoning.

Anyhow. Wonderful provocative post -- you really got me thinking with this. Thanks!