Friday, November 4, 2011

The Arts and The Sciences: Two Cultures

We put the arts and sciences at the center of a liberal arts educational curriculum, in the U.S. at least, and sometimes something comes of that juxtaposition: a few students learn that the arts and sciences are so radically different in their methods and assumptions, in the questions they ask and in the criteria they use in judging a piece of work; that no amount of learning in the arts is of any use in the sciences and vice-versa. That's worth knowing; it tells one something about the structure of the world we live in and try, as best we can, to understand; it tells one that modern science (including the language of science, mathematics) has nothing in common with modern (or modernist) art; and vice-versa. 
So one can be the world's  foremost authority, on, say the art of Picasso and know nothing about relativity, or quantum mechanics, or the mathematics of symmetry; what one cannot be ignorant of as an authority on the art of Picasso is art-history. The sciences are different: one can be a great physicist and mathematician without knowing much about the history of physics and mathematics; a physicist today does not need to know very much about Aristotle or Galileo or Newton; or Gauss or Euler.

These two cultures (art and science) as C. P. Snow once labelled them, have not always been as isolated from each other as they are now: science, engineering and the arts were once, during the Renaissance, in Rome and Florence, part of single discipline which I suppose we might call architecture. Leonardo de Vinci, possessed the sort of “unified sensibility” (the phrase seems to have been invented by T. S. Eliot), that felt equally at home in the arts and sciences.

For a long time, no one seems to have thought of art and science as antagonistic ways of understanding the world—that one had to choose: you could be a scientist or an artist but not both.
As late as 1800, Wordsworth was confident that the poet and the scientist  were basically singing the same song. Here is what he had to say in his ‘Preface’ to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which without any other discipline than that of our daily life we are fitted to take  delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the  fairest and most interesting qualities of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure which accompanies him through the whole course of his  studies, converses with general nature with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of Science has raised up in himself, by  conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure; but the  knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition,  slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow- beings. The Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown  benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.  Emphatically may it be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder  and preserver, carrying every where with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite  of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread  over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet's thoughts are every where; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet  he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge--it is as immortal as the  heart of man. If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we  habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science, not only in those general indirect  effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or  Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us,  and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective Sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and  suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and  blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.   

It was not to be—for all sorts of reasons, chiefly the fact that by 1800, the sciences had already progressed to such a point that the only way to understand them was to unlearn all the literary or philosophical wisdom you had painfully acquired and learn a new language and new discipline. Nothing you thought you knew would be of any use in, say, Michael Faraday's laboratory. That was something that a man like Goethe, for example, who had been born in 1749, could never have done. The wisest man in Europe, according to Santayana, he refused to accept Newton’s theory that all the colors are combined in white light; what is more he wouldn’t even consider the evidence that supported Newton’s work; nor, did he ever change his mind. He had his own more ‘organic’ theory, which he developed in a book which eventually ran to more than a thousand pages when it was published in 1810. It was a book that he was inordinately proud of; he really seems to have thought that his optical studies rather than his literary works constituted his most lasting achievement. 
Here is what one of his biographers, Peter Boerner (Goethe: London, 2005) has to say: “Typical for Goethe’s approach is a passage in the didactic section of the Theory of Colours: The eye owes its existence to light. From neutral animal auxiliary organs, light calls forth an organ similar to itself; and thus the eye is created by light for light, so that the inner light nears the outer. We recall in this connection the old Ionic school of thought, which emphasized that only like can recognize thought; and also the ancient mystic’s words, which can be expressed thus:

Were the eye not like the sun,
How could we behold the light?
If no godly power lived in us,
How could we find in God delight?

"No one will deny the direct relationship between light and eye, but imagining  the two to be one and the same is more difficult. It may be easier to grasp if one asserts that the eye has within it a still light that is aroused at the slightest internal or external prompting. In the dark we can call up the brightest images using our power of imagination. In dreams, objects appear to us as if in clear daylight. When awake we notice the slightest beam of external light; indeed when the eye is struck by accident, light and colors emanate from it." (p.80-82)

It is painful to hear such obscurantism coming from such a man. But Goethe was a man from another age, saturated in the literary and philosophical traditions that had defined Western culture for more than 2000 years. Though he greatly admired Spinoza, and Spinoza's Ethics, he could not accept the   mechanistic Nature that is so central to Spinoza's philosophy.


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