Putting the Soul Back in Science

Harvey Mansfield comes to Washington to give the Jefferson Lecture and to talk to Inside Higher Ed in a podcast interview.
May 9, 2007

Harvey Mansfield came to Washington Tuesday to teach the politicos a little something about politics. "Well, I mean how to understand, not how to practice," he clarified, before launching into a wide-ranging meditation on the state of political science as a discipline, what it's missing, and what the sciences could learn from the humanities.

He didn't come uninvited. Mansfield -- the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University -- was delivering the Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor bestowed on a humanities scholar by the federal government. He joins the likes of past lecturers such as Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling.

Despite being a Washington outsider -- he joined the Harvard faculty in 1962 and has been there ever since -- Mansfield was not among strangers during his visit. Former students include the likes of William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and blogger Andrew Sullivan, and Mansfield has been invoked as a guiding light for many prominent neoconservative thinkers. Members of his audience included Lynne Cheney, a former National Endowment for the Humanities chairwoman, and representatives in Congress.

He came to Washington, in part, to tell his audience that the study of politics has lost its soul. In an age when the social sciences have borrowed from the hard sciences in order to draw generalizations about humans, he argued, the individual -- and the soul -- has been lost. This unwillingness to grapple with the complexities of humanity -- the mix of what he called "one's own" and "the good," selfish desires versus what's best for all -- has resulted in a conception of people who respond to incentives out of simple self-interest rather than individuals with a sense of their own importance.

In short, today's social sciences need a healthy dose of what only the humanities can provide: insight into the human soul as descended from the great philosophers. Mansfield focused on a key notion from Plato and Aristotle, thumos, representing "a part of the soul that makes us want to insist on our own importance." By abstracting away individuals and names, modern social science discards the notion that he said is "the central question in politics": how important we are, or how important we think we are.

Instead, science "tries to combine one's own and the good in such a way as to preserve neither," he said. It reduces tensions inherent in people's private thoughts into a predictable self-interest "so as to make [their] study easier for the social scientist."

In other words, the humanities offer the most insightful means of studying politics (as distinguished from political science, at least in the discipline's current form). One example Mansfield included in his lecture was the notion of "spin" as opposed to the "dispassionate spirit of science." In his conception, spin is the inevitable result of passionate individuals who desire change, both for themselves and for what they believe is the common good (which may conflict with others' conception of "the good"). But one cannot study spin without moving beyond the numerical aggregates of science, Mansfield implied.

"The demand for more civility in politics today should be directed toward improving the quality of our insults, seeking civility in wit rather than blandness," he said, provoking a round of laughter.

Mansfield also made oblique references that may or may not have been intended to parallel the current political moment in the United States. Invoking the story of Agamemnon, who stole Achilles' slave-girl, he said, "He raised the stakes. He asserted that the trouble was not in this loss alone but in the fact that the wrong sort of man was ruling the Greeks."

Mansfield, a follower of the school of philosophy of Leo Strauss, has been a powerful and sometimes controversial force in academic politics. His book Manliness, published last year by Yale University Press, argues that the titular characteristic has an important place in the politics of an increasingly feminized society. He has railed against grade inflation at Harvard, earning the nickname Harvey "C-minus" Mansfield, and came out in support of the university's embattled president, Lawrence Summers, after his divisive comments about women's aptitude in the sciences.

At a symposium on Tuesday afternoon featuring Kristol and other former students, Mansfield offered perhaps the most concise summation of his teaching philosophy before taking the podium later that night: "I think that greatness and great ambition can only be nourished by great thoughts and great books." (In his speech that night, he called the word "great" "pretentious.")

For Kristol, Mansfield's greatest contributions to the understanding of political theory were his new insights into philosophers such as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Jefferson and de Tocqueville -- as well as finding new insights on party government, executive power and the "liberal regime" (in the classical sense).

Mansfield's work is an "X-ray into the underlying structure and core of the liberal regime as a political regime," Kristol said.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, Mansfield implied that the divide between the sciences and the humanities that he explored in his speech was, at least past a certain point, intractable.

"We can make practical compromises, and we shouldn't have the ambition to abolish one another, so universities should be excellent in both," he said. "But the understanding always has to be that they are in tension or in conflict, and that the humanities won't be at their best if they don't realize how opposed they are to the scientific outlook."

In discussing the tension between the sciences and the humanities, Mansfield was making a clear reference to "The Two Cultures," an influential lecture (and later a book) by British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow. But, unlike Mansfield, Snow later began to see the possibility of a reconciliation (in a "third culture") between a humanistic enterprise that looked with skepticism toward any claim to objectivity and a scientific method that sought the dispassionate pursuit of truth.

"My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history," Mansfield said toward the end of his lecture. "It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities, too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it."

The Jefferson Lecture is held annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This year's event was partially funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.


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