The problem with humanities and sciences not talking to each other

This post is written by me (F) and Charles Prusik (C):

F: In the latest session, I talked with Philosopher Dr Charles Prusik from Villanova University about the communication problem between humanities and the (social) sciences that results in critical knowledge gaps. While historically being close siblings, in the current race for publications and funding the humanities seem to think of the sciences and social sciences as evil step sisters, while the other two think of the humanities as having lost touch with reality. If you ever made even the smallest attempt to work interdisciplinary, you know what I am talking about.

The problem is that everybody is loosing in this game. We need each other and have to find a way to reconcile. The hard part about this is that academics (or really everybody) gets taught this disciplinary divide as a nature’s given. We already separate children in school depending on whether they are talented in STEM subjects, social subjects, or arts and languages. As this continues in higher and academic education, we end up with highly trained specialist that struggle to talk to people outside their discipline. They speak different languages and have fundamentally different views of the world.

Psychology and cognitive (neuro)science as a result suffer from lack of terminological clarity and well defined concepts. Moreover, we struggle to develop theories of cognition whose consequences are relevant outside our small disciplinary subdivision. 

C: Within the humanities, scholars tend to be rewarded by virtue of their contributions to increasingly narrow areas of specialization. This specialization, which is reinforced by the emphasis on publication records, results in humanities scholars being forced to retreat from interdisciplinary study. A substantive, historical, and empirical knowledge-base of the sciences has become a remote possibility for many scholars in philosophy, literature, and even the social sciences. As a response to this dynamic (at least in part),  humanities scholars have resorted to writing in highly specialized jargons and technical vocabularies, often without any attempt to clarify or explain the stakes of their claims for external disciplines.

The inability to communicate across disciplinary boundaries is reinforced, in my view, by the empirical social sciences as well, insofar as these disciplines have largely banished abstract, speculative, or conceptual forms of argumentation from their methodologies. This has resulted in a deeper chasm between the humanities and social sciences. A first step towards bridging the gap between the sciences and humanities would require scholars to recognize the constructed nature of the academic division of labor—disciplinary boundaries are not real, but they become realities through their institutional codification and reproduction. In addition to making contributions in their own specialized areas, scholars in the sciences and humanities should also make the effort to translate their findings and arguments into a discourse that is more directly accessible to non-specialists—even if the subject matter is simplified for purposes of clarity. Moreover, scholars from all disciplines should spend time creating networks and forums (e.g., digital humanities, social network platforms, open science), where interdisciplinary dialogue and research can occur.

Further readings:


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Dr Franziska Hartung

Cognitive neuroscientist researching how brains create meaning.

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