Mikhail Bakhtin’s Critique of the “Human Sciences”

“The exact sciences constitute a monologic form of knowledge: the intellect contemplates a thing and expounds upon it. There is only one subject here–cognizing (contemplating) and speaking (expounding). In opposition to the subject there is only a voiceless thing. Any object of knowledge (including man) can be perceived and cognized as a thing. But a subject as such cannot be perceived and studied as a thing, for as a subject it cannot, while remaining a subject, become voiceless, and consequently, cognition of it can only be dialogic.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 161.

Alan Jacobs explains:

“It is true that the constant emphasis of Bakhtin’s career lies upon dialogism as the form of consciousness: Each human mind is heteroglot, composed of multipole, overlapping, and often contradictory voices of others. Bakhtin notes that we speak of monologues and monological thinking, but in the strict sense they cannot exist. Yet we do speak of monologue, and we do so because monologism is a potential ethical stance, if not a possible epistemological condition.” (A Theology of Reading, 51)

Jacobs is emphasizing the relationship between the descriptive (the what is, the dialogical nature of the human consciousness) and the prescriptive (the what can be willed, the possibility of monologue). Jacobs is trying to highlight the role of the will in hermeneutical choices, opening up the possibility of loving interpretation.

I find Bakhtin’s critique of the human sciences to be illuminating especially as it helps to explain my own discomfort with the “self-reporting” methodology, which strikes me as so problematic. When we recognize the dialogical nature of our own consciousness, we recognize that we very often will to see our situations and ourselves in certain ways. This threatens to make self-reporting merely a reflection of the collective will of the subjects as objects.

“What’s the Story with ‘Story?'”, James K.A. Smith

The article sampled below from James K.A. Smith is worth reading. He is critiquing Alan Jacobs’s “Just-so Stories.” I have a stake in this debate especially because the proposed topic of my PhD research has to do with Ricoeur and “story.” I have to say, I think that this article is a good example of why philosophy is so necessary. As much as I have enjoyed reading Alan Jacobs over the years, I’ve also been maddened by his reasoning at many points, especially his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. (I’ve expressed some of my frustration here: GoodReads Review)

“Story” seems to be the new black. Or the new magic. Or maybe the new black magic.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.” His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation. According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce. Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts. (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012).

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry. (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.) So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

Read On

Whimsical comments on The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Read this book as if you are having an evening chat with your English professor. If you do, you’ll enjoy it. Besides, to read at Whim is the argument of the book. I would have rated this lower, had a quit half-way through. Jacobs begins the book with strong words against the classic, How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren. (Admittedly, attacking a book I have loved is not a great way to endear me to his book. This is probably a big reason why I was so cool toward the book for the first half.) He sets them up as the paradigmatic ‘good books are good for you’ approach which foists giant classics lists at young readers, guilting them into reading them. This approach becomes the foil against which he presents his approach, to read according to Whim. The serious problem that I have with this approach is that it certainly seems like Jacobs himself doesn’t know what he means by this. There are points in his own argument where he actually admits that a given point he is making seems to (seems to!) contradict with his thesis. I think many of his later points actually do contradict his thesis, but this is simply because he thesis does not demonstrate clear thought. Generally I agree with Jacobs. And perhaps I might even agree with him particularly if we discussed this in person. But as a paradigmatic example of my frustrations with his argument, I’ll use the Adler/Van Doren example. Jacobs doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the highest degree of artistic enjoyment (and freedom!) is actually the fruit of long cultivation. Don’t we sit with envy watching the concert pianist play ‘at whim,’ wishing we possessed the skill to play with such passion and freedom? But this can occur only after long years of playing both (at times) at whim and (at others) decidedly not. Nor does he seem to recognize that many people read Adler and Van Doren because they already love reading. My experience with the book was absolutely nothing like what Jacobs describes. I poured through it eagerly, not out of a sense of intellectual obligation, but rather with a fresh sense that the tools therein might be invaluable to heighten my joy in reading. So to summarize, I’m seldom this frustrated by books that I end of liking. Four stars for sharing in Jacob’s love for reading (just don’t ask him what *you* should read–can one ask him for a wine recommendation?).

The late David Foster Wallace on the liberal arts

The following is a section from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs, pg. 85:

“The late David Foster Wallace explained why [shutting out distractions is important], in the commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. This address has become famous and widely quoted in the aftermath of Wallace’s suicide in 2008, in part because for some people Wallace’s inability to conquer his own demons yields a certain frisson to the earnestness and passion of his advice to graduates. But it’s a great address, made all the more moving by our retrospective awareness of just how hard-earned its wisdom was. For our purposes, this is the key passage:

‘Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.’ “

Quotable: Nicholas Carr, on multitasking mode

“The problem today is not that we multitask. We’ve always multitasked. The problem is that we’re always in multitasking mode. The natural busyness of our lives is being amplified by the networked gadgets that constantly send us messages and alerts, bombard us with other bits of important and trivial information, and generally interrupt the train of our thought. The data barrage never lets up. As a result we devote ever less time to the calmer, more attentive modes of thinking that have always given richness to our intellectual lives and our culture–the modes of thinking that involve concentration, contemplation, reflection, introspection. The less we practice these habits of mind, the more we risk losing them altogether.”

– Nicholas Carr, as cited in Alan Jacob’s, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, 84.

Feeding on Words

I am thoroughly enjoying Alan Jacobs’s, The Narnian. I would heartily recommend it to fans of Lewis. An excerpt,

Remembering, later, that moment of revelation, [Orual] also rememers her tutor, that philosophical Greek called the Fox, and that is what leads her to the passage with which I ended the previous chapter:

“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech, which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all the time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean?”

The Fox, who is among the dead who thronged that dark courtroom, does not hear her say this, but having heard her speech, he realizes what he has done, and accuses himself more strongly than she could accuse him: “Send me away, Minos, even to Tartarus, if Tartarus can cure glibness. I made her think that a prattle of maxims could do, all thin and clear as water. For of course water’s good; and it didn’t cost much, not where I grew up. So I fed her on words.”

Anyone who thinks this is merely a critique of Greek philosophy or cheap rationalism has, I believe, misunderstood the passage, for it is equally a critique of Christian apologetics. The emptiness of Fox’s words is scarcely greater than the emptiness of the apologist’s words. No doubt, what Lewis had written and said as a defender of the Christian faith was truer than what Fox had taught Orual–indeed, far truer–but it had the defect of being in words, and it is easy to forget that even true words bear the limitations of all language: they are, inevitably, “thin and clear as water.” The gods demand more than water: indeed they demand blood, for, as the author of the letter to Hebrews writes in a passage at which the priests of Ungit would have nodded sagely, “without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (9:22).

Jacobs, The Narnian, 240-41.