From the Ground Up (response to Werner)

Taney Roniger/ Like Werner, I’ve also been impressed by the enormous range of responses so far, each of which alone could keep us busy for the next few days. But because I so strongly agree with him about “going back to basics,” I want to pick up on that thread and see if we can take a stab at articulating the core concerns of each field. Werner has offered up a definition of science that cannot be emphasized enough, and this is that science is first and foremost a way of thinking. (Although we collectively swore the other night we’d never mention him again, indulge me here this one last time: even C.P. Snow perpetuated the ridiculous image of science as a grand filing cabinet of facts. One of his many blunders, to be sure.)  Would anyone care to offer a similarly succinct corrective on what art is, or what it is not?

8 Replies to “From the Ground Up (response to Werner)”

  1. Since I’m the one who first raised the C.P. Snow specter, and since you’re interested in drilling down to core concerns, let me propose that in this context:
    “Science” can be the sum total of conversations that begin with such things as f=ma, the Second Law of thermodynamics, the difference between velocity and acceleration, etc.
    “Art” can be the sum total of conversations that begin with such things as modernisms, the avant-garde, the Italian Renaissance, abstraction, realism, etc.
    In other words: two uncontained conversations, which start from different basic vocabularies. This is what I think is still valuable in Snow’s and Sokal’s interventions. It helps focus what we might mean, in any given case, by talking across the art-science gap.

  2. No, we really appreciated Snow’s “rude questions” in your lecture,
    Jim (and as a huge fan of the hoax, I can never get enough of Sokal). What we all lambasted was Snow’s sexist, racist, imperialist, and downright imperious language. I prefer the Leavis comeback, myself. But anyway, one of the objections I have to Snow’s argument is that he seems to equate knowledge of facts with their understanding. He makes it sound as though the two cultures problem would be considered resolved if people in the humanities could identify Newton’s Second Law, or be able to say whether it was the special or the general theory of relativity that came first. Would that it were that simple! Recitation of facts and figures is hardly a display of real knowledge. As for your definitions, it seems to me, for similar reasons, that art and science are more than the sum total of conversations surrounding them. (A literalist might ask if you’re including drunken conversations, but I am not that person!) I tend to see both from the inside out, I guess: as *approaches* to knowledge first and foremost, and only secondarily as the products thereby produced and their historical “situatedness.”

    1. It depends on what you mean by understanding.
      1. Understanding = inference = being able to draw out consequences and connections. In that case, Einstein had the deepest understanding of physics.
      2. Understanding = interpretation = Verstehen = “a process that employs all our capacities and is to be distinguished from pure intellectual understanding (Verstand). (Quoting here from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. Wilhelm Dilthey.) In which case understanding is proper to what Dilthey called the human sciences (arts and humanities), and it shouldn’t be asked of science or scientists.
      I like thinking about Snow’s and Sokal’s “rude questions” because there’s a sense in which a person doesn’t understand (properly infer) in a field without knowing its most basic ideas. But lots of fascinating, fruitful conversations can happen between people who don’t understand (interpret, as in Verstehen) quite what they’re saying.

      1. The last point here is particularly important, Jim, so I’ll just note its obvious resonances with Peter Galison’s conception, in “Image and Logic”, of “trading zones” within distinct scientific subcultures. Galison’s description of how theorists and experimentalists managed to collaborate on local projects despite not having much in the way of common activities, language, or habits of thought might provide a more structured way of thinking about the conditions under which science-art discussions can become mutually productive.

        Some quotes for those that don’t know the context of Galison’s model. This is from a later essay, “Trading with the Enemy”, on the way that ideas from one discipline (radio engineering) get stripped down for exchange with another (electrodynamic theory):

        “Trade focuses on coordinated, local actions, enabled by the thinness of interpretation rather than the thickness of consensus. Thin description is precisely what makes it possible for the experimentalist and the theorist to communicate, albeit in a register that by no means captures the full world of either, let alone both.”

        Further: “it is possible to share a local understanding of an entity without sharing the full apparatus of meanings, symbols, and values in which each of us might embed it.”

        Of course in the exchange of concrete goods the benefits to both parties are clear. Similarly in exchanges between separate scientific subdisciplines: what each side takes from the other, no matter how stripped-down, can always be repurposed for their own enterprise. The question then is whether art-science exchanges are similarly mutual, with engagement and benefits flowing equally on both sides, or whether they’re somehow less egalitarian. Sharp differences in power, standing, institutional support, and interest on either side might mean that these partnerships are doomed to be unstable one-offs (more like brief, boozy encounters) rather than reliable partnerships.

  3. That seems to rather nicely delineate the two epistemologies in question here, where Verstand would be the kind of knowing science traffics in and Verstehen the home ground of art. I suppose it could be argued that both kinds of understanding are operative in both fields, but it seems safe to say each specializes in, or makes it its business to pursue, the one and not the other.

    I see your point about the value of Snow’s argument. I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect anyone in the humanities to learn — much less understand in either sense — all the foundational concepts of science. That’s a high bar, but I think we can do better than relying solely on those rare gems that arise from drunken conversations. I asked Werner, the particle physicist on our panel, what he thinks would help those of us on this side of the two cultures better understand what’s essential to science. We’ll see what he has to say.

  4. Thanks, Jim and Taney, for your insightful comments here! I, too, often think about these two types of understanding, but I don’t necessarily see one of them as being more relevant to science and the other to art. Even in science, there is a difference between knowing the facts intellectually and knowing them deep down in your gut. And I do think there is a cultural/social element to the second kind. Even Einstein needed help from others to make his breakthroughs.

    Typically, what happens is: you learn some facts from a paper or a textbook, and you work out some example calculations to test your understanding of the ideas. But at this point, you don’t usually appreciate all the implications of what you have just learned, and you don’t have a sense of how these facts fit into the big picture. In my experience, the best way to *truly* understand a scientific/technical idea (Verstehen) is to communicate it to someone else. By explaining what you know intellectually and then having that knowledge reflected back at you, you are able to see it through the eyes of others. And this collective experience of that idea allows it to connect to other ideas, and it starts to take root.

    Having written all that, I am now more receptive to Jim’s definitions above of art and science (which I must admit I viewed skeptically at first). But I would add the proviso that, ideally, the sum total of all the conversations about art and science should be undergirded by understandings of the first kind.

  5. Here’s a brief pass at the question, at least concerning science (and bearing in mind that the history of trying to answer the demarcation question is a dismal and unpromising one).

    The sciences are those practices that:

    1. Respond to experience in a way that is systematic and organized (regimented by experimental and observational methods)

    2. Aim at constructing explanations of phenomena, generating predictions, and controlling and intervening in events

    3. Produce ever more comprehensive and refined representations of the world (including theories, models, simulations, atlases, catalogues, etc.)

    4. Use distinctive tools and methods, particularly experimental systems, instruments, and other devices of measurement and their corresponding mathematical/statistical formalisms

    5. Are organized materially, socially, and institutionally to enable collective sharing and dissemination of results across distributed labs, as well as fractionation of expertise within research groups

    These five factors are, roughly, the cognitive, epistemic, representational, methodological, and institutional dimensions that characterize (most) modern sciences. The same scheme is fairly readily adapted to thinking about artistic practice.

  6. Thanks for that very comprehensive list, Dan, which I think establishes some helpful parameters. If defining science is perilous, defining art is notoriously more so, but I think it’s worth doing — not with the pretense of some kind of claim to finality, but just as a helpful point of departure. In that spirit, I want to offer a very concise definition given by Sian Ede, author of, among other things, Art and Science:

    Art is “…a reflection of human experience in its complexity [which] emanates from an inventive individual with an unusual and sideways view on things, communicating with vigorous visual acuity and daring, its intellectual content, like that of poetry, conveyed through hints and ambiguities.”

    What I like about this definition is its emphasis on human experience in its complexity and the “sideways” means by which it is expressed (i.e., through hints and ambiguities). Both these points set it against what we reflexively think of when we think of science (i.e., its third-person objectivity and its exclusive use of discursive reason). But with a view toward moving beyond the usual platitudes, we might find some fertile ground for cross-over on exactly these points. The idea of third person objectivity (what Donna Haraway calls “the god trick”) has been sufficiently debunked; perhaps we’ll see something of the kind with the myth of science as reason incarnate.

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