On Method: The Longue Durée of Empiricism in the Humanities: Patterns versus Interpretations

Past Series, SOF/Heyman Workshops

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How empirical are the humanities? For over a century, empiricism has almost exclusively been attributed to the sciences. The sciences search for patterns and laws, while the humanities aim at understanding unique events. The sciences try to explain the world, while the humanities aim at interpreting it. The sciences aim for objectivity, while the humanities are subjective and speculative.

These oppositions are much older than C.P. Snow’s well-known two cultures debate; they can be traced back to Antiquity and are – quite surprisingly-- rooted in the disciplines that we now call "humanities." From at least the third century BCE onwards, there have been two kinds of practices in philology, historiography, poetics, the study of art, and the study of music. On the one hand people searched for patterns and regularities, while on the other hand they searched for interpretations and the exceptional. Neither approach has disappeared from the humanities since then.

Rens Bod, professor at University of Amsterdam, sketches the longue durée of the pattern-seeking tradition in the humanities and compares it to the interpretative tradition. Bod argues that interpretations were not always in opposition to pattern-seeking but were often constructed on the patterns found. The common wisdom that the humanities are moving towards science when they search for patterns is mistaken. Instead, the search for patterns has been a continuous line in the humanities from Antiquity onwards.