A while back, I was kicking around some ideas with my daughter who was working on her literature thesis on the "lost generation". One of the topics we were wrestling with was what does or does not belong to the field of literary inquiry or literary scholarship. A day or so later, I found myself trying to help my nephew with an assignment from his undergraduate micro-economics course and was vainly coming to terms with the real purpose of the exercise. It was after this that I realized that in both cases, the actual subject of the discussion was the same: what does it mean?

Meaning is one of those words that is some people use too much and others too rarely. For some, it is an ambiguous, not-very-helpful category. For others it is the central issue in their lives. That's quite a range to cover, that's for sure, and is so often the case, the truth most likely lies somewhere in-between.

One point that came up in the literature discussion is that the discipline itself is not really concerned with whether the world is a better place or whether we, as individuals, are any smarter as a result of our pursuing it. Why an author writes something - so the theory goes - is irrelevant. All we have is the text in its historical context and we have to deal with what we find. The only meaning worth anything is the textual meaning, that is, the meaning we find in the words as they are strung together in that particular place at that particular time, and perhaps under those particular conditions. It is, let us say, a rather focused view of meaning.

In the economics discussion, it became clear that my nephew isn't studying business and economics so that the world will become a better place. In fact, it became clear to me that the search for and discovery of the so-called "laws" of economic activity do not concern themselves for any given state of the world. We only have the slope of a given curve that occurs at a particular place at a particular time and under a certain set of conditions. The question of meaning ... what does that mean? ... is never even asked.

The philosopher G√ľnther Anders once noted, "Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made." It would seem that literary theorists and economists are ashamed to be only scholars, not scientists. The analogy is not as far-fetched as one might think. Science, in the sense of counting, measuring, and standardizing, but also in the sense of discovering, researching, and studying has become the non plus ultra of intellectual striving. "Only what can be counted counts" is the watchword of the day. We find this approach at the heart of most academic disciplines these days, from astrophysics to accounting (whereby I am still having trouble conceiving of accounting as an academic discipline, but that's another story). The human and social sciences have made themselves no exception. They wanted to be sciences, too. The English language, however, keeps them out, for we have taken the word "science" from its original meaning in Latin and made it into something that it isn't: a way of life. Science, as a term, derives from the Latin sciro, "I know". Yes, we've turned a way of knowing into a way of life. The only problem is, what do we know any more?

Originally posted to achronon on Mon Feb 18, 2013 at 12:11 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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