HPS could be the Corpus Callosum of the academy

My friend and colleague Ari Gross is organizing a panel for this year’s CSHPS meeting in Victoria, on the question of the coherence of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) as a discipline. I can’t make it this year, but here is what I would liked to have said if I could be there:

HPS could be like the Corpus Callosum of academia. That is, it sort of functions that way already, and we have an opportunity to embrace that as its role.

The Corpus Callosum is a bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. The analogy that I’d like to make is between the two cerebral hemispheres and the two semi-autonomous segments of the normal undergraduate university, Arts and Sciences. It’s now well understood by administrators that we need some kind of strategy for dealing with the problems of interdisciplinarity. Scientists should be able to communicate effectively (i.e., write in paragraphs) and be able to think critically even in informal contexts. And we essay-writers ought to have some passing familiarity with the nuts and bolts of the scientific project, the most interesting and important collective project humanity has ever gotten its mitts on.

The Corpus Callosum highlighted in red. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

But of course the reality is that you can’t be an expert in everything. Getting just one discipline mastered takes years of concentrated effort. Some exceptional people can do two or three at once, damn them. But the rest of us have very fixed capacities to develop competence in any given field. We really do need to specialize.

And the brain does the same thing, it specializes. Although all of the parts work in remarkable concert, it seems clear that the brain assigns distinct tasks to different parts of itself. We no longer think that the left hemisphere is ‘rational’ and the left ’emotional’, but there is reasonable evidence that the two have different roles in cognition. The left hemisphere handles the focused, serial, context-free parts of cognition, and the right does something like the synthetic, wide-field and context-sensitive bits.1 Obviously we need those two systems cooperating to solve problems, because real world problems inevitably involve a bit of both. But notice that evolution didn’t solve the problem of coordinating those processes by making the cortex into one homogenous blob. Quite the opposite. The Corpus Callosum consists of a mere 200 million nerve fibres, compared to an estimated 100 billion in the whole brain. All that is apparently required to keep things working together is a small but significant bit of wiring connecting the two halves.

And that, I propose, is what HPS could do for the increasingly disconnected lobes of the university. We are (one of the places) where Arts and Sciences meet. We are the ones who can read equations and write paragraphs. And we are in a perfect position to communicate just enough of the virtues of each half to the other. There is a vision of interdisciplinarity which would have departments essentially dissolve into a great undifferentiated lump: physicists would be made to study Chaucer, and English majors would be dragged through calculus. This is a certain prescription for a generation of students who are mediocre at everything, and don’t know what real disciplinary mastery even looks like. It’s an unappealing and impractical picture. What is needed is merely a point of contact.

At the undergraduate level, this point of contact is sometimes enforced as a breadth requirement – sciences students must do a little work in the humanities, and humanities students must do a little of the sciences. HPS should be working to situate itself in that space, where students of any stripe can come to get their horizons broadened, if only for a semester or two. I’ve seen my colleagues serving exactly that function in the classes they teach, and it seems to work. For the great majority of undergrads, the experience lends a little needed diversity to their education. For a few, it shows them a world that they didn’t know existed, and sets them on an entirely different path. If we are looking for a function in the academy, I can think of no better role.

At the graduate level, the situation is more complex. But I think it can be understood along roughly the same lines. There is the internal relationship between history and philosophy, and the external relationship between HPS and the academy in general. I suppose what I’m suggesting is that the external role that HPS as a whole has the potential to play in the academy at large could give some direction to how the internal relationship between history and philosophy should be structured. Both history and philosophy would need to avoid being parochial in their concerns, a condition which is endemic to both of those disciplines when left to their own devices. We would each have to balance our projects between the grand narratives of metaphysics and morality, and the actual concrete reality which it is our task to understand. This will require some growing pains on both sides. But the payoff would be that we have a unique and important role, in holding together the disparate parts of the academy, so that the torrent of knowledge currently being produced can be canalized into some kind of meaningful whole.

  1. This is probably incorrect, and definitely an oversimplification. For the sake of the analogy, just go with it.


  • Mike Thicke
    Mike Thicke Reply

    This is a very interesting analogy, thanks Cory. I like your implication that interdisciplinary problems don’t necessarily need to be solved by interdisciplinary people. I wonder how this idea could be applied to research in science and the humanities. That is, is there a role for HPS in scientific research, beyond translation? The Corpus Callosum functions by sending signals back and forth between parts of the brain; what are the signals we are sending to science? Or could be?

    • Cory Lewis
      Cory Lewis Reply

      I definitely think HPS can serve an active role in helping guide scientific research. Maybe an example of what I consider a successful case of this would be helpful. Consider this paper on the language used in describing sexual selection, and this one on language used to describe sexual cannibalism. They look like the kind of thing HPS’ers would do, but they were performed by working scientists, and published in scientific journals.

      If I could be so bold, I’d suggest that these studies are the direct result of work by people like Emily Martin on the language used to describe sperm and egg dynamics (pdf). Both studies cite the Martin paper directly, so I don’t think this is terribly far fetched. Her work is typical of the kind of stuff HPS’ers aspire to, so I’ll (probably unfairly) take her to be a representative of our field.

      Scientists didn’t require an HPS’er hanging around in every lab, monitoring language. What was required was simply a signal – “here is a potential source of bias”. In this case, science seems to have successfully internalized the signal, and is now self-monitoring.

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