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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Sisyphus and the Humanities



One thing that really started to drive me crazy about study in the humanities and social sciences back in grad school was how it all seemed to be ruled by nothing but fashion. In the hard sciences, Einstein may have made significant improvements on Newton, but Newton still has a lot to say. So, for that matter, does Euclid. But in the humanities and social sciences, most things from about thirty years ago is held to be unspeakably wrong on every count, let alone anything from a hundred years ago. Behaviourism is now beyond the pale; it absolutely ruled psychology when I went through. In 1990 everything was hereditary; now nothing is. Just as nothing was hereditary in 1960. I discovered on line an old teacher's manual put out by the Christian Brothers. Their first principle was that the teacher must never leave his special position at the head of the classroom; that would be to break the sense of his authority. Today, staying at the head of the classroom (a “sage on the stage”) is considered the cardinal sin. 

Sisyphus pushing the Humanities faculty uphill.


What this necessarily means is that everything we pretend to know in the humanities and social sciences is nonsense. We can be just as sure that, thirty years from now, all the “correct” procedures of today will be considered totally wrong and harmful. No knowledge is being built, year upon year and generation upon generation. It is all a huge waste of time, money, energy, and human lives. I cannot believe this does not drive others to distraction as it does me. Life is supposed to be a quest for truth.

But there is, I discovered, a solution. There is a tradition of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences that really does seem to have a firm foundation and to be building useful and growing insights year by year and generation by generation. It is called the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Insights that go back over millennia, as far back as the time of Abraham, remain essentially valid, but are still being built upon and further refined and revealed today. With no suspicious gaps, like the so-called “Dark Ages,” in the record, either.

It is in fact, an edifice of knowledge even more solid and longstanding than that of science itself.

This is an important reason why I am a Catholic.

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