Looking for the New Humanists
A review of Jason Blakely's We Built Reality.
Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins, “Now what I want is facts . . . facts alone are wanted in life.” The descriptive power of mere facts, though championed by the character Gradgrind, is unequal to the deeper realities of life. And yet Gradgrind’s vision ends up so formative in Coketown that it starts to become real, causing all kinds of misfortune for the people living there. Jason Blakely’s recent book, We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power, carries on a tradition of Dickensian critique aimed at social science. Like Dickens, Blakely advances a view that human persons need to be understood in their depth and complexity, in ways that social science by itself cannot apprehend. What Blakely reveals is that we need to pay attention to the ways our stories shape the world around us. This is particularly true when we think we are not telling stories, when we think we are just describing reality—when we pretend our stories are just the facts.
Blakely’s book is a critique not of social science per se but of social scientism. The former, Blakely’s own field of study, is an attempt to research various facets of human experience by means of the scientific method. The latter is an ideological framework in which the social sciences provide the exclusive path toward understanding the human person. Our society’s reverence for the scientific method initially created a fascination with social science as a field of study, but it has devolved into a widespread social scientism, in which quantifiable facts are esteemed above all other kinds of knowledge. The real is the quantifiable; the quantifiable is the real. Everything else is sloughed aside.
We need to pay attention to the ways our stories shape the world around us. This is particularly true when we think we are not telling stories, when we think we are just describing reality—when we pretend our stories are just the facts.
The social sciences, however reliant on scientific methods, often fall short of the predictive power they claim for themselves, and Blakely exposes their failed pretensions. The 2008 economic crisis and the 2016 presidential election give Blakely two specific launching pads for his reflections here. Before the 2008 housing bubble burst, prominent economists like Chris Mayer and Todd Sinai claimed that there could not be a burst in the housing market, because economic models indicated that there was no housing bubble at all. It was not just that economists failed to predict the future; their models could not even describe the present reality. Likewise, pollsters in 2016 indicated that Hillary Clinton would win the election, because polling models clearly demonstrated that the swing states were all going to vote for Clinton. When Wisconsin voted for Trump, even though it was typically a blue state, those pollsters scrambled to explain away their erroneous forecasts. In both cases, certainty about social-scientific models obscured the possibility of two significant events that had widespread consequences throughout the United States and beyond.
This is not to say that social-scientific research cannot or should not be methodological. Rather, Blakely holds that social scientists need to see their methods as interpretations. They are heuristics that help clarify human practices, but heuristics are not and should not be treated as comprehensive explanations. The economist’s heuristic in which people are understood as private, self-interest maximizers does capture some aspects of the human experience, helping us understand certain behaviours—shopping patterns, for instance. But when treated as determinative of, say, romantic love or civil service, it leaves whole swaths of human life out of the picture, to the detriment of our understanding of those experiences.
While Blakely offers trenchant critiques of a variety of phenomena, his critique of the transformation of civic society to a market polis, in which the only values are economic ones, is central to his text. Yet here his book falters because of an unnecessary partisan bias. Most of his examples are critiques of conservatives. I am not here to defend libertarians or Milton Friedman (though Blakely’s bias means his work is less likely to persuade conservatives). However, the persistence of one-sided examples reduces the power of his argument; it makes the problem appear less widespread and therefore less serious. Yet there are plenty of examples of social scientism on the left as well as the right: there is a little Gradgrind in each of us. Blakely, for all his hermeneutic finesse, misses this.
Despite this flaw, Blakely’s book is a key text for those seeking a humanistic response to the narrow categories of social scientism that have infiltrated society. Social-scientific reductions are untrue to the complexities of human persons and societies. And this is dangerous not just because it leads to the failure of our predictive models but also because over time social scientism actually shapes the world according to its erroneous views. Blakely writes, “Because humans inhabit worlds of meaning and social scientific theories are in part expressions of novel meanings, those theories can always penetrate human understanding and radically alter the very societies they seek to describe.” In Hard Times, when Gradgrind claims that only facts matter, he helps establish a social system that eliminates the consideration of anything beyond the factual. Contemporary Gradgrinds have achieved Gradgrind’s vision on a larger scale by relying on what they claim are “just the facts.” Blakely calls this the “double hermeneutic effect . . . in which an interpretation of the world shapes the very interpretations that comprise it.” For instance, if I describe all human relationships as transactional (in which I give only to receive), then I will approach all human relationships as merely transactional. My description, even if inaccurate, shapes my personal relationships in such a way that the description becomes accurate. We inhabit a world of meaning—but we do so as makers of meaning.
Blakely sees this world-constituting effect in several areas of life, particularly economics. We increasingly inhabit what Blakely calls a “market polis”—that is, a “political society in which all relationships and institutions are transcribed into a metaphor of self-interested deal making and whose authority is said to derive from economic science.” Principles like civic duty, the common good, or shared practices of virtue do not appear in economic models, and so increasingly they don’t factor into our frameworks for understanding. We can see this dynamic at work in the collapse of trust in civic institutions. If politicians or civic leaders only care about self-interest, how can we trust them to look out for all of us? And since everyone is advancing their private interest, why shouldn’t I do the same? Corrosion in these spheres begins to trickle into the broader society.
Our society is steeped in a scientism that cannot see itself as a narrative—and so cannot see its own failures.
In this, we find the strange paradox—narrated by Dickens and described more systematically by Blakely—that our once-erroneous views become true. For Blakely, however we encounter the world, we are interpreting it, and our interpretations in turn help to structure it. Problems arise when we ignore the nature of these interpretations, “when the stories we tell repress their narrative elements and parade as fundamental empirical science.”
This is where we are now. Our society is steeped in a scientism that cannot see itself as a narrative—and so cannot see its own failures. Blakely writes,
The story of society and human agency as a mechanics, susceptible to control and prediction by experts akin to those in the natural sciences, is a bad story. It is a bad story because it cannot accomplish what it promises (prediction) . . . because it orients us toward manipulating the people around us as if they were objects (technocracy) . . . because it makes us particularly inarticulate and ill-equipped to deal with the world and the moral and political dimensions of our actions.
We need better stories. We need stories that help social scientists grapple more fully with what (or really whom) it is they are studying. Too often, they substitute various theories in the place of actual living persons. They prioritize constructs over actual human communities. Yes, we are calculating and self-interested—but we also laugh, write poems, fall in love, pray, and sacrifice for others. Social science by itself offers a truncated person. As Dickens writes, “Not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or its reverse” in the human person. For in each and in all there is “an unfathomable mystery.”
Likewise, Blakely wants us to study the human person as too deep to fathom. We can measure, but not all the way down. For this reason, he writes, “we must learn to treat the creations of social science—its methodologies and theories—more humanistically.” Blakely is marking the limits of social science in order to redirect it toward its proper end: contributing to a robust account of human persons, one that appreciates the depth of possibility within each person. It cannot achieve this end unless social scientists are engaged in other modes of discourse too, such as ethics, the humanities, religion—even a novel by Dickens.
Blakely wants us to study the human person as too deep to fathom. We can measure, but not all the way down.
Gradgrind prefigures this redirection to a more humanistic ethos, but only after he sees the disastrous effects his theories have on his family. He raised his children according to a pedagogy that left their emotional intelligence and moral imagination, in Dickens’s words, “harshly neglected and a little perverted.” An encounter with Sissy, a circus girl who proves too deep for him to fathom, sets him on the path to conversion. She stymies his fact-oriented educational schemes, and he realizes, “there was something in this girl which could hardly be set forth in tabular form.” Yet ultimately it takes heartbreak for Gradgrind to open to the possibility of love, fellowship, and imagination. He finds to his dismay that his pedagogy has left his children in emotional and personal ruin. Gradgrind, “a man of realities,” is compelled by reality to make “his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity” and to accept a broader view of persons open to their manifold possibilities.
What will it take to awaken us to these realities? Blakely ends his book with a clarion call and a question: “In the past of the humanities and interpretive disciplines lies a new future. But a key question remains: Where are the new humanists?” The new humanists are where they have always been: within each of us. If we can recognize this, perhaps we can develop a robust humanism inclusive of the social sciences but not limited to them. Will this recognition come by means of new books like We Built Reality and old books like Hard Times? Or will it take the kind of wrenching catastrophes that overcome Gradgrind? One hopes that we will convert along the former path. But I fear that the path forward will be one of more heartbreak. The new humanists may end up being humanists amid the ruins.
Let’s avoid that. Read We Built Reality (and Hard Times too). They will help us tell a truer story, a story that goes beyond just the facts to acknowledge the unfathomable mystery at the heart of everything.