by Rodrigo de Lemos
First in this post by Julio Lemos, then again in this note he wrote on George Saton’s “Science and Style” (1921), Dicta & Contradicta’s website has twice touched upon an issue which I have given some thought to: the apparently inevitable split between the sciences and the Humanities (the arts included). As far as I can see, the whole problem lies on how to interpret an expression Julio Lemos has used in a comment on his first post: literati and Humanities students should cultivate an “interest for science”. Two hypotheses on what he means:
a) That they should keep an enlightened attitude towards science, ranging from simply taking into account scientific opinions when private, public or intellectual matters are at stake (polemical issues, for instance) to a more elaborate position that I would call serious dilettantism (serious dilettantism itself can range from the punctual study of a scientific question to a more or less firm hold on an entire discipline);
b) That they should make an effort to develop at the same level the sciences and the arts.
If he means a), I have nothing to object. In fact, I don’t see any possibility of any other reasonable position towards science – certainly not the hatred for science fostered by Traditionalists, nor the Marxist contempt for the “bourgeois objectivity” it requires. It was in this key that I read those touching lines in Sarton’essay on the beauty of birds; indeed, not only through direct observation of nature, but also through an active study of it can the poet find inspiration — although, I must confess, I’ve read some recent French Canadian poets trying to create a géopoétique, but I fear nothing worth of consideration has come out of it; on the other hand, you have Saint-John Perse, whose library was full of botany, ornithology and entomology books that provided him themes and a very specific vocabulary one you can’t easily find in other poets. Claudel was another poet whose writing profited immensely from science and from technique, both rhetorically and thematically.
Still, I must say, I’m much more skeptical about b). The way Sarton puts it (and also Julio Lemos?), it’s like it all depended on will, on an epidemics of preference for les belles lettres over the sciences. I wouldn’t say it’s utterly wrong (one can easily find examples of this attitude among intellectuals), but it’s doubtful that the tendency to specialization is something one can altogether avoid nowadays: I wonder if it’s not a necessary consequence of massified universities that survive and expand through the progressive specialization of knowledge. I concede that there’s a good side to it (the growing precision of some academic debates, for example), but we must admit that, if it is hard enough to keep up seriously with the relevant academic production in one field, can you imagine with that of two, three or even four completely different areas? The examples mentioned by Julio and Sarton – da Vinci and Pascal – are highly indicative of this; all of them lived before the 19th century, when specialization took over universities and reached a level unseen until then. Nowadays, I fear (and I hope I’m wrong) a leonardian attitude would lead to dispersion, to a sort of disseminate dilettantism.
(A brief remark: I wouldn’t say that Pascal is a good example of this universal spirit, as Julio and Sarton put it. Much more than a marriage between science and the humanities, between esprit de finesse and esprit de géometrie, Pascal lived a somewhat painful divorce between them, if we believe in the account of his life given by his sister, La Vie de Monsieur Pascal. I believe many of his Pensées also show it clearly.)
One may reply that, against all odds, an equal hold on the humanities and on the sciences, as unreachable as it seems, is the best intellectual attitude one can conceive of and an ideal on which one should not give up so easily. Yet, Valéry himself is an eloquent example of how even this high ideal can have not so positive an oucome when taken too seriously. By the time he wrote his Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci, he had given up poetry and had begun focusing on sciences and on mathematics – he had decided to acquire mastery both of artistic expression and of scientific thinking. He spent almost twenty years without writing a single verse. For what? In a letter to a friend in Montpellier, he himself confesses his total failure in mathematics; in spite of his efforts, he couldn’t master equations as well as he did with verse. As Cioran suggests it in a rather vitriolic article (Valéry face à ses idoles), his mistake was to overlook the fact that his clear thinking manifested plainly in language, not beyond language. But, haunted by the ghost of absolute precision (something far beyond the reach of these elusive instruments that are words), he, I repeat, spent almost twenty years without writing a single verse. Had he insisted twenty years more to master something he was, for some reason or another, less endowed to master, we wouldn’t have had La Jeune Parque nor his wonderful Charmes poems.
Sarton obviously has a point when he mentions, by the end of his essay, a “scientific spirit”. I find it interesting he didn’t say the “scientific method” (often useless in most areas of knowledge); he said the “scientific spirit”, which I understand as both an intellectual and moral attitude: a careful consideration for truth (and not for ethics – or should I say politics? –, as in the humanities nowadays), for rationality and for intersubjectivity, the will to prove your point more through evidence and argument than through authority and intuition (or at least stating clearly you’re doing so if you can’t do otherwise). I don’t see any better solution than this in such fields as Literary Criticism (not only of Literature, but also in large parts of what is done in Philosophy, Law and History departments, for instance): in order to advocate for a thesis, you can only quote, analyze, infer and be honest and assume clearly you don’t know what you don’t; not the scientific method a biologist has, but the same scientific spirit. Otherwise, we would reject in limine whole continents of human knowledge that aren’t less noble or necessary than those wherein our ideas, through standardization of language, can be more precise. In other words, I wouldn’t deny “scientific spirit” to an earnest psychoanalyst.