Pitting scientists against humanists, and calling them The New Humanists in the process, John Brockman writes of how scientific discovery and technological innovation have taken over the realm of intellectual endeavour. This is an outstanding article, made even better by a broad cross-section of thoughtful responses from other “thinkers” (itself perhaps defeating a major point of the original essay). A must-read.
Around the fifteenth century, the word “humanism” was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist. Michelangelo was an even greater artist and engineer. These men were intellectually holistic giants. To them, the idea of embracing humanism while remaining ignorant of the latest scientific and technological achievements would have been incomprehensible. The time has come to reestablish that holistic definition.
In the twentieth century, a period of great scientific advancement, instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world—of having a unity in which scholarship included science and technology along with literature and art—the official culture kicked them out. Traditional humanities scholars looked at science and technology as some sort of technical special product. Elite universities nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum—and out of the minds of many young people, who, as the new academic establishment, so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action.
In too much of academia, intellectual debate tends to center on such matters as who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the twentieth century. This is not to suggest that studying history is a waste of time: History illuminates our origins and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. But the question arises: History of what? Do we want the center of culture to be based on a closed system, a process of text in/text out, and no empirical contact with the real world? One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; “social constructionist” literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of genetics and evolutionary biology.