Monday, August 8, 2011

Concerning the Protestant hegemony

Over the weekend A1 and I had the opportunity to talk with A2. (They are numbered for the sake of clarity; my identity-protecting initial scheme has limitations.) During the course of our long and fascinating discussion, I often lost the thread of the current argument and found myself tuning back in with (nearly) a blank slate. My mind was insufficient -- out of practice -- to store so many complicated and interconnected soft topics. (I'm good at hard topics: give me a handful of mathematical definitions and some theorems anytime.)

At one such moment, I found myself listening to a sentence which ended:
"... secularism is, itself, a symptom of the Protestant hegemony."
I promptly gagged on the water I was drinking and spent the next few minutes attempting to recover my aplomb. This is not because I thought the speaker silly, but rather because, at first glance and lacking the depth of background understanding and nuance which this statement surely requires, it struck me as a funny sentence. Because, you know, secularism is usually defined as the opposite of religion (religiosity?), and whatever the Protestant hegemony is, it has to do with religion. It's right there in the title.

In due time -- politely allowing for my recovery -- A2 explained the statement to my satisfaction. (I cruelly withhold this information from you. May your imaginations run rampant!)

This left me with the reflection: in the humanities, scholars get to define not only their fields, but the very meanings of the words that they use to define, describe, and discuss those fields. In this way they are not so different from we mathematicians -- forever defining new numbers, and types of numbers, and theorems about types of numbers, and even theorems about which theorems are true about types of numbers.

This left A1 with the reflection: it's not only that graduate school has made it impossible to talk with non-scholars. Graduate school has made it impossible to talk with anyone who is not a scholar in the same research discipline! Egads! We stand wrapped in our own elaborately specialized topics, islands of knowledge separated by an ocean of understanding that words cannot quite bridge; never mind trying to get to the layman's mainland.

Say that five times fast.

[Update: if you want more out-of-context amusement from A2, check out A1's twitter feed Oh, The Humanities!.]

This post's theme word is hypergolic, which describes two substances that spontaneously combust on contact with each other. The joint dinner of the Physics Association and the Sociology Club proved hypergolically argumentative.

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