‘See, this is what we do: terrific, isn’t it?’

This self-regarding refrain is the recommended response for defending the humanities proposed by Stefan Collini in his recently published What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012). The book is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the future of British universities. It also provides a useful starting point for anyone interested in the future relationship of the humanities and natural sciences. Collini, who provided a new introduction to the reprint of C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture, has no patience for ‘lazy notions’ of  ‘two cultures’, which he finds ‘misleading and obstructive’. But neither is he blind to the differences between the humanities and the sciences, and the need for the former to explain itself to the latter. The ‘this is what we do’ mantra is formulated for university administrators rather than scientists per se, but given the financial power of science (as Collini points out only 3% of the UK’s combined research council’s £3bn budget goes to the AHRC) it is no surprise to find scientists occupying many of the key positions in university management.


When we explain our trade to scientists we can expect some degree of recognition. Restless, open-ended inquiry – which Collini makes the distinguishing characteristic of the university – is common ground between science and the humanities. So too is the ambition to understand and elucidate; examine evidence systematically; and pursue arguments with precision, rigour and clarity. But it is  on the question of differences, and the manner in which Collini distinguishes the humanities from the natural sciences, that he is most suggestive. He is too aware of the problematic terrain on the porous borders of all disciplines to rely on any conventional distinction between the study of the human (the humanities) and the physical (science). Rather than differentiate on the basis of what we study, Collini finds the key distinction in how we work.  The sciences are defined by their pursuit of knowledge;  the humanities by their quest for understanding.


First, he argues that the ‘informational or propositional content’ of  work in the humanities is less important than it is in science. Historians and literary scholars can be inordinately proud at having discovered a letter from Gladstone or a long-lost Austen manuscript, but discovery and revelation are the eye-catching exception not the rule. ‘Research’ in the humanities generally means reading and analyzing documents, books, and manuscripts that countless others have read before. To the outsider this can appear the most perplexing aspect of our work. If one is not adding to the store of factual knowledge about the French Revolution or the life of Shakespeare, why study them? The answer, says Collini, is that we aim to deepen understanding, not by increasing knowledge so much as by re-ordering existing information through changes in perspective, tone, angle of entry, or points of comparison.


Second, Collini maintains that the individual voice of the author is far more important in the humanities than it is in the sciences. To the degree that perspective, tone, angle of entry, and points of comparison outweigh discovery it follows that the individual author must be central to the overall cogency of work in the humanities. Whereas ‘one scientific author could be substituted for another without damaging the truth and importance’ of an article’s findings, this is not true of the historian or literary critic. In the humanities, the success or failure of any piece of writing ‘will depend in part upon some highly individual characteristics’ of the scholar.


In short, Collini contrasts science’s search for knowledge, which is cumulative and impersonal, with the humanities’ pursuit of understanding, which is non-cumulative and individual.


As a historian, I find Collini’s characterization of my discipline convincing, but I have doubts about his construction of science as a counterpoint. Implicit in his approach, it seems to me, is an unwarranted assumption that scientific knowledge is predominantly linear and progressive, (see ‘The good in “bad” science’) and an undervaluing of the role of the individual in the triumph of scientific ideas. Historically, in the case of evolutionary biology, for example, it would not be difficult to argue that a shift in understanding, rather than a breakthrough in knowledge, was key, and that Charles Darwin’s personality was inextricably bound up in the overall cogency of On the Origin of Species (1859). I am not sure whether or not such objections apply equally to contemporary science.


This is precisely the type of question we would like to explore in our ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ workshop. What do scientists make of the contrast between knowledge and understanding? And what, more generally, do they make of the manner in which humanities scholars write about science? Do they see any value or use in literary and historical studies? We would like to know what you think, and hope to see you on the 18 July.

Dr David Stack

Reader in History


All quotes are from chapter four, ‘The Character of the Humanities’, of Stefan Collini’s What are Universities For?(Penguin, 2012).