While still swamped, I want to share with you some thoughts by an eminent philosopher/poet and theoretician about philanthropy, Frederick Turner. (We are both on a philanthropy round-table exploring new ideas in that important realm.)
The following excerpts touch upon matters that we have been discussing, having to do with anti-modernism and its roots in the 18th Century, when romantics and Platonist philosophers chose to wage ideological war against science and the Enlightenment.
I believe that the rift between the sciences and the humanities is profoundly dangerous both intellectually and culturally, leading to deep errors of understanding and unwitting crimes. Certainly at the time it seemed the only defense against what looked like a brutal pragmatism in personal relationships and a ruthless historicism in international realpolitik, where the victors in both cases would write history. But the apparent cure--the cordon sanitaire between science and the humanities--had side effects perhaps worse still. Let us look briefly at the history of those key humanistic ideas: freedom in moral action and originality in art.
To be free one must have free will. Will became the core concept of nineteenth century moral philosophy. It was will or intentionality that set us apart from brute nature. But what was the direction of will? It could only be the extension of its own field of action, since any focussing down on a specific object in the world would enslave it to the deterministic motivations of physicality. "Extension of the field of action" is nicely glossed by the word "power": so "Will" now became "the Will to Power". Thus power eventually became the key idea of the Humanities, as it remains today in its Foucauldian, Feminist, Postcolonialist, Lacanian, and Neomarxist versions. Strangely, our original enterprise, which was to delineate an alternative humanistic world to the deterministic realm of physical forces, has logically morphed itself into the very enemy it was designed to escape.
Power, whether expressed in oppressive violence by a reactionary elite, revolutionary acts by the disenfranchised, or legal sanctions by an enlightened ruling group, is the same thing as physical force: politically it means that you can send men with guns to make people do what you want. If beauty has been culturally relativized out of existence (which is indeed the result of avant-garde theory) and if logical reasoning is, as part of the regnant regime of power and knowledge, no more than the linguistic property of the oppressor, the only way to persuade people is through force.
...Thus the humanities, when cut off from nature, ended up not only looking exactly like the brutal world they hoped to transcend, but also trapped in the gradual entropic heat-death of the physical universe. And history confirmed this gloomy picture: the best-intentioned will- and power-based state in the world, the Soviet Union, turned into a nightmare of coercion and finally after seventy years blew away as if by some inexorable physical law of decay. As Lysenko found out, nature had its revenge on will.
...But during the same period natural science has, paradoxically, undergone a profound revolution. The theory of evolution proved how astonishingly original nature could be. Chaos and complexity theory showed that no Laplace calculator could keep pace with the world's own unpredictable self-organization. The feedback inherent in all dynamical systems rendered the idea of power largely obsolete in complex ecological systems, where the top-down balancing influence of the whole system could dominate local chains of deterministic cause. The predator's power over its prey is part of a system in which the prey species also determines the numbers of the predators and relies on predation to keep its own gene pool healthy. The rigid reductive xenophobia of our immune systems serves a larger organism that is free to explore all kinds of different worlds. The selfish gene becomes the microstructure of the altruism of a social species, and is in turn selected for or against by the resulting adaptability of the species as a whole and the emergent features of the ecosystem it inhabits...
...Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities now profess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is as incompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universe to be. This is where the "logic of the humanities," in Cassirer's phrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginning with presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have paradoxically disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art and moral action.
For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route by which it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in the power of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism...
...But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanistic savants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over a century of largely misguided theory--and thus partly tainted research--in the humanities, and put the field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in better shape than we found it. The sciences, technology and the market now more than ever need guidance from the arts and humanities, which are the custodians of our best human traditions of truth, beauty and goodness. If those activities are exempted from the purview of the humanities, they are being given a licence to be ugly and unethical; science to allow its necessary reductive method to infect its conclusions, technology to be socially and ecologically destructive, and the market to choose short-term exploitation and cheating rather than the more profitable but more demanding path of long-term mutual interest.
Fascinating! I'll see if he plans to publish the entire article somewhere.
Indeed, the notion of a distinct split between science and the humanities has long been fostered by those who implicitly assume that later generations will continue to be unable to cross the gap. CP Snow famously addressed this cultural divide, which he saw as unbridgeable.
Many in the humanities clutch this dichotomy to their breasts, frantically. They adore the notion of "eternal human verities" in order to preserve a notion of equality with scientists, who have achieved truly staggering things in the last two hundred years. (In contrast, what are the transforming discoveries in psychology or ethics or literature, that have made us truly different than we were, say, in the days of William James.)
This is of course sad, and a little pathetic. The phrase "eternal verities" must be one of the most loathsome and despicable notions ever perpetrated on ten thousand college campuses, pushing the view that children can never learn from the mistakes of their parents.
Of course, this contradicts the central aim of most literature! Do we not write moving works of prose in order to enlighten others, so they will empathize and thus learn from episodes of pain and error that they never personally experienced? This is the goal of great literature, and yet, the mavens of literary criticism hold that this goal can never be achieved on a grand scale. Genrations who read great tales of tragic error will never be edified enough to STOP making similar errors themselves.
Fortunately, the simplistic rigidity pushed by Kant and others has been decisively disproved. The sciences and the arts are perfectly capable of fruitful intercourse. While we weren't looking, the "gap" has been quietly vanishing - crossed eagerly by technically-trained artists and artistically inclined scientists.
Try this exercise. Go to a place like Caltech and poll both students and faculty. See what fraction of the population not only participate in some artistic pastime, but excel at it! I will wager the figure is more than 90%. And yet, this is never reported, so precious is the comforting image of hapless nerds who have surrendered much of their humanity in order to succeed at the dry realm of facts. Or poll former Caltech graduates to survey the relative success of their careers, income or marriages. Or even happiness and overall serenity. I'll wager they score highly (on average!) in every category.
There is no tradeoff. No hidden moral cost to science. Science CAN be dangerous, because it increases human power to do good or harm. But it is also the generator of such notions as emergent properties, and the positive sum game. The belief that things can get better. Especially if science does NOT become the amoral pack of nerds that so many romantics feel driven to portray it.
--See the next entry on Modernism--