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June 8, 2009

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La Gaya Scienza


According to Jonathan Jarrett,the whole humanities vs. science contention is (at least in part) an artifact of the English language:

This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what’s the French or German for science? `Science’, `Wissenschaft’, respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge’. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia’, which likewise means just `knowledge’. And that’s what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge.

The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It’s slowly being enforced on other languages’ academies, but it’s not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all have their Akademie der Wissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don’t know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. [Note: My guess would be the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. —TC]

Elsewhere we don’t have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow’s piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it’s pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don’t, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.

I don’t absolutely buy this, but I think there is something to it. When I translate “Wissenschaft,” I sometimes use “science,” but more often I find myself writing “scholarship” - which is as close to a word covering both the humanities and sciences in a traditional liberal-artsy sense.

More to the point, I think the science/humanities divide is less a difference in the way Anglo-Americans and contiental Europeans think about the humanities, than a difference in the way we think about science.

In the US, at least, nearly ALL science is seen as applied science — that is, closer to the PRACTICE of engineering, or medicine, then it is to history or sociology or (god forbid) comparative literature. None of those things can build a bridge or whup those Communists. But if you start to talk about “research,” or especially “scholarship,” then you start to see commonalities. Someone doing medical research, even for a for-profit purpose, is in a different business from someone working in a clinical practice, just as a lawyer is different from a law professor.

The beef with the humanities seems to be that there are no corresponding practitioners, no practical applications — with the possible exceptions of K-12 teachers and professional writers (journalists, novelists, historians who write for trade presses). Couple that with a rump humanism that actively valorizes the uselessness, timelessness, and universality of the arts, and you get some misunderstandings at best and real problems at worst.

The shift that’s happening seems to be with the younger generation of culture workers. (Here I’m relying in part on Alan Liu’s thesis in The Laws of Cool.) One reason why I think the idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 / digital humanism seems to have some traction is that the work that younger people includes more of what we would traditionally call the humanities, and is governed by an ethos that is closer to what we would call humanism. If we begin to think of our technological galaxy as a media galaxy, then we start to see some clearer points of overlap between science culture and humanities culture.

Somewhere Friedrich Kittler points out that there’s only been one time before now that the entire West was governed by the same information technologies. That was during the European Middle Ages, when the university’s technologies of the book, the library, the postal service, the lecture, etc. were pretty much the only games in town. If you get bifurcated discourse networks, you’ll get a bifurcated culture. You can’t just try to understand a cultural rift; it will only close once its precondition changes.

Posted June 8, 2009 at 3:56 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Science, Worldsnark
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