Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Terrible Beauty

I've just started reading Peter Watson's voluminous history of 20th century thought, 'A Terrible Beauty', and already, in the introduction, Watson has said something which made me pause for thought:

The arts and humanities, it seems to me, have been to an extent overwhelmed and overtaken by the sciences in the twentieth century, in a way quite unlike anything that happened in the nineteenth century or before…The arts and humanities have always reflected the society they are part of, but over the last one hundred years, they have spoken with less and less confidence…Put simply, artists have avoided engagement with most…sciences. One of the consequences of this…is the rise of what John Brockman calls 'the third culture'…For Brockman the third culture consists of a new kind of philosophy, a natural philosophy of man's place in the world, in the universe, written predominantly by physicists and biologists, people best placed now to make such assessments.

I think this is spot-on. For the majority of the population in a Western country today, culture means popular culture, which means a source of entertainment. If you're interested in ultimate questions, then you consult what scientists have to say.


Neil Forsyth said...

Very interesting, Gordon. I'm not sure I agree with you on this one entirely. On culture being synonomous with popular culture for most people in the West, sadly this seems to be the case. As to the question of whether science has more or less overthrown traditional philosophy, or will do in the near future, I think that may be overstating it somewhat. Of course, one would be foolish not to acknowledge the hugely significant role of the sciences in beginning to provide answers to all manner of tradionally vexed questions. But surely there are some areas of inquiry that are not amenable to purely scientific methods of exploration and explication. For example, moral philosophy. When trying to grapple with moral issues, I'm not inclinded to look to science for answers. Perhaps, you may not consider questions of morality to fit into the category of ultimate questions, that moral thinking is contingent upon or ancillary to other more fundamental questions that must be answered first, but the question of how we can live together more peacably and justly in the world today is the question that engages me more than any other as I go about my business each day. And science ain't helping me.

Gordon McCabe said...

Good point, Neil.