Even more on the great – disciplinary – chain of being
Early in May we looked at the argument by Edward Osborne Wilson that we can only understand the arts through science. Now Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, puts the argument the other way: we can only understand science through the arts or, more fairly, science and the arts usefully inform each other.
‘It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts,’ Kitcher writes. ‘Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up.’
As Kitcher argues in New Republic magazine, though, the natural sciences do not stand above the humanities and the arts, not least because studies in the humanities and the arts can also challenge the categories used to frame lines of scientific inquiry. ‘Human inquiry needs a synthesis,’ he suggests, ‘in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts,’ alongside the natural sciences.
It’s best, argues Kitcher, to think of the disciplines as, ‘A partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated, in which a fruitful division of labour constantly evolves, in which constructive criticism is given and received, in which neither party can ever make a plausible claim to absolute authority.’
Read Kitcher’s ‘The trouble with scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge’ here.
Are the natural sciences or the arts underrated in your staff room?