I recently mentioned my belief, or hope, that the humanities and sciences are working their ways toward a post-constructivist synthesis, a paradigm in the making with the potential to become a powerful player in twenty-first century public discourse. “Post-constructivism” says little, and “post-representationalism”, “post-anthropocentric humanism,” and “post-Kantianism” — the other terms I used there — don’t help much. So I feel obliged to articulate in more detail what I mean by this assertion. If it is a trend, it is not one that can be demonstrated with quantitative evidence: no matter how many names or schools of thought one can list, there will have been no exhaustive survey done of how these names and schools stack up against all the others that continue to generate knowledge in our academies and in the other intellectual spaces of the world (including emergent ones like those found on-line).

This claim, or belief of mine, is just a reading — and not a disinterested one — of those fields that I cover in my own everyday reading, browsing, research and teaching practice. Its components include the following:

1) There has been a clear shift away from a strict “social constructionism,” or “constructivism,” in the humanities and social sciences to something more cognizant of the complex relations between the social and the non-social, a category that includes the material, the bodily, the affective and emotional, and the biological.

Some of this work continues to employ constructivist methods and theories (and these continue to have immense value), but much of it admits of their limitations as well. Part of this shift is a move away from a hyper-focus on representation in the humanities toward a focus on how representations, ideas, discourses, et al., are materially embodied, affectively engaged, socially enacted, and sociopolitically and technoscientifically structured. The profound impact of so-called poststructuralism — a range of ideas and theories initially emanating primarily from France in the 1960s and 1970s — has turned out to be more complicated than it at first appeared: where its first North American followers took up the ideas of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Althusser, and others to focus on the ways in which language constrains sociality and shapes power relations, this interrogation of discursive structures has mutated into an interrogation of the relationship between language/discourse and everything else: not just systems of power but also the materiality of bodies and material objects, sensorial and technoscientific practices, socially transmitted affects, and ecological relations.

All of the recent work on “affect,” “biopolitics,” “ontological (or cosmo-) politics,” and various related trends are cases in point, and indicators of some of the many potential points of convergence between the humanities and social sciences and the cognitive sciences.

2) The understanding of “mind” has been undergoing an important evolution, from one premised on rationalist and individualist notions of mental or cognitive activity to one that sees cognition as physically and materially embodied, socially and ecologically embedded, distributed (across networks of relations including the material and the technological), and enacted (in real-life practices).

It is difficult to deny that the cognitive sciences, including the neurosciences, have grown immensely in their public and institutional profiles in recent years. Just as the humanities have moved away from a “representationalist” paradigm, however, so have the cognitive sciences been broadening from the representationalist and computationalist models that virtually defined them in the early decades of the field. Cognition (both human and nonhuman) is now seen by many as intimately related to affect, or as affective-cognitive in nature. Mind is no longer seen as something located exclusively “in the head,” or in the brain, but rather as something complex, distributed, and networked within perceptual and communicative systems that are biological as well as social. Related to this reconfiguration of the mind/matter dichotomy is a heightened interest and deepened understanding of how cultural and biological factors work together to produce “us” over the course of individual human development.

This push “outward” from a more individualized (and rationalist) understanding of “mind” to a more networked, embodied, and embedded one means that this work is and will increasingly have to connect with the study of social processes and with collective meanings, i.e. with the social sciences and the humanities, as well as the intermediaries (such as media technologies) that bring all these things — minds, meanings, and societies — into the working ensembles of complex relations that make up the world.

3) The growth of systems-based approaches to understanding the world — from ecological and cybernetic modeling to chaos, complexity, nonlinear dynamic systems, and network theories of various kinds — has opened up the natural sciences toward an interest in incorporating social and cultural facts and in making sense of the complex and difficult-to-measure role of human behavior within the global issues of our times.

There remains a wide open range of possible articulations between human and natural applications of such models; but that range is being filled with experimental efforts on an almost daily basis. Some of the more promising ones involve crossing those boundaries already mentioned, such as those between “mind” and “matter,” and “nature” and “culture.” (Biosemiotics, for instance, takes us into the realm of signification and the production of meaning from the cellular to the societal levels. More on that in an upcoming post.)

(3b?) Coming at this same point from an opposite direction, the revived interest in metaphysics and ontology among philosophers (as seen in the growth of a variety of forms of “speculative realist” philosophy, as well as the dramatic increase in interest in ontologically minded philosophers like Whitehead, Bergson, Spinoza, and Deleuze) indicates potential for new conversations between the sciences and humanities that would have been unforeseeable a decade or two ago. Again, the present is more a time of experimentation than synthesis, but the level of conversation and of mutual interest (though so far more among philosophers than among natural scientists) is impressive.

4) Finally, while many of the social sciences and humanities have for a long time taken for granted that there is a deep ontological (and epistemological) divide between humans and the rest of the world, that divide has come into question in a wide range of ways.

In part, this has been through the influences of the natural sciences, including evolutionary biology, advances in the sciences of animal behavior and cognition, and the development of the systems theories mentioned above. In part, it has also come through the work of key theorists in the humanities, including some of the most influential philosophers of the past century (such as Peter Singer, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others) and influential scholars of science and technology (such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and others working out of feminist and actor-network allied traditions). For all these thinkers, from the Mark Bekoffs and Jane Goodalls to the Singers, Derridas, and Haraways — which covers an immense territory of influence — the relations between humans and nonhuman beings are ethically charged, complex, and vital to humans’ future as stewards (or what have you) of a living planet.

* * * * *

These four trends together open up a series of spaces for interaction and convergence. Such convergence between the natural and the social sciences and humanities has been tried many times before; its failures, however, such as sociobiology or the more recent attempts by scientists (like E. O. Wilson) at “consilience,” might be better thought of as “premature” syntheses than as outright failures. They are simply failures to recognize the complexity of each of the “levels” or classes of phenomena to be integrated into a synthesis. More recent efforts, such as biocultural anthropology, biosemiotics, enactive cognitivism, and various forms of complex system theories (including the efforts of Deleuzians like Manuel Delanda and John Protevi, whom I’ve blogged about here before), are more aware of these complexities, and more sensitive to the many potential pitfalls on the way toward any kind of “consilience.”

There are strong differences in approach that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the difference between approaches that attempt to understand things (including “systems”) “objectively”, and approaches that are explicitly guided by ethical positions and values, which question the possibility of an objective standpoint altogether, but acknowledge the possibility (and virtue) of “situated knowledge,” “critical realism,” and so on. (These are all longstanding conversations within the philosophy of science and in post-positivist theory of the social sciences.) But the identification of a singular-playing-field-in-the-making is an important first step in facilitating conversations between these various efforts. I’ll have more to say about individual “pieces” of this puzzle in future posts.

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