Whether or not scientists are from Mars and humanists from Venus, the “two cultures” debate about the arts and sciences has never been down to earth. For decades we’ve endured schematic sparring between straw men: humanists claim that scientists are reductive, scientists find humanists reactionary. (A recent bout between the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and the literary critic Leon Wieseltier in the pages of The New Republic ran true to form.) Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist with strong ties to the humanities, is alarmed by the hubristic stance of his discipline and the backlash it is liable to provoke. He has written The Island of Knowledge as “a much needed self-analysis in a time when scientific speculation and arrogance are rampant…. I am attempting to protect science from attacks on its intellectual integrity.”
Perhaps this well-meant intervention is unnecessary, given the many signs of interdisciplinary concord today. These include the growth of science studies, technocultural studies and the digital humanities within the liberal arts; successful popularizations of science in the media—the new Cosmos had the largest debut of any series in television history; and the ongoing enthusiasm for science fiction in mass culture. (True, the genre is often light-years away from genuine science, but at its best it’s an exemplary merger of the two cultures.) From such portents alone, we seem poised to embrace the ideal of “one culture, many methods.” But might this be a pious platitude, if not a colossal category mistake? Are the arts and sciences actually fated to be an estranged couple, burdening their offspring with crippling complexes?
Gleiser hopes to heal the rift between the two cultures by denying the scientific dream of establishing final truths. He insists that while the arts and sciences have different methods, they are fundamentally united in their search for humanity’s roots and purposes; they also share the human limitation of finding only provisional and incomplete answers. He traces Western science’s misguided aspiration to omniscience, and its consequent devaluing of human fallibility, to its beginnings in classical Greece. This is certainly an appropriate place to start for a history of science’s Platonic aspirations. However, the origin of the “two cultures” debate that Gleiser implicitly addresses is more recent, and thus less entrenched, than his own chronology implies. The unhappy couple stands a good chance of being reconciled through judicious interventions such as his.
Their current disaffection commenced in the early nineteenth century, when the “natural philosopher,” a man of parts, began to be replaced by the specialized “scientist,” a term coined in the 1830s. A new division of labor emerged. Scientists claimed to establish objective facts and laws about the natural world by stifling their imagination and relying on empirical observation, testing and prediction; humanists embraced the Romantic imagination, interpreting the ambiguous nature of human experience through empathy as well as analysis. At the dawn of the twentieth century, reconciliation beckoned within the new domain of the “social sciences.” Economists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and historians combined rational inquiry with intuitive insight—the sort of “scientific use of the imagination” proposed by the scientist John Tyndall and exemplified by the fictional icon Sherlock Holmes. Nevertheless, methods clashed and philosophies jostled. Should social scientists seek simple, encompassing laws like the natural sciences, or should they highlight particularity and uniqueness, like the humanities? The debate revolved around approaches deemed “nomothetic” (generalizing) or ”idiographic” (individualizing)—terms so ugly they assured public disinterest.