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Cultures in Crisis: The Science of Culture and the Culture of Science

Ryan Marcotte Cobb

Faculty Sponsors: Professor Galen Johnson, Philosophy

This project is concerned with the historical and intellectual climate that led to the
modern day ideological and economic “crisis” within the humanities. I argue along with
Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty that the difficulties which face the
humanities today are a consequence of the historical interrelations between philosophy
and the the sciences. The sciences have undergone a radical transformation from their
original Ancient Greek sense. The sciences and philosophy were once united under a
common goal: the establishment of universal knowledge. After the technization of
science during the late Renaissance and the failures of modern philosophy, however, the
rationality of science – its methods and common assumptions – became an exclusive
source of knowledge-generation. The notion that only a specific scientific rationality can
produce genuine knowledge was epitomized by the positivist movement in science and
If, however, mankind seeks to answer the questions that it finds most burning -
questions about the meaningfulness of human existence – then this scientific rationality
will not suffice. An examination of the social sciences, in particular, reveals fundamental
problems with the scientific rationality in comprehending social relations and human
behavior. The inability of the scientific rationality to explain social phenomena, which we
are familiar with in our everyday experience, issues the demand for an alternative
rationality that can explain them. I support Peter Winch's argument that social inquiry,
instead of being an object for scientific analysis, properly belongs within the realm of
philosophical investigation. Philosophical investigation, however, is a broad domain. I
argue that above all other philosophical schools, phenomenology is best suited to the task
of understanding social phenomena. Phenomenology, unlike other schools, clarifies the
world of everyday experience and examines how ideas are born in perception. In order to
understand the meaning of social phenomena, our rationality must take into account the
essential structure of intersubjectivity within perception that the scientific rationality
overlooks. The phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty describes the terms in which a
phenomenological sociology would be expressed. The concepts of existential situation,
freedom, and structure are necessary for any understanding of meaningful behavior.
If the validity of an alternative form of rationalizing is granted by scientists, then
there is also the possibility of a justified ethics. A phenomenological ethics, however,
does not moralize; ethics is only the impetus for self-evaluation and critique. A science
that acknowledges the responsibility to be self-conscious would be beneficial for itself,
mankind as a whole, and the humanities as an institution. Science would realize its status
as a historical and cultural development, thereby expanding contexts of future scientific
discoveries. Ethnographic studies, especially, would benefit from a science devoid of an
imperialist rationality. Moreover, the direction of scientific inquiry and technological
progress would be guided by the humanities to the greater benefit of mankind. Lastly, a
self-conscious science would alleviate the ideological and economic pressures that
cripple the humanities.