Schiller's mountaintop view of history and nature is, like Humboldt's, a source of encouragement, restoration, and consolation, both an escape from the world of human will and action, and a reconfirmation of the viewer's place in that world ... Humboldt offers his readers just the same mountaintop experience of nature in his view of Chimborazo: the same tranquility and consolation, a vision of the inner realm of law, are being vouchsafed them in these measured visions of the tropics. He speaks with Schiller's voice to invite his readers into this space, but rather than finding there Homer's sun, the nature preserved in poetry, we find Gay-Lussac's atmosphere, preserved in eudiometers. The same power to transport, translate, and console that Schiller invests directly in language Humboldt invests in nature, as represented in the Physical Portrait of the Tropics; susceptibility to this power depends in each case on a degree of "aesthetic education," a cultivated sensibility to the infinite contained in the finite form. In the engraving to the Physical Portrait and in the Views of Nature, the reader is educated by the tables and scales framing and backgrounding the explicitly aesthetic domain--without these, and the tension between the two spaces, Humboldt's nature loses the particular aspect of Ruhe, calm and order, that derives from the overcoming of conflict, the reconciliation of strife, the "cooperation of forces." The question is, how is this order produced? how do the spaces of measurement define both the analysis and the synthesis, the strife and reconciliation of physical forces, and thus construct this "organic" vision for the reader?
- Michael Dettelbach, "Global physics and aesthetic empire: Humboldt's physical portrait of the tropics" (1996)Similar points are being made all across the spectrum of history of science scholarship. I can't help being inspired, but also, somehow, angry. How is it that so many young intellectuals are shackled so early to the notion that the kinds of things science is interested in can't possibly be the things that concern the humanities? And how is it that this particular disciplinary demarcation blinds us so effectively to the past and potential future complexities of this relationship? We think we know what belongs in the "science" box, just as much as the "humanities" box, but we are unable to imagine a world in which the two boxes are really two proximately-positioned streams--or, indeed, take on any configuration other than the complete victory of one side.
And, of course, once the "fiziki/liriki," "left brained/right brained" divide has been set up, each of these quintessential imagined communities sets about carefully enlarging its own turf. Computers colonize history and literary analysis; science studies chips away at Newton and Galileo. People who are ordinarily comfortable with ambiguity and relativism turn into snarling partisans who use the language of politics because it justifies their emotional investment. (This was, obviously, the dynamic that underlay the whole Alan Sokal episode all those years ago.) I became interested in "theory" originally because I felt the pull of this debate so strongly, and I never even considered the possibility that the emotions I was putting into the argument could be explained by something far less exalted than the need to smash the Dialectic of Enlightenment or whatever it was. I no longer think any of this pathos had any value, either for "scholarship" broadly defined or for history in particular. Evo-psych lit-crit is looking more and more like the transparent cash-in it is, while Popper and Kuhn have roundly trounced Latour and Feyerabend in the eyes of the public and the general academic community. What we have is a stalemate weighed somewhat heavily towards the
What is interesting is that all this newfound awareness of the historical consilience of the humanities and the sciences, the aesthetic and the precise, the quantitative and the qualitative, was produced originally in the old turf-war context. If you can show that science never achieved the ability to disentangle itself from its surrounding disciplines, the thinking went, you can successful attack its claim to be epistemologically special. It does not seem that anyone was convinced, and for good reasons: scientists do not consider themselves liable for the sins of their fathers. Instead, what we are beginning to realize is that even the presence of some notional distinction between the sciences and the humanities is not a sure indication that one is standing on divided turf. David Hume's essay "On the Populousness of Ancient Nations" is a splendid monument of humanities scholarship despite the fact that its methods and content look, to us, as examples of a crude kind of "science." Hooke's Micrographia inspired the aesthetic sensibilities of an entire age.
This is one of those rare or not-so-rare cases when a positive intellectual advance has produced more rather than less confusion. I, for one, am no longer able to distinguish a "physicist" from a "lyricist" in any consistent or satisfying way, especially if I look outside the second half of the twentieth century. It still seems possible to recognize genres of rhetoric or appeals to particular audiences--but the actual disciplinary place of such appeals is no longer clearly defined. Once one gets rid of the delusion that rigor, precision, structure, and quantity can be invoked only by philistines with no interest in culture, or that relativity, vagueness, ambiguity, and historical embeddedness are the watchwords of degenerate ivory-tower unemployables, this landscape becomes cloudy and treacherous indeed. I can't help but welcome this development, since I'm already finding it hard to imagine sympathizing with either side ever again. The blurring of this particular line is one of the things that will make the future exciting.