The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Sciences will save literature!

Posted on: May 13, 2008

Hurray for statistics and psychology!

As a science and humanities student I find this article rather quaint (this person is hardly the first to suggest this). (Oh and are any of the theories he so manfully takes down en vogue anymore?) As one specializing in neuroscience (bioethics) I’m sighing at yet someone else rushing to the infant field (comparative to all other sciences) to provide all the answers. No doubt he’ll want to study brain images of a men and women reading Jane Eyre and then come to some farcical conclusion. I just e-mailed it to my biology professor (who loves fiction) and I think I still hear him laughing through my computer speakers…

Anyway, you tell me what you think about this delightful man’s attempts to humble the humanities before the great Science Gaze while retaining “what makes literature special”. (You will find no mention of what that is, btw.)

Measure for Measure by Jonathan Gottschall

Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.


The alternative is to let literary study keep withering away, and that would be a tragedy. Homo sapiens is a bizarre literary ape – one that, outside of working and sleeping, may well spend most of its remaining hours lost in landscapes of make-believe. Across the breadth of human history, across the wide mosaic of world cultures, there has never been a society in which people don’t devote great gobs of time to seeing, creating, and hearing fictions – from folktales to film, from theater to television. Stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature. Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition – no full understanding of art, culture, psychology, or even of biology. As Binghamton University biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “the natural history of our species” is written in love poems, adventure stories, fables, myths, tales, and novels.

Don’t they do this sort of thing in “Culture Studies” already?


9 Responses to "The Sciences will save literature!"

Have you ever come across Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees? The thee parts each take a tool from a different discipline — quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory — and apply them to litereature. It’s kind of wonderful, although not my favorite of Moretti’s books.

I’ve heard about it…I think The Valve did a kind of roundtable of it, actually.

That’s part of why I was unimpressed with the guys article though. Literary studies has already been influenced by history especially, which requires one to do a lot of research and employ all the statistical tools he thinks so much of.

Truth be told I don’t find that approach very compelling. When I read about books I prefer to read about why they are themselves worthy of attention rather than how they open a window to 18th century English bridge playing culture among the upper rural middle class (for example). That’s me as the general reader though so obviously that sort of thing isn’t aimed at me.

Little Professor’s blog (which focuses a lot on anti-Catholicism in Victorian England as represented in fiction) is the exception. That’s her blog rather than any of her actual scholarly work, though. 😉

Why just study literature scientifically?

What about scientific creative writing courses?

Trigonometric metaphor generation?

Three-dimensional characters through organic chemistry?

Applied Chaos Theory and Plot Mapping?

Moretti’s work is not scientific. It uses tools from social science – social history, really. Not hard science. This strange, strange article is calling for something quite different.

Do you think the essay could possibly have been a spoof? If not, I feel kind of sorry for Gottschall. Here’s hoping he has tenure…

I dunno, I kind of like the “philosophical despair” of studying literature. Seems a bit more human and real and accessible than “intellectual optimism” whatever that might be.

Jacob R. those metaphor generation and characters through organic chem courses sound pretty intriguing. You’ve thought of this before, haven’t you? 😉

Amateur Reader I know but for me it’s all part of the same “studying literature for everything but literature” approach that I can, in some instances, respect but of which I’m generally disdainful.

Elizabeth I’d like to think so except that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument before. English literature more than any tertiary discipline seems to be chronically insecure about its need to exist.

Stephanie count me in with the despair group. We should get t-shirts, it’ll be like Team Jolie and Aniston.

Bring him closer and let me strangle him.

Well, we can’t have you in jail until you’ve finished all your books. 😀

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