Together but Disunited: On Intellectual Culture

Over at yesterday, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Claire Lehmann, posted an article asking readers to “help build a third culture“–that is, a culture which does not hold humanities and science education in opposition, but which bridges the gap between the two, or somehow otherwise allows them to coexist in harmony.  Her inspiration was the 1959 Rede lecture given by C.P. Snow on The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  Among Snow’s criticisms is that our education is myopic, such that we dedicate excessive time and energy to becoming marginally improved in highly-specialized fields.  This is true.  But neither Snow nor Lehmann provide a solution to this problem; they simply call for reform, without saying what that new or revised form ought to be.  Can’t we all just get along?  No, we can’t.

At least, that is, we cannot get along without common principles.  How are we to rectify the discoveries of science and the theories of the humanities with one another?  Does science–or the “basic facts” with which science deals (quantum physics, evolution, etc.) and which are presumed to be the vis a tergo engines of all physical constitution–take priority?  If some theory cannot be reconciled with these basic facts, or its causal explanation reduced to them, does that invalidate the theory?

Lehmann’s article (like Snow’s lecture) unsurprisingly evinces a privileging of the scientific culture over the humanistic–after all, those in the humanities are far more likely to be ignorant of basic scientific truths than scientists are to be ignorant of basic texts or ideas in the humanities, and education in the humanities does not seem to require as systematic or focused of a training.  This is true, but it also misses the point, and in that errancy, shows a misunderstanding of the “two cultures” from the outset.  That is, they are not in any way parallel endeavors.  While both are concerned with “discovery”, broadly speaking, their methods and conclusions are radically different.  As such, simply putting them in the same intellectual arena wherein there is consistent and dynamic dialogical interplay is going to amount to a fat lot of nothing good or enduring.

A culture is the product of an organic growth.  The culture of science has grown consistently, despite often having meandered outside its proper climate, for millennia–the scientific “revolution” not actually being a revolution at all, but the proper divergence of science from philosophy at that time that the methods grew sufficiently sophisticated to survive on their own.  Simply attempting to plant the two in a common garden will not bear the new desired fruit, however.  Rather, what needs to be discovered and understood, in order that a true acculturation can occur, is the common root: namely, semiotics.


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