Wednesday, November 30, 2005
C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide
David P. Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Rather than defending their discipline, many among the literati have mourned its imminent demise. Thus, in his book The Literary Mind: Its Place in an Age of Science, Max Eastman concluded that science was on the verge of answering "every problem that arises," and that literature, therefore, "has no place in such a world." And in 1970 the playwright Eugene Ionesco wondered "if art hasn't reached a dead-end, if indeed in its present form, it hasn't already reached its end. ... For some time now, science has been making enormous progress, whereas the empirical revelations of writers have been making very little. ... Can literature still be considered a means to knowledge?"
Balancing Eastman and Ionesco — humanists pessimistic about the humanities — Noam Chomsky is a scientist radically distrustful of science: "It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology." Should we see the two cultures, instead, the way Stephen Jay Gould used to describe science and religion: as "nonoverlapping magisteria"? But in fact, they do overlap, most obviously when practitioners of either seek to enlarge their domain into the other. And when this happens, there have inevitably been cries of outrage, reminiscent of the Snow-Leavis squabble. Thus Edward O. Wilson's effort at "consilience" evoked strenuous opposition, mostly from humanists. Reciprocally, more than a few scientists — Alan Sokal most prominently — have been outraged by postmodernist efforts to "transgress the boundaries" by "privileging" a kind of poly-syllabic verbal hijinks over scientific theory building, empirical validation, and careful thought.
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