(stanford university, march 11-12, 1994)
Translated by Conrad Curtis
Dialogue can no longer do the job.
In the last few years, the capabilities of chess-playing machines have been approaching with increasing speed those of the best players. It appears certain that in the near future computers will outplay any human opponent, in spite of the fact that -- or perhaps because -- their methods of play are fundamentally different. The inside is different, as Terry Winograd, theorist of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, put it. While the grandmaster relies on his intuition, the machine's program exhausts the permutations of all possible constellations. Friedrich Kittler, recently made Professor of Aesthetics and Media Studies in Berlin (and thereby successor of Hegel), countered with the rhetorical (Turing-)question of whether this difference was relevant to the task at hand: winning the game.
This opposition between inner and outer, inner life and surface, appeared throughout the course of the conference. That was to be expected at an event meant to give an opportunity for scientists and humanists to chip away at the most strongly fortified of borders in the terrain of our knowledge, the line of demarcation between the harder sciences and the less hard (but hardly less ideological) arts of understanding of the humanities. It was more surprising that Kittler, at least institutionally an Administrator of the Spirit, took the hard path of the pure surface, where so many horizons are lost, while the Artificial Intelligence man Winograd, with the sights of his understanding aimed at the distinction, left his home territory and could count on the benevolent understanding of many an old Humanist present. This crossing-over was characteristic of the entire event. The scientists present showed their best humanistic side, cultured and conciliatory, while in contrast the majority of the humanists argued, as conference organizer Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht observed early on, for a nouvelle severite.
The colloquium consisted of four half-day blocks, which looked into the history of the intellectual and institutional bisection; interchange of thought patterns and methods; the inseparability of epistemological and ethical points of view; and the question of a new institutional geography. While the fourth part, as an open discussion, gave the audience opportunity for animated participation, the preceding parts consisted of distinguished presentations followed by shorter responses.
In his introductory remarks, Stanford President Gerhard Caspar provided a solid foundation for the subsequent debates. Pointing to Dilthey and C.P. Snow, he sketched with concise strokes the status quo of the so-called two cultures (the insistence -- of sociologists, for example -- on a trinity of cultures means only an immaterial numerical adjustment). From his institutional perspective as a professor of law, he noticed convergences that are essential in practice but are only insufficiently thought through.
Using the example of the concept Nature, Niklas Luhmann demonstrated how a systems-theoretical sociology of science analyzes the history of the institutional bifurcation. His conclusion, that an increase in semantic complexity correlates with an alteration of system-immanent paradoxes, arrived not entirely unexpectedly. Historian of science Timothy Lenoir (Stanford) emphasized in his response the significance of systems theory for overcoming traditional binary thought. No longer in need of a subject, a process-oriented presentation of meaning production determines a new thinking about machines, as is demanded, for example, by the remarkable insectoids of MIT robotics engineer Rodney Brooks, with their decentralized layered control systems.
In his presentation, Life Does Not Count, Bernard Siegert seconded this analysis of the limitations of the human sciences: At the end of the 20th century things do not look good for the humanities. Picking up from the encounter between Dilthey and the electrophysiologist Du Bois-Reymond, Siegert traced the history of a differentiation. While physics and physiology gained more and more ground with their measurements, humanists defended their territory through a claim to the absolute presence of experience. Yet from the beginning this claim was already accompanied, in the emergence of empirical psychology, by its own deconstruction. Helmholtz's measurements determined as a threshold value of experience -- and therewith as a limiting value of the humanities -- 1/10 of a second. Everything below this value is only accessible to technical media, which thus become the blind spot of the humanities. That Dilthey nevertheless achieved an institutional victory over Ebbinghaus by blocking his appointment at Berlin appears as a most instructive lesson of the often divergent paths of theory and institutions -- especially when one takes into account the possible backlash of contemporary arch hermeneuticians, who for some time now have found themselves on the defensive.
Loren Graham (MIT) asked in his response what should happen to the eroded line of demarcation between the sciences and the humanities. A re-marking seems beyond question, while a total eradication seems dangerous as illustrated, for instance, by Herbert Simon's and B.F. Skinner's expansionist conceptions of science. It is valuable, therefore, to live with the increasingly porous boundaries, with the as-if of the scientific imperative, as it were.
The starting point was thus given for an analysis of interchange of thought between the two zones of knowledge. Chemistry Nobel-laureate Roald Hoffmann (Cornell) -- with his thoughts in praise of synthetic beauty, about the aesthetics of molecules -- ventured more than a step beyond the boundary line drawn by Kant. Wlad Godzich's (Geneva) response, a high point of the entire event, undertook a trans-latio [über-setzung] of Hoffmann's problem into the domain of the humanities. The work of chemists described by Hoffmann, the creation of 10 million previously non-existent molecules, in the past would have been named ontology and been organized around the question: from whence comes this Being? The answer of our time: from the laboratories of the Merck Corporation. The artificial and the natural, spirit and substance are less and less distinguishable; the question of the one implies the other. As it is to be gathered from the problem of a chemical aesthetics (or is it a question of an aesthetic chemistry?), scientists and humanists mutually lag behind one another. Rarely does a synchronization fruitful for both sides appear. To make this possible is the task of literature, which in Godzich's words coincides precisely with this attempt, always threatened by failure, at synchronization.
More polemically, but less persuasively, Jean-Pierre Dupuy (Paris and Stanford) set to work. At home both in continental and in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, he diagnosed a lack of culture in the discussion of two cultures, because it conceals problems common to both. Using two examples -- the tangled logic of conceptual hierarchies and the social hypocrisy of a knowledge known by all participants, but which nevertheless cannot become general knowledge without endangering the existing structure -- Dupuy explained the failure of any simple dualism, in particular that of rationality and irrationality.
Henry Louis Gates (Harvard) argued that a kinder, gentler monism is not more desirable in each case than the prevailing dualism. The coupling of fields of knowledge that are in principle separate could lead to new insights (as illustrated, for instance, by the revolutionary collaboration of the crystallographer Watson and the geneticist Crick) but it would not promise a unified field theory.
Jean-Francois Lyotard also emphasized the importance of multiplicity, which has become apparent in the crisis of knowledge in our century. In spite of their originally shared orientation, the hard sciences have increasingly differentiated themselves from one another. But what still appears there as elastic homogeneity is lost in the pluralism of methodologies in the humanities, which can be reduced to three mutually exclusive positions. Alongside the imitation of the sciences, which easily becomes pure doctrine, and the phenomenological-hermeneutic tradition, which proceeds from the erroneous assumption of an object that speaks for itself, and thereby from (actually always-already impossible) dialogue, Lyotard argued for a necessary third melancholy and more modest position. Instead of constructing meaning out of mute data, as do the sciences, or proceeding, as does hermeneutics, within an eschatology of meaning, with its premise that a meaning actually never entirely lost merely need be reclaimed, Lyotard's post-structuralist position (strictly speaking trans-structural: beyond the compulsion of structure and meaning) recognizes the opacity of an impenetrable night and incessantly defers the realization of meaning. Thereby the muteness of objects (in analogy with the silence of the murdered, thematized in Le Differend) and the There-is [Es-gibt] -- Being that resists language, meaning, and communication -- are granted a hearing. That the soft-spoken Lyotard was hardly heard at this conference might have been symptomatic. A large number of the Beyond-Dualists seemed to feel quite content as cosmopolitan border-crossers between two worlds. At least, the response of Jeffrey Schnapp (Stanford) left this impression with its insistence on the rigorous juxtaposition of the hard sciences and the heterogeneous humanities, which left no space for a third alternative, and thus leveled Lyotard's point.
After Kittler and Winograd pointed to computer development as an example of humanistic, and frequently scientific theories remaining far behind the lifeworld praxis of new media, Francisco Varela (Paris) posed the troublesome question of the ethical beyond of the current dualism. The results of neurobiological research could serve as a basis for a theory of a situational and spontaneous morality before any judgment and before any rationalized morality. With reference to Aristotle and to Meng Zi, Varela explained his theory of practice and development of spontaneous principles always-already present-at-hand, which neither ought to be left to 'science' -- in this case to the specialists of ethics -- nor ought to be excluded from science (and sensu stricto, also cannot be excluded, since they are always already -- at least rudimentarily -- present-at-hand in the specific positionality of each individual). Such a theory no longer relies on the strong subject, which in the light of cognitive science (and earlier yet of phenomenology) has become questionable, but rather proceeds from a permanently varying selfless self, whose sole coherence lies in the capability of immediate coping. For the practicing of moral action, this self requires the inner perspective of the humanities (more exactly: the viewpoint of the first person in phenomenology) and the outer perspective of the sciences. Hayden White (Santa Cruz) rejected this vision as aristocratic -- Meng Zi proving convenient in this regard -- and dangerous, without however giving further justification of his own enlightened Marxist viewpoint.
Christine von Weizsacker (Bonn) in her presentation pointed to the dangers of the current ethics boom. She, as the self-described token woman at many events (and perhaps also at this one), knows what it means for an ethicist (or still better: a lady ethicist) to take a seat in the circle of specialists. In most of these cases, ethics as well as ecology are cast in a housewifely role: they provide the personal touch and clean up afterwards. Instead of dreaming of a holocracy, which trusts in the bodiless, totalizing general view of a satellite perspective, it is worthwhile to recall Kant's finding that the totality cannot be the object of any possible experience. It is important to recognize, like Socrates in the Laches, that we are all in the same perplexity, and to learn not to know.
A pragmatic note determined the closing podium discussion, which revolved mainly around possible institutional implementations of the visions presented. Often enough this demonstrated the variegated manifold of viewpoints and the perplexity of the specialist about the fact that the lifeworld lies beyond this dualism. Certainly, it is good to know that scientists and humanists want to understand each other across the institutional trenches and sometimes even are able to do so. What strikes a more contemplative note, however, is the faint echo of Lyotard's, Godzich's, and Weizsacker's critiques of a merely additive interdisciplinarity, which alters nothing fundamental in the treatment of nature and spirit. Only when one admits that a beyond necessarily refers to terra incognita, only when one grants the silence of things, the insufficiency of dialogue, and the knowing of not-knowing their due, will an epistemology beyond dualism deserve the name.