Why the Humanities Did Not Become Social Sciences: Flexibility and Resistibility
The notion of humanities has various meanings – a discipline / an art / a space for speculative thinking / secular humanism etc. I will focus on the ‘discipline’. Humanities as well as social sciences are concerned with human aspects of the world. It is difficult to define a boundary between them, both in their subject, and in method, still social sciences are interpreted as more empirical and formalized, closer to the ‘ideal’ of sciences. It is remarkable that historical studies traditionally have been considered part of the humanities, although in modern Academia, history is occasionally classified as a social science. My aim is to demonstrate why history has not become a real social science, although in 1960-80s historians who represented the most advanced trends within the discipline aspired to this. I then extrapolate my conclusions to other disciplines of the humanities.
I think two topics are central here: uneasy relationship between social theories and methods, and indispensability of the cognitive potential of the humanities.
Since mid-20th c. as a result of the ‘socialization’ of the humanities historians have barely produced theories of their own; instead they borrowed theories from social sciences. However, while the borrowing of the theories of other disciplines proved to be workable, the adoption of the methods of social sciences – psychometric testing, sociometric monitoring, ethnographic description, in-depth interview, long-term observation and s.o. – was impossible. In the end, the impossibility of using the social sciences’ methods ensures resistibility of the humanities and enables to preserve their disciplinary core. At the same time the humanities dealing with meanings can catch things more ephemeral than trends, patterns, mechanisms and statistical rules.
To bring what is hidden into the open is the task of any discipline; the question is what the nature of the hidden. The mystery of the humanities is in its ‘softness’, which they cannot be rid of, and which makes them flexible. Flexibility is not only a generic quality of the humanities, it also implies a very different cognitive mechanism. The area of the humanities still contains a large pool of vague ideas, which have powerful heuristic potential (Die Sattelzeit, longue durée, the Carnival, archeology of knowledge, la mort de l'auteur, etc). Moreover, flexibility of the humanities often leads to metaphorization of even highly formalized concepts of social sciences (path dependence, thick description, symbolic power, social interaction, actor, etc) that expands the field of their application.
The general trend towards ‘scientization’ of social sciences and the humanities, especially in the late 20th c. is balanced or compensated by a reverse tendency – the growth of fictional moment linked wither to social imagination, fantasy and fiction (when a wave or yet another ‘turn’ in the humanities does not work linearly but overlaps with similar tendencies). In contemporary sociology the turn to ‘imagination’ is actual since Wright Mills, but is also relevant for classical texts (the juxtaposition of Max Weber and Thomas Mann, a non-fiction novel and the sociology of the Chicago School etc.). At the same time, the interpretation of the humanities as arts, and not only sciences, following the well-known formula of Art and Science does not show their weakness or immaturity but rather their flexibility at the moments of social crisis or the rise of anti-scientist mood. In the history of knowledge the closeness of art history or philology to contemporary artistic trends (as in Russian formalism, for example) went well with aiming to scientific innovation – against stagnating academism.