American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 47

The Humanities and The Sciences

The session on "The Humanities and The Sciences"
was presented on May 1, 1999, in Philadelphia, PA,
as part of the ACLS Annual Meeting.

by Billy E. Frye, Moderator

Creativity in Science
by Jerome Friedman

Objectivity is Romantic
by Peter Galison

Science, Literature, and the "Literature of Science"
by Susan Haack

with opening remarks by James Gustafson
and closing remarks by John H. D'Arms

copyright © Billy E. Frye


Billy E. Frye, Moderator
Chancellor, Emory University

Thank you, and welcome to our panel on "The Humanities and The Sciences." I am not quite sure why John D'Arms has chosen me to chair it—perhaps he thinks that coming to this happy task from a long administrative career that has made me neither a very good scientist nor a humanist qualifies me to moderate such a discussion! In any case, I am delighted that the ACLS has offered us this opportunity. I am particularly pleased that John has asked us not to dwell upon differences and contrasts among the disciplines, but rather to address issues that must be understood for a meaningful and mutually beneficial conversation to occur.

In this forum we have been asked to explore the differing investigative modes of the humanities and the sciences, and to mention at least a few points of desirable interconnection among these academic sub-cultures. John has persuaded an excellent panel to talk with you about how we will conduct or fail to conduct this interdisciplinary conversation, and it will be my privilege to introduce these outstanding panelists. But first, allow me to indulge myself for a moment.

As I was thinking about this meeting a few weeks ago, I stopped several colleagues on the Emory campus and asked each of them what was the first issue that came to mind when envisioning a forum on the humanities and the sciences. I think it is worth recounting briefly what each of them said as a way of launching this discussion.

The first, a classicist and long-time dean of arts and sciences, said (and I paraphrase), "It is remarkable to me how in the past two or three decades the sciences and the humanities seem to have moved in opposite directions from where they began on the intellectual map, with the sciences emerging as the center of philosophical reflection, while the humanities have moved in a narrower, more technical, empirical, and analytical direction." This shift reminded him, he said, of O. Henry's tale of "The Gift of the Magi." So I reread that story, and was reminded, of course, of how Della and Jim, a loving, respectful couple, both sold what was most precious to them to enhance the most loved possession of the other: a set of tortoise shell combs for Della's beautiful hair and a platinum fob for Jim's wonderful watch. A parable worth considering, I think.

The second colleague I stopped, a fine young professor of English, observed that he "found it interesting and troubling that in the past ten years or so conversation across the disciplines seems to have shifted from a debate over the strengths and limitations of our respective methodologies and metaphysical views of the world to arguments about turf, merit, and mistrust." Have some destructive elements come between Della and Jim because of their failure to communicate? The young man's unease stemmed in part, I think, from impatience with the culture wars and the growing "cults of personality" that have come to characterize the intellectual landscape. But his observation was more an appeal to get back to dealing with the issues, using our respective methods and world-views to challenge one another to better—and larger-—thinking.

The third point (made by two experienced academic administrators, one a theologian and the other a social scientist) concerned the new generations of scholars: "(Our) greatest concern is for the students," my colleagues asserted. "Emory and universities like ours draw large numbers of very talented students. Yet, much of this talent—particularly that part that elects not to follow in the narrow scholarly footsteps of the faculty—is allowed to atrophy because we do not connect with them in a telling way. We must find better ways to make the body of knowledge that we teach consilient, to better connect disciplines to one another and to the real problems of the world, which are never merely disciplinary in character. How can the faculty in the sciences and the humanities support a more balanced, holistic curriculum while sustaining their essential expertise?" Returning to Della and Jim, I would suggest that it is always the children who suffer most when parents grow apart.

All of my interlocutors cited important needs: the need to communicate, recognizing that we all have something important to say to and to learn from our colleagues; the need to focus on the big issues and to avoid entrapment in intellectual fashions, disciplinary turf wars, and cults of personality; and the need to meet the needs of our students and of society at large more effectively.

We may not all be ready to agree with E.O. Wilson's vision that all knowledge is—must be—consilient, though I gladly associate myself with that vision. If we ever really come to accept that humanity is not unique—as our predecessors accepted that the sun is not the center of the universe—insofar as we are connected to the rest of the natural world through our history, genetics, development, and complex interdependencies with one another and with our environment, then I think it must follow that, in the long run, our various perceptions and explanations of the natural world of which we are all a part must be consistent with one another.

Still, one does not have to accept the notion of a grand unifying theory to find compelling reasons to take colleagues in other disciplines seriously. For one thing, we should always remember that the value of a theory does not lie in whether or not it is proven to be correct or incorrect in our time, but in its power to help us frame and test hypotheses by the best methods we have at our disposal. To offer other reasons why we must dialogue more, and more seriously, allow me to quote several respected colleagues. Wayne Booth, in his Ryerson Lecture at the University of Chicago, suggested that if "for people to understand one another is the sine qua non of a genuine university, [then it follows that] one of our main tasks is to improve our chances for genuine understanding." And Jaroslav Pelikan, in The Idea of the University: A Reexamination, observes that "the difference between bad scholarship and good scholarship is the result of what a student learns in graduate school, but the difference between good scholarship and great scholarship [lies in] the general preparation of the scholar in fields other than the field of specialization."

In his book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson himself asserts,

Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Most of the issues that vex humanity daily—economic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, poverty—cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is . . .

Furthermore, he says, "the strongest appeal of consilience is in the prospect of intellectual adventure and, given even modest success, the value of understanding the human condition with a higher degree of certainty." From across the intellectual aisle, Isaiah Berlin makes a very similar point in his essay, "The Pursuit of the Ideal": "If we are to understand the world in which we live, we cannot confine our attention to the great impersonal forces, natural and man-made, which act upon us. The goals and motives that guide human action must be critically examined with every intellectual resource that we have." Whether scientist or humanist, we are in this together.

Those of us who routinely press for more cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration and proclaim the dangers of excessive specialization often do so with a tone of urgency, and I think John D'Arms felt some sense of urgency when he organized this panel. But is there any real urgency? Given the undeniable and remarkable success of disciplinary specialization of scholarship in the twentieth century, and considering, too, the seeming futility of the effort to communicate with one another at times, some think not. But consider these points:

  • Every student who fails to develop an appreciation of the ways in which we (could) illuminate one another's ideas, and of the inconsistencies and insufficiencies among us, finds his or her critical thinking and ability to apply knowledge to understanding and solving problems greatly diminished. Our failure to help students see how different fields of scholarship bear upon one another is an important dereliction of responsibility and loss of opportunity that will affect them the rest of their lives.
  • Scholars who fail to see their fields of inquiry through the eyes of others not only limit their own vision; they also run the risk of entering an intellectual cul de sac, or worse, slipping unconsciously from the search for understanding into a defense of dogma and fashion. Interaction across the disciplines is one of the strongest stimulants of creative scholarship, and is the only force I know of that can counteract prevailing centrifugal forces and create a sense of common enterprise.
  • Institutions that cannot respond to new knowledge quickly and flexibly, with new organizational and administrative configurations, are—at least in the sciences—trumped in the production of new discoveries (and Nobel Laureates!) by those that can, according to a recent study by University of Wisconsin historian Rogers Hollingsworth.
  • Finally, any nation that attempts to address the urgent social problems of our time solely from a scientific or a humanistic vantage point will surely fail to find solutions that take account of the essential and inescapable interconnections and inter-dependencies among the different elements of our natural and social worlds. Our failure to make these connections is, I suspect, the source of much of the public's unfortunate image of university faculty as a privileged priesthood pursuing their own esoteric interests at public expense.

Thus, if we are serious about the consequences of what we do, as we should be, there is urgency in the need to understand and collaborate with one another. My greatest concern, therefore, may have to do with the insidious changes taking place in our universities that seem to make the prospect of meaningful conversation among us ever more remote. Increasingly we take our separateness as inevitable and assign greater value to our own particular intellectual islands. The loyalties of at least some of our disciplines are continuing to shift from the university to other professional and commercial centers. Already, we have largely ceased to function together as scholars engaged in a common enterprise and committed to a common set of values.

As an administrator, I am well aware of how difficult it is to bridge the gaps between us, and conversely of the dangers of knowing less and less about more and more. While some problems (the limits on our time, the intellectual and technical demands of specialization) are real, other factors, such as our excessively specialized vocabularies and overly rigid disciplinary structures, seem unnecessarily to amplify our differences. It is essential for the future of the university that we not completely capitulate to such exigencies but that we work together in quest of mutual understanding, rather than disciplinary hegemony or commercial success. Collectively, our universities today comprise a culture of inquiry and skepticism that is vitally important to society for reasons that are not often consciously recognized, nor fully embraced by any other institution. Once lost, this culture will likely be impossible to regenerate, and that, I think, is a matter of some urgency.

Allow me to turn now to our fine panel. I will briefly introduce all of them, and then we can proceed to their remarks without further delay.

First on the panel is Jerome Friedman. Dr. Friedman received the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for his studies on particle structure and interaction. After several years at the University of Chicago and Stanford, he joined the MIT faculty in 1960, where he now holds the position of Institute Professor. His many honors and recognitions include membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Presidency of the American Physical Society. He will speak to us about "Creativity in Science."

Next, Peter Galison will discuss his studies on one of the most sacred and possibly least well understood of academic mantras, "objectivity." Dr. Galison is Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science and Physics at HarvardUniversity. He has published in both physics and history of science, and—an even more impressive sign of his versatility—has held appointments in the Departments of Philosophy and History, as well as Physics and History of Science, at Stanford and Princeton Universities. His honors include the Presidential Young Investigator award of the National Science Foundation, selection as Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and MacArthur Fellow.

Finally, Susan Haack is Cooper Senior Scholar in the Arts and Sciences and Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at the University of Miami. She has held a number of honorific lectureships, including the Romanell Lecturer of the American Philosophical Association and the National Phi Beta Kappa lectureship. I find her incisive, honest, and witty critique of some of the fashions and foibles of academe to be irresistible, and I especially commend to you her most recent book, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate, as one that is especially pertinent to any discussion about disciplinary issues in scholarship. The title of her talk is "Science, Literature and the `Literature of Science.'"

After each panelist has spoken, we will take a break and then reconvene for the discussion.

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