Ramblings about the Liberal Arts

Rambling about the Liberal Arts

So I've had a couple random thoughts floating through my head that I've never gotten around to writing down, or really exploring, and while I'm working on this here ramblings page, I figured it was as good a time as any, so, well, here they are.

Literary Criticism

This actually first originated when I was talking to my sister about some english paper she was doing about the meaning of Macbeth if I remember correctly. And it occurred to me that, if you squint in just the right way, literary criticism of this kind is actually almost exactly the same as science, despite us techies' snobbery.

You may ask what the hell I'm talking about at this point. Okay, here's the deal as I see it. What is science, and, in particular, the scientific method? We develop a hypothesis about nature and how it works. Then we go and do experiments to see whether nature actually agrees with what we say. In the process, we sometimes ignore other data which conflicts with our hypothesis. Then, based on whether we found something to support our hypothesis, we publish.

So you can see what I'm getting at here, maybe. As far as I can tell, from my meager knowledge of the field, literary criticism involves coming up with a theory about a piece of work, studying that work to determine whether or not evidence can be gleaned to support that theory, and then publishing. The only difference is that, in one case, you're studying nature, and in the other, you're studying a man-made piece of work.

I guess the thought that led me to this consideration was that it often seems that these english majors come up with the most outlandish interpretations of some works. In particular, Shakespeare. Now I think Shakespeare is pretty entertaining. I, however, don't necessarily agree that he had all the deep messages and symbolism that are often attributed to him. I mean, c'mon here. From what little I know about Shakespeare, he was writing for the common man. He was writing the equivalent of action movies for his time. You've got the love interest, you've got the comedic foil, you've got the zinger one liners. Okay, so he was a bit deficient on the special effects, but for his time, he was giving his audience what they wanted. It is impressive to write in iambic pentameter, but that was a given of any play written in those times that was taken at all seriously.

Now, admittedly, my knowledge of Shakespeare history and literary criticism isn't very good. But that's how I see it. My theory is that you can basically prove any point you want to make given a large enough body of work and selective enough vision. Obviously, science wins in this respect since nature is basically as large a body of work as you can get. But there are many authors prolific enough to have engendered hypotheses as to their meaning, their symbolism, etc. Me, I think a lot of them just wanted to put together a fine read. Shows you shallow I am. But enuff of that.


So why is that history only matters the older it gets?

This thought was brought up by an item in edupage discussing an effort to develop history CD-ROMs with the quote "why wait 7 or 8 years to update history?"

Is it because only with the added benefit of time and hindsight that we can identify the "important" events i.e. the ones that had a far-reaching effect? That's the only reason I can think of. And I guess, it's also hard to say what minor event might set off something huge. (the butterfly effect, archduke ferdinand, etc). Doesn't it often seem that what's reported as being allegedly "news" is often the stuff that most of us have forgotten by the next year? Seems like the media does a pretty poor job of figuring out what events are likely to become "history". Then again, getting into media would be a whole 'nother rant, so I ain't gonna go there yet. Maybe after I take a media class this quarter at Stanford (Communication 001 - "Mass Communication and Society: Media Technologies, People and Society") I'll rant some about it.

So, anyway. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, history. My feeble understanding of history is that we do it to study the chains of cause and effect that are at work throughout human society. So I guess it makes sense that we have to look at it from a distance time-wise, so that we have an idea of which causes led to which effects. Hrm, this wasn't as interesting a topic as I thought it could be. Oh well.

Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / nehrlich@alum.mit.edu