September 23, 2011

Associate Professor of Comparative Humanities John Hunter


LEWISBURG, Pa. — John Hunter, associate professor of comparative humanities, discusses Jonah Lehrer and bridging science and the humanities.

Q: You teach the comparative humanities. What specifically is it and how can it shed light on human nature?

A: Comparative humanities is not really a field. What we teach is comparativity itself. In a nutshell, we teach students to take cultural traditions, texts, buildings or ways of living that are different — different historically or different across cultural lines — and think across these lines. We look at questions like: How do you learn to deal with people who see education, business or raising children in a totally different way? How do you compare two ways of life, two ways of approaching the world? How do you find ways to make these seemingly incommensurate things work together?

One of the seminars I teach is called Brain, Mind and Culture. We look at problems like the constitution of the self, free will, consciousness and so forth from philosophical, cultural and neuroscientific points of view. We look at how neuroscientists explain memory or how we've assumed memory works in our educational system, for example. We ask: Can these two separate worlds have anything to teach each other? What's the common ground? Why is scientific truth never enough to change our minds about anything? It's never been enough. Scientists can demonstrate a truth all they want, but until a culture is ready to accept it, you can have two contradictory "truths" at work in one culture. How is that possible?

Q: Jonah Lehrer is coming to speak at Bucknell on Oct. 4 as part of the Bucknell Forum series on creativity. His premise in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that before science or outside of science, prominent figures in the humanities or arts developed deep insights about human nature. That's an idea that seems to fit well under the umbrella of the comparative humanities. What do you make of it?

A: Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a very entertaining book. Lehrer discusses what artists do and what scientists do at the same time, as if they're part of a shared community and part of the same world — which in some sense they are.

In Chapter 1, he talks about Walt Whitman as the first modern writer to imagine that thoughts, emotions, came from the body and not just from the mind. While it's true that Whitman really made this a crucial part of his approach to the world and his approach to poetry, and while it's true that neuroscience has subsequently discovered that our bodies and our emotions are crucial for our thoughts, it's not accurate to argue that Walt Whitman somehow anticipated neuroscience. Every poet in the Renaissance and the Middle Ages thought of the body as something that produces thoughts and emotions. The less sexy but more responsible thing to say is: Artists and ordinary people have frequently intuited things that science has established as a fact later on.

Lehrer's writing also raises questions about the line between scholarly writing and non-scholarly writing. There's a genre now of what I call "neo-scholarly books," books that are smart and are engaging with a serious issue in a serious way but that do not pretend to the kind of depth and detail that you would need for a scholarly book. Proust Was a Neuroscientist, along with The Tipping Point, Drive and Where Good Ideas Come From — they're somewhere in between journalism and scholarship. It's an interesting 21st-century publishing niche. These books get people interested in issues in a relevant and accessible way. I think that the Jonah Lehrers, the Steven Johnsons of the world, the Daniel Pinks — these folks are great places to start if you're a student. But treat them as a beginning, not as an end. The scholar in me would like it better if there were a part at the end that said, "If you want to know more about this, you need to read this, this and this."

Q: What would you recommend people read to go deeper? Who are some of the scholars bridging science and the humanities?

A: In terms of neuroscience, I recommend Eric Kandel's book, In Search of Memory. Kandel won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries about how memory works based on his research with sea slugs, which have very long neurons. The book combines Kandel's autobiography with his scientific discoveries so you can see how his life influenced his work. He and his family were refugees from Hitler. He came to the United States — he has a great Ellis Island story — went to high school in New York City, went to university and became a doctor. He originally wanted to be a psychoanalyst but moved over into lab-based research medicine. Kandel doesn't claim that there's anything about his life that needed to happen for him to have made his discoveries, but he shows that science happens in a context. He is the first to admit that the work that led to the Nobel Prize wasn't super-original science. He didn't have a kind of Einstein relativity moment, but he asked the right question that no one else was asking, and he asked it at the right time, which led him to a very important set of answers.

In terms of artists who have thought about the bridge between science and philosophy or the humanities, I can't think of a single poet who hasn't thought about how we construct our self and how we interact with the world, or what it means to be involved in human relations. For example, in Confessions, St. Augustine poses questions like "Why do I do these dumb things that I know that are wrong? I know they're wrong while I'm doing them, but I still do them. Why? Why isn't knowledge power?"

Neuroscience can make a tremendous contribution to understanding the mechanisms of these questions. I was in a reading group recently with some colleagues from around the University discussing two scientific articles about how memory works. We know that peer pressure can cause us to change how we remember events. Scientists have shown us what happens to neurochemicals when we give in to group pressure. They have identified a certain area of the amygdala, and an area of the hippocampus, that fire in an fMRI scan when this is happening. But they cannot answer and cannot pretend to answer "Why?"

Artists and humanists who deal with the mucky contingent world of human motivation — we get to ask why. The answers we come up with may never be as satisfying as a set of fMRI scans of the amygdala, but there's a lot that those scans will never tell us.

There's a fantastic moment at the end of Kandel's book where he talks about the questions that science cannot answer. What he's really talking about is the philosophy of mind. If science could expand its sense of what counts as proof of scientific exploration, it could really do some interesting new things. And if philosophy and the humanities could accept that data-based research has something to teach us, they would get a lot out of that. Everybody would win. I'm hopeful for the future that comparative humanities can be part of this process and that the islands get bridges built between them.

Interviewed by Molly O'Brien-Foelsch


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