Object Lessons: How the Humanities and Social Sciences Learn Differently from Things and Why that Matters

By Brian Cooper and Margueritte Murphy.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Despite vast differences in assumptions and aims among critical schools, close reading remains a fundamental methodological tool of literary, cultural and art-historical analysis. In this paper, we will argue that the practice of close reading emerged in part as a consequence of the rise of museums and exhibitions in the nineteenth century which called forth a response to the decontextualized object by the viewer. In contrast, the social sciences, emerging during the same century, took a very different view of the object because of the pressure of the social sciences to imitate scientific procedures in order to claim a like epistemological base. For the social sciences, the object was not simply or solely free for the viewer to interpret – as emblem, symbol, model, or type – but embodied two related epistemological tensions. First, social scientists had to grapple with the relationship between the part and the whole, the particular and the universal; second, the very relationship between viewer and object, or the nature of discovery through viewing, was put in question as “objectivity” as an idea and standard emerged. As a corollary, debate shifted to concern over the possible normative value of positive statements, while aesthetic value in economics became a feature of the model itself as opposed to the particular object. Today the social sciences seem to have a stronger foothold in the “real world” by dint of their empirical underpinnings and standardized methodologies. Yet social scientific practices and “facts” can serve as blinders to what things may also mean beyond their status as evidence. In contrast, the humanities employ a plethora of hermeneutic frameworks; yet this multiplicity may work to undermine the authority of the humanities outside the academy.

Keywords: Social Sciences, Humanities, Close Reading, Objectivity

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 9, pp.141-150. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 554.939KB).

Dr. Brian Cooper

Visiting Assistant Professor, Economics Department, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Gettysburg, NY, USA

Brian Cooper is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has published articles on literature and economics, with co-author Margueritte Murphy, on the history of economics, and a book, Family Fictions and Family Facts: Harriet Martineau, Adolphe Quetelet, and the Population Question in England, 1798-1859 (Routledge Press, 2007). He is currently working on a study of the relationships between British political economy and travel writing in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Margueritte Murphy

Associate Professor and Chair, English Department, Bentley College, Waltham, MA, USA

Margueritte Murphy is an Associate Professor of English at Bentley College. She has published articles on literature and economics, with co-author Brian Cooper, on modern poetry, nineteenth-century poetry and fiction, and a book, A Tradition of Subversion: the Prose Poem in English from Wilde to Ashbery (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992). She has co-edited a collection of essays, Global Babel: Questions of Discourse and Communication in a Time of Globalization, with Samir Dayal, forthcoming in 2007 (Cambridge Scholars). She is currently working on a book on the aesthetics of political economy, poetry, and commercial culture in nineteenth-century France.

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