What is the best attribute of the humanities

This method is insane

At the chair where I spent most of my studies, half-yearly colloquia trips were common. In the select group of academic assistants, doctoral candidates, post-doctoral candidates and professors, theses were discussed in a beautiful landscape, theories discussed and then discarded and - above all - a lot of wine was drunk on so-called fireplace evenings. On one of these evenings, the doctoral student of all people, whose events I found the most exciting as a master's student by far, confessed that she had absolutely no idea what all these literary scholars actually had with their methods: “For the sake of form, I also have a theory- and method part in my dissertation, yes of course. But to be honest: I still haven't understood what the whole thing is about. "

Later, when I was doing my doctorate myself, I had a very similar experience: there was a theory and method seminar at my university, but both were dealt with together and no attempt was even made to separate the two areas. In “Fundamentals of Literary Studies”, the Bible for female literary scholars in the first semester, the word “theory” appears in the table of contents, but the word “method” is carefully avoided with the words “procedure”. During my doctorate, I asked myself more and more whether we literary scholars ignored the elephant in the middle of the room for fear of embarrassing ourselves. Or does the elephant not exist at all? Is there, analogous to the scientific method, also a method based on the humanities?

Singular or plural?

The question of whether there are methods in the humanities is actually easier to answer. Of course, a historian looking at an ancient coin could approach this coin using different methods: he could look at its stamps or its typology. That is exactly what numismatics does, a historical auxiliary science. "The bigger picture, however, remains in the dark with such an approach," explains Tassilo Schmitt, himself a historian and chairman of the Philosophical Faculty Conference. In order to understand why this coin was minted or which claims to power are manifested with it, however, a different approach is required, which is typical for many humanities.

"The methods of the humanities are often linked to theory at the same time," admits the philosopher of science and Leibniz Prize winner Martin Carrier. This is also due to the subjects of investigation in the humanities, since they usually deal with artifacts, things made by people. In addition, to a greater extent than the natural sciences, the humanities were characterized by an individual approach and ways of looking at things that changed over time. However, this relative subjectivity, which is also reflected in theoretical traditions, is precisely the point at which the lack of understanding for the humanities method ignites.

"Science" means the natural sciences

“What do you think of when you think of science and research?” Was a question from the Science Barometer 2017. The first five mentions of the 850 respondents came from disciplines such as medicine, health, technology, biology and physics. The social sciences and humanities, on the other hand, landed behind in the penultimate place. Empiricism, verifiability, tangibility - all keywords that are assigned to the natural sciences and thus obviously in a public discourse of science itself are not attributes that apply to the humanities and their methods. Konrad Paul Liessmann, journalist and philosophy professor from Vienna, also blames the increasingly Anglophone scientific community: “'Science' is often translated as 'Science'. The term 'Science' has a strong scientific connotation. ”This is another reason why scientific methods are increasingly being understood as scientific methods.

The problem: these methods may be useful in physics or biomedicine; they cannot be transferred one-to-one to the humanities. For example, what should be the humanities equivalent of a scientific experiment that cannot be replicated? Generally asked:

Can you fail in the humanities?

Konrad Paul Liessmann, who has already stood out in earlier debates as a critic of a society that regards education as knowledge that can be used immediately, has a problem with the term “failure” in the humanities: “Can one say that Luhmann failed because it is currently no longer received in the USA? Or, conversely, has someone failed who triggers a great response when his work is published but is forgotten a few years later? ”For Liessmann, the point of view from which a failure is assessed is crucial. Tatjana Dänzer, co-editor of the Journals of Unsolved Questions, which has set itself the goal of presenting failed research projects since it was founded in 2011. “In the past we have had articles on humanities too,” she says. "However, it is true: the majority of the submissions come from the natural sciences."

Regardless of whether it is the humanities or the natural sciences: the fear of failure in the eyes of a specialist audience is great. This can also ensure that the discourse in the humanities becomes more fragmented and that fewer large works are discussed in a broader public. Liessmann, for example, is convinced that the science barometer, which determines what normal citizens understand by "science", would have been clearly in favor of the humanities fifty years ago - precisely because they tried more often than not at a major theoretical throw. The fact that the humanities used to play more of the role of “orientation knowledge” is related to this phenomenon, as Martin Carrier believes: “Orientation knowledge is based on the big picture. In the past, the humanities were responsible for this thinking, but now it is often the natural sciences, such as in the debate about artificial intelligence, that bring the big issues to the public. "

The humanities could be more confident

Natural sciences are perceived as the leading sciences, at least in public discourse. So it's no wonder that the humanities don't want to differ too much from the natural sciences when it comes to methodology, at least outwardly. But most of our interviewees vehemently deny that the approximation is only one-sided: “The humanities are approaching the ideal of exactness in the natural sciences,” says Martin Carrier, “at the same time, the natural sciences now also include very special and, in this sense, subjective ways of accessing the object of investigation as is actually typical for the humanities. ”In this respect, the humanities could also appear more self-confidently in public debates. Artificial intelligence in particular is a good example here, as Liessmann finds: “The discourse goes back to antiquity and is therefore something of a hobbyhorse for the humanities. But when a twenty-year-old comes from Silicon Valley and everyone is hanging on to his lips on the topic, as a humanities scholar you can rightly say that he's talking nonsense and has no idea about the topic. That's exactly how the Silicon Valley boys would do it with us humanities scholars when we talk about digitization and actually have no idea. "