The New Humanist

May 14, 2002 by John Brockman

“Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, electricity, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—scientists, science-based humanities scholars, writers—are at the center of today’s intellectual action. They are the new humanists.”

Originally published on
April 24, 2002. Published on, May 14, 2002.

In 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forward the following argument:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person today. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Ten years later, that fossil culture is in decline, replaced by the emergent "third culture" of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures-that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. This new culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, have taken the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

A Great Intellectual Hunger

Advances in science are being debated and propagated by the scientists of the third culture, who share their work and ideas not just with each other but with a newly educated public through their books. Staying with the basics, focusing on the real world, they have led us into one of the most dazzling periods of intellectual activity in human history, one in which their achievements are affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. The emergence of this activity is evidence of a great intellectual hunger, a desire for the new and important ideas that drive our times. Educated people are willing to make the effort to learn about these new ideas. Book review editors, television news executives, professionals, university administrators are discovering the empirical world on their own. They are reading and learning about revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others.

One Intellectual Whole

Around the fifteenth century, the word "humanism" was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist. Michelangelo was an even greater artist and engineer. These men were intellectually holistic giants. To them the idea of embracing humanism while remaining ignorant of the latest scientific and technological achievements would have been incomprehensible. The time has come to reestablish that holistic definition.

In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world-of having a unity in which scholarship includes science and technology just as it includes literature and art-the official culture kicked them out. The traditional humanities scholar looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product-the fine print. The elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum, and out of the minds of many young people, who abandoned true humanistic inquiry in their early twenties and turned themselves into the authoritarian voice of the establishment.

Thus, as we enter the most exciting and turbulent intellectual times in the past five hundred years, the traditional humanities academicians-by dismissing and ignoring science instead of learning it-have so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action. One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; "social constructionist" literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of evolutionary biology and too lazy to look up the statistics on risk.

And one is amazed that for others still mired in the old establishment culture, intellectual debate continues to center on such matters as who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century. This is not to suggest that studying history is a waste of time. History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: history of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the world in between?

A fundamental distinction exists between the literature of science and those disciplines in which the writing is most often concerned with exegesis of some earlier writer. In too many university courses, most of the examination questions are about what one or another earlier authority thought. The subjects are self-referential. Yes, there is a history of science, but it is a field in its own right, quite separate from science itself. An examination in science is a set of questions on the real stuff, as it were, rather than what our predecessors thought. Unlike those disciplines in which there is no expectation of systematic progress and in which one reflects on and recycles the ideas of earlier thinkers, science moves on; it is a wide-open system. Meanwhile, the traditional humanities establishment continues its exhaustive insular hermeneutics, indulging itself in cultural pessimism, clinging to its fashionably glum outlook on world events.

Cultural Pessimism

"We live in an era in which pessimism has become the norm," writes Arthur Herman, in The Idea of Decline in Western History. Herman, who coordinates the Western Civilization Program at the Smithsonian, argues that the decline of the West, with its view of our "sick society," has become the dominant theme in intellectual discourse, to the point where the very idea of civilization has changed. He writes:

This new order might take the shape of the Unabomber’s radical environmental utopia. It might also be Nietzsche’s Overman, or Hitler’s Aryan National Socialism, or Marcuse’s utopian union of technology and Eros, or Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary fellahin. Its carriers might be the ecologist’s "friends of the earth," or the multiculturalist’s "persons of color," or the radical feminist’s New Amazons, or Robert Bly’s New Men. The particular shape of the new order will vary according to taste; however, its most important virtue will be its totally non-, or even anti-Western character. In the end, what matters to the cultural pessimist is less what is going to be created than what is going to be destroyed-namely, our "sick" modern society…..the sowing of despair and self doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance-even when it is directly contradicted by our own reality.

Key to this cultural pessimism is a belief in the myth of the noble savage-that before we had science and technology, people lived in ecological harmony and bliss. Quite the opposite is the case.

In Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World, Oliver Bennett, the director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick, pushes matters a step further when he writes that "the intellectual judgments on which cultural pessimism rests are inflected by that same complex of biological, psychological and sociological factors that are linked to the incidence of some forms of depression and anxiety." He wonders whether the intellectuals of the postmodern world would benefit from antidepressants ("Schopenhauer on Prozac would perhaps have produced a different philosophical system").

Continued at: Copyright © 2002 by Edge Foundation, Inc.