Rant: Should Literature Ape the Sciences? An Angry Response to Jonathan Gottschall

Writing in the Boston Globe, Gottschall argues that “literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves.”

So because there is no “body of solid knowledge” that literary criticism has produced, “literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism.”

I’m not making this stuff up, even as I’m trying so hard not to laugh. Literary studies already attempt a more scientific understanding of literature: those theories he decries as only relevant to scholars usually are of a certain form, that form being “We know now due to the work of our colleagues in history/archeology/psychology such-and-such, so the author probably meant blah blah blah.” To his credit, he does acknowledge that there is some sort of primitive scientific method being employed. To his enormous discredit, he doesn’t reason adequately about why that has destroyed literary studies. Perhaps literature isn’t meant to be subjected to such methods at all?

In fact, what’s particularly hilarious is the examples he cites of more scientific work in literary studies being done. All of that work has to do with the obscure debates he previously put down. The only difference between him and the debaters is that he thinks he can solve these debates. For example, consider his thought that literary scholars can take computers more seriously as part of their work:

Another type of investigation exploits the massive processing power of computers to generate new information and ideas about literary history. Great gains have been made in recent years with stylometric studies, the computerized crunching of sentences that can establish an author’s stylistic fingerprint. As Brian Vickers explains in his book, “Shakespeare, Co-Author,” stylometry has helped settle long, angry debates about whether or not Shakespeare wrote some of his plays with coauthors (the answer is that he very probably did).

Of course this sort of debate can be solved with technology! Look how the question was put, you tenured nitwit – it was an empirical question to begin with. You’re only pushing for literary scholars to be a bit more thorough about what they’re already doing. And I’ll tell you now, in case no one has told you already: what they have done is effectively kill literature. No longer is reading well and speaking about one has read well indispensable to the study of literature. Starting with the scholars you find mired in pointless, resolvable debates, the means for studying literature became more important than the end.

In a just world, you wouldn’t be a professor of literature, since you are simply not serious. The end of literature, of course, was that all of us became better for reading it. After reading a poem, a student should be able to discuss what the author literally said, what the author might have meant, why what the author might have meant was important, locate tensions in the work that lead to differing opinions, and then and only then articulate a personal response.

You simply don’t care about that end, and therefore don’t really care for your students, your profession, or learning generally. Can your students read poetry properly? If I gave them Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, can they explain how the sonnet form is being used there to advance the speaker’s musings on life and death? Can they discuss the notion of love and all its implications that is in the couplet?

I mean, maybe they can, and if they can, great. But what you’re proposing doesn’t help that more basic endeavor, not at all. And what’s really hilarious is that my readers – heck, readers of Sparknotes even – can do this rather primitive task that doesn’t involve statistics and testable hypotheses.

What you, Mr. Gottschall, really want is a particular philosophy derived from the current state of scientific knowledge to dominate literary study.

Good luck with that: you’re going to need it. After all, you say later in your trendy, badly-reasoned tosh that

Everything that is available in literary works for discussion, analysis, or awe-struck celebration is left intact by scientific analysis. A proper scientific process doesn’t diminish, it adds. I’m not arguing that scientific tools can replace judgment, imagination, or good scholarship. I’m suggesting that combining these humanistic virtues with scientific tools would be like giving them growth hormones.

You seem to have utterly failed to realize that the “politics” you later decry as infecting readings of literary works emerged mainly in the development of more scientific methods of analysis. “Progress” comes with scientific method – one and only one sort of politics is advanced when scientific method is employed directly. The students you want to give “growth hormones” too are going to know less about the Bible and Greek myth when taking your new and improved literature curriculum. (Heck, you don’t even seem to realize the moral implications of the use of the term “growth hormones:” it’s destroyed the sport Malamud so justly celebrated). They’re going to be even more distant from literature than they are now – than you are now.

Again, good luck! We’ve got tons of students who can barely read, and tons more who hate to read. So if you want to complicate things even more for those few that want to read, and read well, more power to you. When you want to learn about how to use proper judgment, the potential and limits of the imagination, or where good scholarship is to be found, give me a ring. I’ll be here on my blog, working through poetry and philosophy at a snail’s pace, picking up the pieces of the realm you are committed to destroying. Inasmuch as you unwittingly destroy contemporary literary scholarship, however, I’m all for your ill-conceived project.


  1. Wow! I think you may need to switch to decaf – or at least Irish it up to balance out the stimulants. Testy are we?

    You are right though, not everything can or should be, broken down into a scientific method. It is just such an endeavor that has ruined society in the first place – think social sciences. Yes, much of what he suggests can be done, but why? The analysis that he proposes and technique/approach he advocate have very little, if any, real connection to literature. You end up with empty statistics – like the majority of deaths happen at hospitals, therefore hospitals are the most dangerous places in the world. What does that mean? Nothing.

    I am tired of the proliferation of the “scientific method” into so many other disciplines, disciplines that are as far from science as a Judaism is from Islam. It is a way for the intellectually lazy and ignorant to be able to weasel their way into the discussion and then make themselves feel proud and smart because they have said something that they can “prove.” Because proof, is real knowledge.

    Oh well, don’t get me all started on this too.

  2. The last final went well, a lot of BSing and what not. I don’t have any posts about my store, but feel free to clip them and what not (thinking of doing that myself.) I got Dougherty and Thurow to write recommendations for me. Hope your dissertation goes well…oh and I got an email from Mehreen like two people are doing their dissertation lectures, one is an analysis on the Memorabilia.

  3. to tell you the truth, i don’t really remember how i came across your blog… i think it might have been a couple weeks ago when i was searching for something for my lit class on google…and somehow i think a link to one of your posts came up, and i thought your blog was pretty cool, so i bookmarked it, and then i came back today, and decided to comment.

    a link back?

  4. Agreed. I feel like Gottschall has totally missed Hegel, Gadamer, Habermas, and indeed the entire field of hermeneutics – bar dipping his toes in the poststructuralist pool.

    I mean, what does he think negativism was about? It was an explicit reaction against the kind of thinking he so rhapsodically espouses, because it was moribund, led to a raft of false positives and was blind to the human condition – blindness itself, lol.

    I feel like he’s looking at the shadows on the cave wall, and saying “If we shine a really bright light on these shadows, we will see what they really are!”.

    Dude, they’re still shadows, you know? His science may answer some linguistic questions, and some psychological questions – and I’m very supportive of cross-discipline thinking in general, but it won’t always answer questions about meaning itself – the thing that makes literature (and science for that matter) great.

    I see plenty of rigorous thinking in criticism; and I think it’s getting less popular for several reasons: firstly the abundance of choice for students now. Humanities has blossomed. Secondly, it is not yet embracing (imho) how these canons and dialectics fit into new media; a newer paradigm and language. I think this is partly because it’s literally so new, these arts are still developing, and the languages with them. And partly because it’s already happening with film and television studies etc.

    But it’s a duff comparison. We look at books that are centuries old as relatively ‘new’. How can we expect a level of dialectic to develop in media that’s a hundred, fifty or just ten years old? Baby steps Gottschall, baby steps.

    So for the screed. That column pissed me off too.

  5. I were gonna say basically what Josh said. So instead I’ll say– get to work!!!!! Stop pissing yourself off reading this junk =P I hope everything is well.

  6. This gets a little outside of context here, but I found it deeply moving nonetheless.

    In light of Lincoln’s birthday today, Dr. Schramm of the Ashbrook Center gave us a seminar on Lincoln’s idea of equality. He prefaced the entire talk with a question: “Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” We all sat there silent, wondering what there could be that we didn’t get. A minute nearly passed by before he asked again, and a girl sitting in the back meekly said “Shakespeare?”

    At this the professor nearly wept. “In Hungary,” he said (he is an immigrant), “they don’t believe the son of a glove-maker could have written Macbeth.”

    I’ll take that American idea alone over what science has to say any day.

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