A Note on Science and Style

The acknowledgement of the benefit that would be bestowed upon a man of letters were he to have both humanistic and exact (and experimental) education is the background of George Sarton’s Science and Style (1921). Rereading that piece was by no means an ordinary experience: the views of Sarton are perhaps my own views, notwithstanding the fact of his being able to express them with real style. My first textual encounter with him was on an old book on the history of science whose title I just cannot recall. The historian would spell out some facts about this Belgian chemist who decided to write a lengthy volume, in fact three tomes, on the history of science; but who during the drafting of the second volume (as Wikipedia tells me again) had the brilliant idea of learning Arabic so that he could first of all read the relevant manuscripts of Islamic scientists. At the time I learned of the existence of Sarton I was able to find just one piece of his writing, which is the said article. But I too put the old book away and called my young friend, David – who at 15 could speak Arabic, having learned it for no reason at all – to ask for Arabic classes. My enthusiasm for Arabic would come and go (so that today I have no knowledge of it), and I also forgot about the existence of Sarton. Yesterday I found a link to his Science and Style in a Brazilian blog. Having commented upon it on Facebook, a friend of mine, Rodrigo de Lemos, pointed out curious similarities between Sarton’s article and Paul Valéry’s Introduction a la méthode de Léonard de Vinci, which I’m reading now and intend to comment upon shortly. Both of them, by the way, are Leonardo Da Vinci enthusiasts.

One of the main points of Sarton’s piece is the often boisterous love-hate relationship between originality and tradition (a point which in some ways echoes Eliotian themes), the former the ‘spark of genius’ and the latter the ‘quintessence of centuries of labor and criticism’. It is a good point. We often galvanize nostalgia for past ages with our praise of tempori acti, or either debunk the old and embrace the new wave for the new wave’ sake, usually with shenanigans. Moderation, here equated to skepticism, is a terrible thing to taste, for we are everlastingly prone to believe. Perhaps art has nothing to do with balance or moderation simpliciter, being a simultaneous embracing of extreme originality and extreme subjection to tradition – a Borgean “future-to-the-past” reenacting of Taleb’s both conservative and aggressive, Black Swan surfer, global investment style.

But his general insight is more of a practical nature. He points out that good teaching of science is implicitly a teaching of style. Science’s style, that obstinate rigour, Da Vinci’s motto, would perhaps discourage many literary efforts, but in the end that reduction would be likely to affect only mediocre literature, which is a positive gain according to him. The dearth of style plus plenty of writing which characterizes 20th century modernism (he means the average joes of the world of letters) would only be effectively cast out if such a ‘cleansing reduction’ were to take place. “The opening up of fresh resources of inspiration would give an enormous impetus to the activity of the most gifted. I dare say, also, that of two men having equal artistic abilities, the one commanding more knowledge will reach a far higher level of style.” And then he goes on to speak of a “Pascalian beauty, which is found only in the writings of those who were at the same time great scientists and great artists”, “all-round humanists able to appreciate the beauty of science as well as the beauty of art, and to understand nature as well as man. Such complete humanists have existed in the past; there is no reason why they should not thrive again in the future, though their appearance will hardly be possible without a profound transformation of the present courses of study”.

This has a Renaissance grip to it and is something of an audacious move on his part. Nevertheless, we have not indeed seen much of the Pascalian beauty Sarton wrote about in the past century, nor it is likely that we will see it in the near future — unless a Black Swan event is to break into the arts and science abbey. We seem to have incorporated specialization as if it were some kind of code written deep somewhere on our way of knowing things. We just do not seem to be able to deal in a working and precise way with generality (and thank god we still abhor theories of everything). Like Arabic, it may be one of those things which are truly hard to understand, but which are worth giving some thought to.


3 comentários em “A Note on Science and Style

  1. Julio,
    As far as I can see, the problem lies on how to interpret an expression you used in your last comment: that literati should cultivate an “interest for science”. Two hypotheses:

    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 you mean 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 of Traditionalists for it nor the Marxist contempt for the “bourgeois objectivity” it requires. It was in this key that I read those touching lines written by Sarton 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 a source of inspiration (I’ve read some French Canadian poets trying to create a géopoétique, but I fear nothing worth of consideration has come out of it). This idea reminds me of 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 you?), it’s like it all depended on will, like there was a collective epidemics of preference for les belles lettres over the sciences. I wouldn’t say it’s completely wrong (you can easily find examples of this attitude among intellectuals), but it’s doubtful that the tendency to specialization is something you can avoid altogether: 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 you mention – 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.

    (Btw: I wouldn’t say Pascal is a good example of this universal spirit, as you 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 painful divorce between them, if we believe the account of his life given by her sister. I believe many of his Pensées also show it clearly.)

    Maybe you’ll 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 and an ideal 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 consequences when taken too seriously. By the time he wrote his “Léonard de Vinci”, he had given up poetry and had begun focusing on sciences and 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 devant 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 an absolute precision (something far beyond the reach of these primitive 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 an intellectual and moral attitude: a careful consideration for truth (and not with 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 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; no scientific method the same way a biologist would do, 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 where our ideas, through a standardization of language, can be more precise. In other words, I wouldn’t deny from the start any scientific spirit to an earnest psychoanalyst.

    Best regards (and sorry for this long comment I have inflicted on you and for this broken English that sounds like a bad translation from French; it’s been quite a while since I haven’t written in English, and your article was a good pretext to a new try),


  2. Provavelmente porque eu não sou um Bertrand Russell, Felipe [suponho seja o seu nome por trás do Pelife de sílabas em modo backwards]. Obrigado pela sanidade atribuída.

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