Martin Willis
Professor of English
Cardiff University
ScienceHumanities Initiative Principal Investigator
Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science
Editor of the Journal of Literature and Science

In various disciplines we have come close to using the term ScienceHumanities in recent years.

There is, firstly, the long-standing Medical Humanities, which would reasonably claim to be an interdiscipline of its own. However, the medical humanities have been notoriously difficult to define, and have very bifurcated groups. Secondly, in eco-critical studies the phrase environmental humanities is, if not commonplace, then recognisably in use. In that arena it is a useful shorthand for the variety of disciplines that might combine and interact to focus attention on environmental challenges.

Bruno Latour has come closest – giving the title Scientific Humanities to his 2015 Massive Open Online Course, focussed largely on science studies emerging from Sociology (often known as STS). For Latour the Scientific Humanities meant something fairly straightforward: “the extension of interpretative skills to the discoveries made by science and to technical innovations.”

I am uncomfortable with the use of “Scientific” here, though. It suggests, too easily, that the humanities might wish to become “scientific” (however capacious that might be as a way of thinking) in their methodologies, their practices, and in the results produced from their research. We have seen this kind of effort before, and several times at that, and it is rarely productive. Literary Darwinism might be one of the latest; it is certainly one of the most uncompromising and least persuasive.

ScienceHumanities avoids this: it puts the impetus onto the word Humanities, and rightly so. It is the humanities where our focus should fall and where much of our work should be done.

Too often interactions between science and the humanities slide into an unhelpful dynamic where scientific research is explained, or popularised, or made comprehensible for wider audiences, through humanities’ efforts. In this dynamic, the humanities are nothing more than a handmaiden for scientific engagements. In my own experience this is one of two dominant modes. The second is that unhelpful misprision that seems often to exist when humanities scholars insist upon text (or visual image or piece of philosophy or critical theory). The turn to text is often rebuffed by the sciences with the accusation that such desire is only a precursor to the kind of hyper postmodernism that was the subject of the science wars of the 1980s and which will ultimately aim to show that no scientific truths exist outside of language.

In my view, much of this is due to the legacy of the two cultures: both in its first instantiation as an accepted truth, which kept the humanities and sciences apart for some time and then in the reaction against it, which led to numerous misapplied interactions between the sciences and humanities. Our error, however, has been not to address further that comment of Snow’s that there are actually many more than two cultures. In forgetting this, the multiple disciplines of the humanities have not worked together to interrogate the sciences as consistently and with varied knowledge bases as they might have done.

I am not talking here about the emergence of initiatives such as STEAM (Science, Technology ARTS and Medicine) as a variant on STEM. While there is value in some of this work it is often uncritically therapeutic in aim and temper and is in too large a part the same kind of sciences-led relationship that offers the humanities little on its own terms.

What might, then, be achieved in working instead with and within the multiple tools humanities has to offer? Or at least working from humanities perspectives even when in alliance with science and medicine? What would emerge from a sustained effort to focus upon a critical examination of its many arenas of power, bringing to bear the intersecting practices and methods of diverse humanities disciplines to do so?

One thing such multiplicity might energise is a better understanding of the boundaries that determine different spheres of knowledge as well as a chance to interrogate those boundaries and to examine their evolution over time. Second, we may be better placed to ask questions of the “frameworks of explanation” (the phrase is Sally Shuttleworth’s) provided by different humanities disciplines which in turn will make us think more profitably about the role, function and place of the sciences and the humanities in society and culture.

ScienceHumanities may even offer the impetus for recognising in deeper and more significant ways how central to all knowledge production the humanities are, and to ask important and properly critical (and of course political) questions about the usefulness of knowledge.

Of course this kind of work is already being done: the humanities are inherently cross-generative. There is hugely valuable work being produced by literary scholars, for example, who are also employing the methodologies of history to examine the sciences of the past. But there is still an awful lot going on in silos: histories of science remain disconnected from histories of medicine while philosophers of science, critical theorists, and cultural geographers seem to share only rarely.

The ScienceHumanities might offer a space for such entanglements (with thanks for this useful term to Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald) to occur and to flourish. And in the process he humanities would also learn something about the things its own disciplines have in common and what it can offer to civic society. The sciences have been excellent at articulating their worth to the world – far better than the humanities have – and this is probably because they have at least a common methodology and shared set of assumptions about what science does. A Science Humanities may give the disciplines of the humanities a chance to do the same.

It is for these reasons that a new ScienceHumanities is urgent. At a time where there are calls to give in to scientism and to turn the humanities into data-led disciplines of distant reading, or to hand over the truths of our texts to evolutionary biology, it is also absolutely necessary.


One thought on “What Might the ScienceHumanities Look Like?

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