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Science and the Theft of Humanity

In science's renewed interest in the human condition, a humanist sees the promise of a dialogue and a new golden age

Geoffrey Harpham

Once upon a time, thinkers simply thought. They pondered deep questions using all the resources at their disposal, and expressed astonishing insights in language at once precise and poetic, descriptive and evocative. Human life was illuminated by being compared to a chariot pulled by two horses of different temperaments, a flowing stream or the task of pushing a stone up a hill. Thought was not compartmentalized, and the same person—Aristotle, for example—could think productively in what would today be considered several distinct modes, including philosophy, political science, ethics and biology.

In works such as <em>Dynamism of a Soccer Player</em>...Click to Enlarge Image

This spirit of consilience prevailed until quite recent times. Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon were considered by their contemporaries to be ornaments of English "literature," and many whom we now call scientists were called "natural philosophers" in their day. The term "scientist" was only invented in the 19th century as a kind of counterpart to the term "artist"; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the term was 1840, when William Whewell proposed it as a way of describing "a cultivator of science in general." Anthologies of English literature often include the work of Charles Darwin; he was, in the view of many, as great an artist as he was a scientist, a man driven to explain in rational terms things he first apprehended in a state of wonder, delight, and a well-nigh poetic enchantment. And Sigmund Freud, who considered himself a "biologist of the mind," wrote in a way that deployed imagination, rhetoric and narrative without feeling he was compromising his scientific mission.

During the years Freud was doing his clinical work in Vienna and Paris, however, knowledge was being organized by a new kind of institution that had little tolerance for evocative richness. Inspired by the example of the University of Berlin, other institutions of learning were beginning to detach themselves from theology and classics and devote themselves to research. In the United States, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago were among the first to commit themselves to the research paradigm and thus to the establishment of graduate schools as an integral, even central part of the institution. In institutions with robust graduate schools, notions of training, research and professionalism entered the scene of education, and academic departments became like silos, each with its own mission, its own methodology, its own credentialing process.

Most significantly, each department or discipline laid claim to its own set of questions, and encroachment was regarded as something worse than poor manners. Thus, for example, professors of psychology agreed not to pronounce on philosophical matters, and indeed, the new discipline of psychology ascended to the status of being a modern branch of knowledge only on the condition that it silently relinquished Freud, whose many interests appeared, in the new context, the mark of a disorderly mind. The only reminder in the modern university of the golden age before disciplinarity was in the very credential that certified disciplinary expertise: the degree called Doctor of Philosophy.

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