Science and the Humanities

Author: John Desmond Bernal;
Printer: Arthurs Press Ltd, Woodchester, Stroud;
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.

This is the text of a lecture delivered on the 26th November 1946 at Birkbeck College, where Bernal worked as a Professor of Physics.

For many years now a division has been established in our universities between the sciences and the humanities. This division is probably more absolute now than it has ever been before, because it is practically impossible for a student to study subjects in both fields simultaneously, and the number Who study them successively is negligibly small. This division is probably worse in Britain than in any other country in the world, because we have, for historic reasons, chosen to limit what we call the sciences to what are more properly called the natural sciences, excluding considerations of human society, however scientific, ‘whereas almost everywhere else the conception extends to all aspects of human knowledge which require the discipline of scholarship in their interpretation.

We are as citizens now engaged in an attempt to supersede the chaotic and inhuman competition of earlier days by a democratically planned community. This makes it all the more necessary to have among those who will administer and direct this transformation men and women whose knowledge of the universe is comprehensive and not one-sided. For this reason the separation of the training of these men and women into water-tight compartments is not only deplorable but dangerous, and it is one of the most serious and urgent problems of the universities to look for ways of ending it.

This great division of human culture can be traced back to the beginning of civilisation. It was then that the primitive unity between doing and talking, things and thoughts, began to break down with the division of society into rulers who dominated men by words of power, and mechanics who worked with their hands to produce food and goods.

This distinction was consecrated in classical and medieval times as that between soul and body, spirit and matter. All true wisdom and profitable learning were confined to the first categories. It was only with the Renaissance, when interest in the body and works of the hands showed itself in the arts and manufactures, that a new Scientific culture arose to balance the old Humanities. The first fully explicit expression of the new tendency, with its emphasis on the power of knowledge to improve the material condition of man, came with Francis Bacon. Soon afterwards, however, Descartes introduced a speciously logical separation of knowledge into that of matter and spirit, the first becoming the proper field for the scientist, the latter preserved for the theologian and humanist. This face saving distinction was to plague science and philosophy from then on.

Strangely enough, the man who saw through it was the Neapolitan Giambattista Vico, standing right outside the main stream of European thought. The division he made in his'New Science was not between matter and spirit, but between the world of nature and the world of man. This world of man included not only history and philosophy, but all the arts, and, as he stated boldly “because it is made by man, it can be understood by man”. This is the foundation of scientific humanism. Vico’s ideas, though slow to spread at first, were to have a momentous influence. Through Michelet, they influenced the study of history, and later, through Hegel and Marx, they came to provide a new concept of the function of man in the universe.

Nevertheless we must admit that, in this country at least, the Cartesian dualism and its parallelism in the cultural field, the distinction between the sciences and the humanities, has provided the basic thought pattern on which education has been moulded. It is a profoundly unsatisfactory pattern, because it can only be sustained either by ignoring, on the side of science or of the arts, at least half of human experience, or if an attempt is made to combine them without unifying them, by the obligation to maintain unrelated compartments of thought and consequently to split and diminish the human personality.

The unitary view, on the other hand, largely because the whole trend of teaching is against it, is much more difficult to achieve; nor has it yet acquired a fully explicit formulation. Nevertheless it is a view on which are converging the dominating tendencies of the arts and sciences of our time. We are coming to see both as social modes — the arts more concerned with communicating the more immediate and emotive social drives: the sciences providing through analytic understanding of nature the means of using its forces for social purposes.

Both are parts of a continuous human tradition. Artists influence each other; art forms are created, flourish and die. The product of art can be divided into schools dominated by some new form of expression. But the tradition of science is all this and more. It is cumulative — it is not a series of successive expressions. It is one total expression of human knowledge; an expression that has continually to be revised and reformed in detail, but one where, with every change and pruning, the stock remains more secure. It is because of this cumulative nature of science that the work of the individual is less regarded. He may be honoured, but he is not read. It is the individual work of the great artist, on the other hand, that survives. The artists are in a sense all contemporaries, while the scientists are successors.

The major difficulty in the way of establishing closer relations between science and the humanities, and of viewing them as part of a union of human knowledge and achievement, is this mixed character of both disciplines. The fundamental distinction between the scientific and the aesthetic mode is apt to attach itself to the practical distinction between the fields of natural and human experience in which both modes can be exercised. This applies even more to teaching than to research or appreciation. The teaching of the humanities has a very old established tradition, a tradition probably quite continuous from the times of ancient Egypt and Babylon. The methods have been gradually modified, but old principles and lines of division still remain. The starting point of the humanities is literary, the ability to read and write, and particularly the ability to read and write in the sacred languages. The aim of a literary education has been effectively the acquiring of traditional culture by the methods of scholarship, and the teaching has necessarily concentrated more on the method than on the content, because many lifetimes are really required to absorb the content of culture, whereas there is some reasonable hope that the methods of scholarship by which the content can be reached might be acquired in a few years.

To this old core of literary scholarship has been grafted at various times, in the days of Periclean Athens and later in the Renaissance, an entirely different educational aim, that of producing the citizen or gentleman; an education largely in manners and attitude, in which a knowledge of ancient models is taken to play the chief part. A great deal of this type of education depends on its common acceptance — the right thing to do and the right thing to say is the thing that the best people of the time have the habit of doing and saying. Education itself becomes the hallmark which it is impossible for the uneducated to forge. Now the full value of this type of education was disappearing even in the nineteenth century, and it showed its last efflorescence in the days before the first world war.

With the passing of the gentleman as born ruler, the liberal education of the gentleman lost its object. But the loss of an object is no deterrent to an educational system, which has an inertia demonstrably greater than almost any other human institution, even the laws and the Churches. Euclid’s elements have held undisputed sway among school teachers from 300 B.C. to the present day. And of course it is also true that an education ideally aimed at producing gentlemen was, in fact, during most of its course, producing minor lawyers and clergymen. Now, with the prevalence of popular literacy, the educational system itself becomes largely the objective of humane education. Teaching is aimed at producing teachers. The means and ends in the humanities are by now hopelessly confused. There was a time when it was very conveniently believed that learning itself was a valuable discipline, training the mind and strengthening the memory, and the uselessness of the thing learnt was of additional value because it proved the disinterestedness of the scholar. The excuse has gone, but the habits persist. What has happened in fact in the humanities is a gradual and reluctant abandonment of the purely classical tradition, and the extension of its methods to cover modern studies such as history, economics and literature.

The course of scientific education has been very different. In the first place until the nineteenth century it was essentially a voluntary education, where people learnt for themselves, either because of a passionate curious interest, or for expected benefits. Medicine, which began being taught as a humanity by lecturers who could not sully themselves by actually touching patients, only later acquired the status of a scientific study. But the object of science was ostensibly successful practice, and, if possible, advancement of science itself. The content predominated over the form. There was little claim to build characters, but rather to produce adepts. Naturally when it became part of the curricula of schools and universities many of the vices of the older education gradually introduced themselves into scientific teaching. Nevertheless there always remained the test of practice and the intrinsically revolutionary nature of scientific teaching, inculcating doubt in tradition and reliance on direct observation and experiment. The real weakness of the scientific education, particularly in England, was its extreme narrowness. This is in part a legacy from the fact that science had its birth in England at a critical period in our national history, just after the conclusion of the struggle between King and Parliament. It was natural then that subjects of division and controversy should be omitted from the new science. As Hooke put it: “Not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick.” Unfortunately, owing to the inertia of human institutions, particularly when confirmed by charters and endowed with venerable attributes, this distinction has been allowed to remain long after its utility has passed away. Limited as the fields of scientific research are, in education science has become even more narrowed into mathematics, physics and chemistry, and a very much weaker branch in biology, for the most part attached to medicine. What this now meant was that while humane education wasted a great deal of time on comparatively trivial grammatical and linguistic skills, it did aim at a comprehensive, if traditional and wrong-headed, view of the totality of human experience. Scientific education, on the other hand, gave a much more accurate and progressively approximating view of an extremely limited field. What was worse, of course, was that what was left out in scientific education was what most concerned the student as a person-the knowledge of society and its history, of philosophy, art, religion and morals.

This vacuum could be filled in either of two ways. The conventional way was to leave the scientist to accept the views traditionally held in the society in which he had grown up, but — and this is the important point — to leave him to accept these views before he was formed by education or rather with an education that in general did not enable him to criticise them. This put him at a disadvantage compared with the art student as a human being and a citizen. The other alternative, available only to strong spirits, was to attempt to apply the principles of scientific method to other fields of experience, usually leading to a complete rejection of tradition and to a nihilist or at least agnostic attitude towards beliefs which could claim no other support than the authority of tradition. To take such an attitude demanded much more moral courage, and was therefore accepted by few. It also demanded from each individual the almost impossible task of assessing for himself, without the guidance of tradition, the full relations of man to society. Only if the scientist had the leisure and inclination to be a humanist as well could these difficulties be overcome, and even then it was much more probable that the extremely difficult effort of harmonising the humanist and scientific traditions would not be made, but rather they would be allowed to grow together as completely different parts of the personality. Very few, even of the world’s greatest scientists, got as far as this. Leonardo da Vinci probably did. Newton and Faraday certainly did not. On the humanist side, the efforts were even rarer. Goethe gives the nearest approach to a humanist who tried to assimilate science, and his science was so coloured by his emotions that it had no effect on the general stream of scientific thought.

The integration between the scientific and humanistic viewpoints is, however, something which should not be a problem for t e isolated human mind, even for the greatest of them. It may be something which will work itself out in practice in the need to meet and solve the very problems that the disharmony itself creates. This was the way which Marx, himself a humanist turned scientist, saw it in the nineteenth century, and the way in which it is working itself out in country after country in our own time. Education, if it is to rise to its task, must attempt to bring these aspects together. This is not to be done by preaching any cut and dried philosophy; still less by reverting to the teaching of philosophic and religious views long outgrown and irrelevant to our modern world. On the contrary, the joining of the two streams of human culture is something for the future, for which we can prepare in education by bringing together in the minds of the new generation the different aspects of the picture, and leaving it to them, first unconsciously and then consciously, to provide the necessary fusion. What we have to do is to design teaching so that the various aspects of human knowledge and human feeling are presented fairly in a balanced way, and with due indication of their interrelationships: that means, naturally, including in education the presentation of interpretations and attitudes about the major current problems, but allowing them to appear as they really are, as debates and not as dogmas. It is, for instance, astonishing that in our universities nearly a hundred years after the appearance of the Communist Manifesto there is no official presentation of the Marxist philosophy, one of the major factors in the thought of our time. The result is not that we have fewer Marxists in the universities, but that the real business of serious education goes on outside and not inside the lecture room and tutorial.

Bringing the vital subjects of our time into debate in the universities will help to emphasise the range of necessary knowledge without which they cannot even be grasped. Most people of our time, even the most learned, are in fact grossly uneducated; that is, they are completely ignorant of large sections of the common heritage of culture. They neither know the facts nor the languages in which those facts are expressed. We must at least attempt to provide this background to all our university students. What it is has been adequately put forward by Professor Dobree in the Universities Number of the Political Quarterly (Vol. XV, No. 4, 194-4). The educated man, he says, “should know something of six different though interconnected realms of intellectual activity:”

  1. Physics and astronomy, the physical structure of the world he lives in.
  2. Biology, what sort of animal he is, what made him what he is, and what the conditions of his survival are.
  3. History, what has happened to the human race in the past, that is, the large movements.
  4. Anthropology, psychology and sociology, by what ideas and organisations the human race lives.
  5. Religions and philosophy, the ideas concerning what it is all about (the basis of values).
  6. Music, and the plastic arts, human achievements in literature.

These he claims as the basis for humanities; but humanities so interpreted would remove the need for separate faculties of science. I think that there is still a need for both faculties, but that they should have this basis in common and differ only by the emphasis they give to different parts of it.

If, then, we can accept such a programme as a basis for university education, how in practice will it be possible to fit it into existing overloaded curricula P I feel that the demand to solve this problem, just because of its difficulty, may force its own solution. We cannot teach scientific humanism unless we are prepared to cut down drastically the amount taught in practically every field of teaching. The demand for an extra subject may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In one academic field after another complaints have been growing more and more insistent for far too many years that most of what is taught, in science and arts faculties alike, is out of date, superfluous and generally futile. We continue to teach it out of that scholastic inertia, fortified by the examination system, which is now probably a worse drag, in a rapidly advancing cultural world, than at any previous period in educational history. Because the curriculum is overloaded, because the teachers are too few and the classes too large, no one has time to think of what they are teaching, and consequently we all go on teaching the same things over and over again. Is it not time to stop and definitely to reconsider and revolutionise rather than merely to revise the whole field of studies ? We have to break the old and vicious custom practised in science and humanities alike by which new knowledge of recent discoveries in science, or recent additions to literature or the arts, are tacked on at the end of an old curriculum, which is then squeezed so that some of the older and more useless bits gradually decay and fall off.

In science at least we can see now that our presentation of whole subjects, such as physics, could be enormously simplified and shortened by thinking out, in the light of the most recent knowledge of relativity and quantum theory, how to present the older and apparently simpler parts of physics. Already abroad, notably in France and Holland, this has been done. There is no longer any division into heat, light and sound, electricity and magnetism; but the general principles of moving and vibrating systems are taught and illustrated by appropriate examples from optics, electronics and mechanics. In chemistry the situation needs even more drastic modification. The old chemistry was largely a matter of memory, a set of cookery recipes that had, for no apparent reason but to worry the student, to be learnt by heart. The new chemistry, based on the atomic theory, is, on the other hand, logical, and makes no such demand on the memory. In the biological subjects we are still plagued by the existence of branches of the subject such as zoology, botany or physiology, that have no logical reason to exist in the light of our present much more generalised knowledge of common biological functions. If we can find the men and money to work out new syllabuses in the natural sciences we could probably get a much better picture of the‘world of nature with far less call on the memory and far more stimulation to imagination and interest, without losing a bit of the practical capacity which it is still the aim of professional scientific education to achieve.

I have no such knowledge of the changes that would be necessary in the humanities, but it appears from statements made by humanists themselves that the situation there is not much better. There is much taught for which the only reason is that it was taught before, and the divisions between the subjects themselves are also justifiable more on historic than on present-day grounds. In both cases the trouble is that it has been nobody’s business to look into the curricula in a serious and purposeful way. Teachers are too busy teaching; University organisation is too rigid; the examination systems make too many demands. All that is achieved are piece-meal changes in curricula which generally leave them heavier and more complex than before. What we need are appointed whole-time university commissions to revise the curricula, not according to their opinions but according to careful operational research both on the justifications of the existing curricula and the effects of the teaching in the subsequent work and life of the students.

Essentially, what we are aiming at in both arts and science is to reduce the amount of learning in order to be able to increase the range and depth of understanding. To the science courses, so cut down, we would want to add enough of the humanities, particularly history and philosophy, to understand the importance and significance of science in human culture; to the arts courses, a corresponding amount of basic science. At first this would be very difficult to do. The absolute gap of ignorance between these fields of learning is so great that there are very few competent either to teach humanities to science students or science to arts students.

Nevertheless the effort is worth making, and will, I am sure, in the end succeed. But it must be accompanied by a more complete interpenetration of subjects. If a scientific student, for instance, could be assumed to know the outlines of cultural history, the whole of his science courses could be interspersed with detailed allusions to the historical origins and consequences of every scientific discovery about which he learns. How far analogous scientific allusions in the arts would be effective I am not so certain. Here the picture is not symmetrical. In many fields of the creative arts, the historic cultural level has not yet reached into the period of the Industrial Revolution, and therefore the impact of science is not really felt. But at any rate in works produced in the last twenty years this has ceased to be so, and it is, after all, in the consideration of contemporary culture that it is most necessary to stress the unity of our culture.

These methods, taken together, will still only begin the process of unification. To be effective they need to be supplemented by a more active and personal collaboration. The experience of the war has taught us, in the widest field of science, the enormous value of the small mixed research team; one composed, say, of a physicist, a biologist, a psychologist and an economist. These men, working together on a common problem, were able to understand each other’s approach and methods in a way that no former teaching could approach, and the concentration on the achievement of an object gave a concreteness which fixed this understanding in a way that no purely academic exercise could do. Now what was achieved in practical operational research in the field of science in war might be achieved equally well in the still wider field by analogous methods in peace. We must strive to find concrete projects on which staff and students of different faculties can work together. Such problems have already been furnished by the work of the regional surveys which were carried out in many British cities both before and during the war. The problems of reconstruction after the war offer even more opportunities for similar projects. The question of housing, for instance, is one which involves every single subject that is included in both faculties, from theology to chemistry. Houses are not only made of bricks and mortar, they are part of the tradition of British history; they do not stand by themselves, but as units in the social complex of the neighbourhood; and the reactions of their inhabitants provide a fascinating field for applied psychology. Why can we not find room in our curricula for the undertaking by staff and students together of such general projects? It is there, in examining and studying real practical difficulties, that the varied human and scientific disciplines could become effectively mixed. It is there that the student could receive a foretaste of the experience which he is bound to receive when he goes out into the world.

The fusion between the arts and sciences is, I hope to have shown, both desirable and possible. In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that it is also a vital necessity. It has seemed to many in the last few years a sad paradox that while man’s powers of understanding have everywhere increased, we should find ourselves in a state of want, dissatisfaction and justified apprehension which has not been felt, at least by the upper classes of society, for over a hundred years. To shallow minds which can only see one thing at a time, science is made to be the single cause of our troubles, and it is asserted that man’s moral nature is not competent to deal with the vast powers which his intellect has put at his command. They foresee doom, and demand, without either considering it or really expecting it to happen, that we abandon our knowledge and relapse into a pious and mystical ignorance. The alternative to this attitude comes from the realisation that we are at this present moment of time at a particularly critical stage of a transformation that began some hundred years back and may go on for some scores of years into the future.

The characteristic of this transformation is not the existence of machines or atom bombs, or even of science itself. Partly as the result of these developments, but more fundamentally because of the economic and social processes that are largely responsible for them, we are moving towards an era where conscious co-ordinated human activity on a world scale will take the place of the unconscious and unplanned interaction of separate human wills and desires. As for the individual, so for society, ignorance and irresponsibility go together. Only if we have no means for knowing the consequences of our actions can we claim to be excused responsibility for them. It is no excuse to pretend not to know once the knowledge is there and all we have to do is to find it out. In the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years, and in this country during the years of the wars, we know what it means to have a whole society run by conscious and democratic co-operation for a clear and common end. That knowledge carries with it an immense responsibility — a responsibility on every member of the society not only for his own behaviour, but, in so far as lies in his power, for the conduct of the whole society. It is not surprising that many would wish to shirk this responsibility, to pass it off on to the shoulders of Divine Providence or iron laws. But if we do not shirk it we must learn to understand what it implies. The negative implications are clear enough — the placing of private before public interest is a waste and a nuisance, and may become a crime. But the positive implications are both more important and more difficult to achieve. To be a citizen in the new world, merely to do one’s duty is not enough. The conscious world cannot be made to work either by set rules or by orders from above. Our opposition to the totalitarian state or to the Führer princip is not only that it is a diminution of human capacity merely to obey orders, but, more seriously, because a population that merely obeys orders puts demands on those that have to give the orders which no actual or conceivable human being could adequately fulfil. The disaster of Nazism was not caused by the fact that Hitler was mad, but by the very position he occupied and by the philosophy of the state that he so absolutely ruled. The new responsibility of the citizen is to understand his place in the world and to act with others in the light of that understanding. Now the understanding need not be a very great one. It must adapt itself to the capacities of every one of us. But great or small, it needs to be balanced. It needs to include the basis of practical and material as well as social and emotional knowledge and appreciation. Some may have more of one, some of the other. But all must have enough of both to be able to understand each other’s language and to collaborate in the same tasks. It is for that reason that the union of science and'the humanities is for us a condition of survival.