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This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

Letter from Robert Griffiths Two Cultures


In PNR 188, Roger Caldwell reflects on C.P. Snow’s 1959 Two Cultures lecture. In his desire to show Snow misguided, he ironically leaves us with his own C.P. Snow-ish and even more pessimistic dichotomy between something he sees as the ‘outer’ world, which is the domain of natural science, and an ‘inner’ world, in which we conscious subjects, and our poetry, flourish. He states, ‘They are two halves of a totality that can never quite succeed in joining up’.

However, this outer/inner thing doesn’t run well, and Caldwell seems a little muddled as it handles it. At one point he says, ‘Science gives us an objective, value- free picture of the universe’. However, he had already noted, ‘In the post-Kuhnian era science has lost some of its arrogant claims to absolute truth’. Strictly speaking, ‘absolute truth’ for science had been seen as a no-no before Kuhn, by Karl Popper, for one, and David Hume and the classical empiricists for another. But what Kuhn does is to show how the historical practice of science demonstrates that scientists do not function in or provide us with an objective, value-free picture of the universe. And as the more iconoclastic philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, shows in Against Method, the concept of ‘rationality’ at work in science is not an obvious one. Caldwell is very good at discussing and dismissing the challenges to scientific objectivity mounted from within Literary Theory, but there is much more to be done to pull an ‘objective, value-free picture of the universe’ from the crushing clasp of Kuhn and his followers.

Once we are rid of the the ‘value-free’ universe, which hasn’t done well in philosophical circles since World War II, there remains more scope for exploring what may be profound relationships between literary, in particular poetic, activity and scientific work. After all, at one time there would not have been the dichotomy Snow introduced, and Caldwell seems keen to nurture, between science and art, between outer and inner. Until about the seventeenth century in Western culture, interplay between science, religion, magic and art was deep

and complex. Human beings were simply trying to understand the world and to relate this understanding to their beliefs about God and themselves. The result was an elaborate interplay of beliefs emerging presumably from interrelated cognitive, emotional and moral needs. Caldwell is clearly aware of the possible underlying unity of human cognitive activity when he writes, ‘There is no such monolithic entity as Science, only so many different ways of gathering evidence to support arguments for theories in different … domains’. Indeed.

The cleavage between science and literature that worried Snow obviously developed quickly from the seventeenth century onwards, with the discovery of new ways of seeing the universe (telescope, microscope) that made the five senses less significant and a growing emphasis on mathematical techniques and accurate measurement. The scientist soon became a specialist, but everyone else became a specialist as well. But to conclude that science is now the sole custodian of the outer world seems extreme, even if we can make sense of what this ‘outer world’ is. Indeed, if this were true, then Caldwell does not reach even to the conclusions of his own argument. Of the inner life, he claims that we ‘must necessarily live it from the inside’. Necessarily? One of the important contemporary branches of science is that which addresses the nature of the human brain. There are many, such as the philosophers Paul Churchland and Dan Dennett, neurophysicists such as Vilayanur Ramachandran, and psychologists like Stephen Pinker, who would find any deep outer/inner distinction untenable because it fails to do justice to what, to them, is the important truth that there is no necessarily inner life. The necessarily inner domain would be seen by Dan Dennett as a confused residue of Cartesian duallism.

But whether or not we are forced to go that far, there is much more to be said about the interrelationships between the processes that underlie science and art. Take the use of metaphor, for instance. The linguist George Lakoff has argued that all language is metaphorical and rooted in similar conceptual machinery. Kuhn’s decimation of the ultimate distinction between the objective and the subjective in science makes it very reasonable to consider the ways in which both scientists and artists make use of observation. Clearly there are differences between science and literature, but Caldwell is misguided in arguing that the differences devalue the interrelationships. Snow’s own desire for richer interfaces between science and literature seems preferable and is explored in practice in, say, Robert Crawford’s recent Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, a collection of essays and poems about poetry and science. Caldwell admits that a poet uninterested in science shows, ‘a curious lack of interest in the world’. But more importantly, a failure to see important historical and contemporary parallels between scientific and artistic activity shows a failure to understand important things about the way we, our minds, our eyes and our language, function.


Roger Caldwell replies:
Robert Griffiths objects to the way I distinguish literature from science, but fails to offer an alternative. That is, he acknowledges that ‘there are differences between science and literature’, but since he doesn’t tell us what they are, he is in no position to say that I am ‘misguided in arguing that the differences devalue the interrelationships’. In fact, I don’t: what I am saying is that, in particular cases, there may well be interrelationships, but that there can be no overriding essential relationship between the two, since the two are doing such different things.

True, he refers to the use of metaphor: presumably, he is saying that both scientists and poets use metaphor. This in itself doesn’t take us very far. Indeed, if, as Griffiths suggests, all language is metaphorical - a thesis that seems to me self-refuting - they have little choice in the matter insofar as they use language. However, at the most fundamental level of explanation, that of physics, the world is understood not in linguistic but in mathematical terms, leaving no scope for metaphor at all.

Why does Griffiths reject my account? Primarily, it seems, because science is not as ‘objective’ as I make out, and literature not as ‘subjective’. He refers to Kuhn’s ‘decimation of the ultimate distinction between the objective and the subjective in science’. But this is nonsense: if the distinction was ‘decimated’ within science it must also have been decimated outside science, and the result would be that we could make no statements about the world that were unequivocally true or false. This is a doctrine only postmodernists could swallow. Of course, after Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend - and, for that matter, Quine - the enterprise of science is in many areas problematised, but science is scarcely reeling from the blows.

Of course, questions of realism and of revisability are philosophically pertinent - particularly in physics - but nevertheless there are large swathes of textbook science, in classical physics, chemistry and biology, that are solid enough and vanishingly unlikely to be subject to revision: it would be perverse to doubt that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. Nor is science alone in giving us objective knowledge. Griffiths ascribes to me the position that science is ‘the sole custodian of the outer world’, one which I explicitly disavow in the article. In many different domains we use evidence in the attempt to arrive at the truth of the matter: in the context of a murder trial the question of whether X killed Y is as much a matter of objective fact as whether Hitler ordered the Holocaust. Is Griffiths really denying this - or that there is a manifest difference between activities that seek to find objective truth through the gathering of evidence and those such as the practice of poetry which clearly don’t, being indifferent to ‘matters of fact’ by virtue of dealing with imaginative fictions?

In the article I suggest that poetry is less concerned with the world as it is in itself than with our experience of that world. Griffiths dislikes my talk of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, nor am I particularly committed to it. For sure, it goes against the grain of eliminative materialists like Churchland or neo-behaviourists like Dennett. This doesn’t worry me overmuch. Let me put the distinction, however, in different terms. Even if, as for Dennett, we are natural robots, we are not natural robots in the way that mosquitoes are. That is to say, unlike mosquitoes we have hopes, fears, all kinds of emotions, values, ambitions, thoughts, dreams, and (as Dennett himself concedes) as much of free will as we need.

Further, our human biology means that we see the world in terms of the good and bad, and the beautiful and the ugly. These are not properties of the world as it is (which science studies) but of the world as we experience it by virtue of being human: they are properties that we impose on the world. It is scarcely surprising that the art we produce reflects these specifically human concerns. In all of history there have been no human societies without poetry and song: there is only one - our own - that also has science. Our art is species-specific - a biological imperative - in a way that science is not. If we were visited by Neptunians, the Neptunians might well be able to translate our physics into their own terms - indeed, insofar as it is an accurate account of the features of the universe they would have needed it to have navigated their spacecraft across the solar system. It is, however, unlikely that they would thrill to Bach or dote on Dante. This would not be a failure of intelligence on their part, but simply because they are Neptunians and we are human beings.

From Peter Jay of Anvil Press:
In Evan Jones’s review (PNR 186) of The Scattered Papers of Penelope by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, the editor and part- translator’s name, Karen Van Dyck, became ‘Van Dyke’ throughout. I wouldn’t have troubled you with a request for a correction had not Aldo Vianello, in PNR 190, become ‘Vianelli’ throughout James Sutherland-Smith’s review, despite being correctly spelt in the Contents.

This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

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