Remembering Phlogiston

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances.  (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist.  Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.)  The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained.

That’s Clive James from his heavy volume of essays titled Cultural Amnesia.  I’m not sure it’s entirely licit to refer to “science” in the singular like that; science as a whole consists of so many separate and unrelated disciplines.  But James is talking about what we might call the scientific mind or perspective.  And practitioners of the physical sciences do seem to share a single pair of glasses between them all: a single guiding vision of discrete materialism and rationally incrementalized progress toward specific goals of objective knowledge.

This is to deal in generalizations.  But I think James’ distinction is a nice one.  I once described the study of literature – and of the humanities in general – as a means of cultivating and passing on a particular “tradition of being.”  To put it more prosaically I might have said “culture.”  The particular culture I had in mind was that western one built on the inheritance of Greece and Rome, of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, etc.  It’s worth noting that science in all its various manifestations springs from those same roots.

The relationship between science and the humanities, however, is often strained, resembling that of feuding cousins archly sneering across the square at each other as they pass by on diverging errands.  Devotees of science are fond of announcing the irrelevance of those who dedicate themselves to, say, the study of Romantic poetry, the history of the Holy Roman Empire, or the stage.  For their part, students of the humanities pity the labcoats as owners of emaciated souls, lacking in universal perspective, with an impoverished sense of their own humanity.

All of this is silliness.  Our various pursuits in science and the humanities ought to be mutually reinforcing and enriching.  In the symbolism of the human spirit, science represents exploration, curiosity and the yearning for outward knowledge, while the humanities represents memory, the critical endeavor and the thirst for inward knowledge. What Shakespeare scholar of goodwill can deny the value of antibiotics when he’s suffering from bacterial pneumonia?  And what DNA-decoder of goodwill can deny the value of lessons learned in the horrific history of twentieth-century eugenics? 

Of course, in either case goodwill is required.


1 Comment

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One response to “Remembering Phlogiston

  1. elberry

    One thing i noticed at university – brilliant & hard-working Science students could easily be emotionally immature and unable to understand themselves or others. i found, by contrast, that gifted Humanities students usually had greater insight into the human psyche. It’s not a precise rule – one of my friends is very gifted in Eng Lit, can see into the ‘souls’ of fictional characters, but is also seemingly incapable of really understanding living human beings. But as a general trend it holds good, in my experience, and i think in one’s life it’s better to have wisdom, to understand the human psyche, than to know pi to 20,000 decimal points. i’d rather live in a mud hut 5000 years ago and be wise than live in a space shuttle but know nothing of what it is to be human.

    Still, i don’t see any reason why a scientist couldn’t improve him or herself, by reading some Shakespeare, for example.

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