I’m interested in the question of whether it is possible to specify a demarcation of the humanities from pseudo-humanities, and the related question: if so, how? One valuable outcome of settling these questions is that it would counter all the wacky theorizing out there – such as reptilian shape-shifting overlord conspiracies, vaccine conspiracies, 9/11 conspiracies, and theology.
But the basis for a demarcation has been notoriously difficult to arrive at, even in the “hard” sciences.
What Michael Mahner points towards in the quote below – in a discussion of theology – seems like a good basis for demarcating pseudo-scholarship from genuine scholarship within the humanities.
The main problem with theology is institutional, because theology is by its very essence denominational: the theologian is the representative of some particular religion and is therefore expected to accept its creed as a given. The core of this belief system is not open to revision as a matter of principle, wherefore it must be regarded as a form of unscientific dogmatism. Thus, it is impossible that, as a result of internal progress in research, Christian theology will come to the conclusion that Christianity is actually false and Hinduism is true after all. For example, in the past 200 years the research of many theologians has contributed to demolishing the authority of the scriptures by putting them in a proper historical perspective, but this has not led them to abandon Christianity. Rather, it has spawned a hermeneutic industry of apologetics, attempting to save the Christian faith by reinterpreting and re-reinterpreting its tenets, often in unintelligible terms.
– Martin Mahner, “Demarcating Science from Non-Science”, pages 515-575 in Theo A.F. Kuipers, ed., Handbook of the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, General Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007), p. 551
To summarize: good scholarship in the humanities tests every idea; bad or pseudo-scholarship in the humanities begins with ideas that it seeks to defend, and finds ways to continue to defend those ideas, being forced to dismiss or relativize any conflicting evidence.
In practice, however, this difference becomes difficult to measure. Tendentious people don’t think they’re any more tendentious than anybody else. Is it tendentious if one assumes that the laws of physics are universal, applying everywhere and for all time? Is it any more tendentious if my research takes it as properly basic that God exists, that he is a triune being comprising three persons, that the Son is co-eternal with the Father, that all people are sinners and do not deserve eternal beatific life, and that the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth results in the salvation of certain people? It is always possible to point to certain seemingly “core” understandings within any field of research which seem to be beyond challenge. So is support for a certain body of knowledge – e.g., chemistry, physics, biblical studies, history, theology, mesmerism, reiki – just a matter of personal preference? Do they all provide knowledge, yet just of different kinds?
I don’t think so. Instead of a hard and fast demarcation, it might be better to think of the divide between pseudo- and genuine scholarship in the humanities as one of degree. Up one end of the scale are disciplines that have generated a lot of knowledge over the past couple of centuries, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. Down the other end are those fields which seem bent on construing any facts to serve their theories, while ignoring or relativizing those facts which don’t so easily fit with them. I think it is possible to work out the grounds for such a distinction – albeit a contentious one.
In this regard, theology must be the queen of the pseudo-sciences. For it is the domain in which the most human energy has been applied in order to defend a significant body of assumptions which no longer cohere with knowledge derived from the commonly accepted genuine sciences. No doubt theologians will disagree…