Methods Collaboratory I: William Reddy on “The Self as a Domain of Effort”

The first of a series of ‘responses’ to papers and sessions at the recent March Collaboratory. More to follow! Wishing everyone an excellent break over Easter.

A Response to William Reddy’s “The Self as a Domain of Effort: The Convergence of Neuroscience, Historical, and Ethnographic Evidence”

At our recent meeting in Melbourne, we were privileged to hear from William Reddy, professor of history and cultural anthropology at Duke University, and Volker Kirchberg, professor of sociology at Leuphana University, about their new work on the emotions in their respective fields. Professor Reddy delivered a public lecture on his work on romantic love across cultures and presented a paper on historical, ethnographic, and neuroscientific approaches to emotion. Professor Kirchberg spoke about his work for eMotion, a collaborative and cross-disciplinary project intended to assess the emotional experiences of museum visitors. For the sake of time, I’m going to restrict my comments here to a few remarks on Reddy’s paper, “The Self as a Domain of Effort.”

Since his landmark 2001 study “The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions,” Reddy has been engaged in an ambitious project of assessing and interrogating the status of emotion in human history, drawing upon the disciplines of history, anthropology, and neuroscience. The paper he presented at our conference argued that what unites manifestations of emotion across cultures and histories is that they all engender a set of cultural practices aimed at managing, suppressing, or harnessing pre-cultural physiological and neurological phenomena: they comprise a “domain of effort.”

The principle example offered in the paper was a comparison of two radically different manifestations of what we might loosely call “anger”: the concept of ira in Seneca’s Stoic philosophy, and the notion of liget in the Ilongot culture of the Philippines, as described in the anthropological work of Michelle Rosaldo. The two concepts could hardly be more opposed: ira, according to Seneca, is a kind of madness to be resisted at all costs, while liget was the essential energy that fuelled acts of bravery and accomplishment among the Ilongots. But the two concepts are nevertheless connected insofar as they are subject to effortful practice. Just as Seneca’s concept of ira emerges alongside certain habits of discipline and mortification, so does the idea of liget entail practices intended to cultivate and elicit liget in Ilongot men and women. Despite their differences, ira and liget share a certain malleability that attracts cultural attention and manipulation. An interesting paradox emerges from this analysis: what is universal about the emotions is that they are cultural. I think much of Reddy’s work may be characterized as an innovative attempt to lay a universalist foundation for cultural constructivism.

Reddy proceeded to argue that this understanding of emotion is supported by new findings in the field of neuroscience, findings that, contrary to earlier accounts of a fixed set of basic emotions, emphasize the plasticity of the brain, allowing for great diversity in the cultural manifestations of emotion. Recent research has focused on the centrality of interpretation and regulation in emotional experience. The emotions, according to this new work, are not simply a set of given phenomena residing in the brain: instead they are the product of a dynamic process extending from basic neurological phenomena to complex cultural processes of naming, assessment, judgment, and regulation. Reddy argued that this work supports historical and ethnographic accounts of the emotions as a “domain of effort,” and that we cannot afford to neglect it in our historical research.

In insisting on the necessity of engagement with neuroscience, Reddy is, I believe, implicitly advocating a viewpoint that was once called the “unity of science,” and more recently, “consilience”: the belief in the necessary convergence of disciplines across the sciences and the humanities. The term “consilience” was coined in a 1998 book of that title by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. In advance of a new book, Wilson has recently published some comments on the convergence of scientific and humanistic inquiry in the New York Times, which can be found here: Here are the relevant passages:

“The social intelligence of campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of non-stop game of chess. Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated across the past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences variously of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher level activities we have come to call the humanities…

The major features of the biological origins of our species are coming into focus, and with this clarification the potential of a more fruitful contact between science and the humanities. The convergence between these two great branches of learning will matter hugely when enough people have thought it through. On the science side, genetics, the brain sciences, evolutionary biology, and paleontology will be seen in a different light. Students will be taught prehistory as well as conventional history, the whole presented as the living world’s greatest epic.”

—Edward O. Wilson, “The Riddle of the Human Species”

According to Wilson’s vision of consilience, the practices of the humanities will be arrogated to the realm of science: historians, anthropologists, political theorists, and the like will be left with the task of articulating the details of the grand tapestry of human nature provided for us by biology and neurology: “The task of understanding humanity,” writes Wilson, “is too important and too demanding to leave to the humanities.”

What this vision neglects is the fact that the sciences and the humanities are distinct methods with distinct goals and purposes: they exist within different horizons. Let us take the example of politics raised by Wilson. Even if we accept that politics are what Wilson implies—a set of behaviours to which we are naturally predisposed by our evolution as social animals—that does not mean that we have understood politics: we have only explained them. Even if one were equipped with complete knowledge of the evolutionary history and goals of human politics, he or she would not be qualified in the least to serve in an elected office, or even to participate in the democratic process as a citizen. These practices require different kinds of training, experience, and acculturation. It is a very different thing to observe a political system from the outside, as one might study an anthill or beehive, and to come to understand its internal mechanisms through action and experience. It is the human sciences, along with other informal and everyday experiences, that facilitate this latter kind of understanding.

Another example might be the different ways we use the term “know” in regards to facts and persons. We can “know” a fact through study and observation: from studying rivers, for instance, one may come to know with considerable certainty that running water takes the path of least resistance. But we cannot “know” a person in such a manner. We can imagine a member of the Stasi or the CIA tracking a person throughout her daily life, becoming intimately acquainted with her habits and practices, recording her actions in minute detail. Though our spy would thus be in possession of a great amount of data about the person under observation, we wouldn’t say that she “knows” her subject, having never met or conversed with her. She has a set of data regarding her subject that may enable her to wield power over her and make predictive judgments about her behaviour, but she does not “know” her in the way we commonly use the term. Knowledge of a person, as distinct from knowledge of a fact, requires mutuality and human interaction. Though the analogy is imperfect, the kind of knowledge we seek in the humanities is of a similar kind. We “know” a text by reading it, thinking about it, becoming acquainted with it, rather than by assembling data about it.

In distinguishing between explanation and understanding in my first example, I’m recalling the work of the turn of the century philosopher and historian Wilhelm Dilthey. It’s worth quoting the passage from his 1894 Descriptive and Analytic Psychology in which he first formulates this distinction:

“We do not show ourselves genuine disciples of great scientific thinkers simply by transferring their methods to our sphere; we must adjust our knowledge to the nature of our subject-matter and thus treat it as the scientists treated theirs. We conquer nature by submitting to it. The human studies differ from the sciences because the latter deal with facts which present themselves to consciousness as external and separate phenomena, while the former deal with the living connections of reality experienced in the mind. It follows that the sciences arrive at connections within nature through inferences by means of a combination of hypotheses while the human sciences are based on directly given mental connections. We explain nature but we understand mental life. Inner experience grasps the processes by which we accomplish something as well as the combination of individual functions of mental life as a whole. The experience of the whole context comes first; only later to we distinguish the individual parts. This means that the methods of studying mental life, history and society differ greatly from those used to acquire knowledge of nature.”

—Wilhelm Dilthey, Descriptive and Analytical Psychology, tr. H. P. Rickman, my emphasis

Wilhelm Dilthey
Wilhelm Dilthey

Dilthey’s psychological vocabulary may be somewhat archaic and idealist, but the clarification of the distinct methods of the sciences and the humanities remains, I think, instructive and important.

The version of consilience presupposed in Reddy’s work is a far more subtle one than Wilson’s. But in spite of the novelty and ingenuity that Reddy brings to the question of science and the humanities, I think problems of incommensurability persist. (Reddy addressed this objection in his paper, but his answer—that the move away from the reductive “Basic Emotions” paradigm in neuroscience allows for greater commonality with humanities—skirts the strong version of the challenge of incommensurability, if I’m not mistaken.) In seeking to make use of the innovations of neuroscience, we should remain aware of the different methods of the sciences and the humanities and the different disciplinary objects towards which they are oriented. I am grateful to Professor Reddy for introducing this topic to us, along with its attendant challenges.

Posted by Ross Knecht

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks to Ross Knecht for a thoughtful comment about my paper. However, I am dismayed at being lumped with E. O. Wilson. I regard my position as the opposite of his, not a more subtle version of it. That is, I regard the question of humanity to be far too important to be left to social scientists. It is not surprising to me that recent discoveries in neuroscience are consistent with an understanding of human persons as interpreters. In my view, it’s about time. The fact is that neuroscience evidence, itself, has to be interpreted. As a result, practitioners of interpretive method ought to rally in support of those neuroscientists who are becoming aware of this and showing how interpretive, as opposed to reductionist, strategies lead to better understanding of the evidence. As the presentation of Marcello Costa at the Collaboratory indicated, nervous system structures are so complicated, looping, or two-way in their architecture, that normal reductionist cause-and-effect thinking does not work well.
    As for “emotions,” that vast array of “mental” phenomena belittled by Western tradition as “inferior” to reason: To be a person, insofar as being a person means being self-conscious, is to strive to find a shape / give a shape to such heterodox events (one cannot even say events “within” because the boundaries are so variously defined). Again, not surprising that, at last, within neuroscience there are trends that offer strong support to this view.
    Poststructuralists insisted there is no such thing as a person, an “author,” a “presence”; they are my point of departure. They borrowed a notion of language from the social science of structural linguistics. Rather than continue fruitless debates based on that out-of-date theory, I propose that a new, more nearly culturally neutral concept of the person finds support in the latest research carried out by a rising party within neuroscience. This notion of the person grounds a revival of interpretive method (as opposed to “deconstruction”), with new subject matter, new questions, a new history of the world to write.

  2. Many thanks to Professor Reddy for this response. I hope it was clear that in spite of my objections I’m a great admirer of your work, especially the concept of emotives, which has been very influential on my own research. I regret the Wilson comparison, which I see was too hasty. I intended to use Wilson to show the strongest case for the unity of disciplines, which I thought was related to your more modest argument for a strategic convergence of specific fields across the sciences and the humanities. I didn’t mean to associate you with his starkly universalist argument, which I understand you to depart from.

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