Saturday, 21 December 2013

"Mathematisation of Nature" - to be combatted

As readers of some of my posts will know, I have taken an interest in writers drawing attention to the "instrumental" mode of existence introduced through modern science and technology, pushing out human significances, with a resulting cultural distress. Husserl wrote "Crisis of the European Sciences", Adorno & Horkheimer produced "Dialectic of Enlightenment", later Heidegger wrote of the "Gestell", the "enframing", that is technology, Wittgenstein wrote of "our soapy dishwater science". I think some common ground exists between these and other writers in regarding the cultural distress as partly manifested by the lack of a sense of distress: a certain complacency. (See, for example, discussion of the convergence of Adorno's and Heidegger's thinking - "[they] can agree that the situation, viewed as a whole, is catastrophic. Yet this catastrophe lacks an alarming aspect" - in chapter 24 of Rudiger Safranski's "Martin Heidegger, Between Good And Evil", 1998) It seems to me that something of the meaning of this lack of a sense of distress is brilliantly exposed by F R Leavis in his 1962 Richmond Lecture, a criticism of C P Snow's "The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution". Leavis supports what seems to be Snow's main contention, that's there needs to be more and better education in science, and everything else, but especially science. But, as others have said before, Leavis's main concern in the Richmond Lecture is to demonstrate what is lacking in the cultural conditions which could elevate a man like C P Snow to the status he enjoyed as a critical thinker, viewed as one able to speak with authority on science and literature. As Leavis shows in his analysis of Snow's lecture, Snow himself seems to have no compunction about delivering his generalisations about "two cultures"; he really does feel qualified to adopt that tone. But as Leavis's analysis of the performance of his lecture also shows, Snow does not know what he's talking about, and "doesn't know he doesn't know". The 1962 Richmond Lecture has been called the finest polemic of the 20th century in English. It is a great work in my view. To judge by his essay "The Eunuch at the Orgy: Reflections on the Significance of F.R. Leavis" (2009) Raymond Tallis disagrees. Tallis sees The Richmond Lecture as a defensive gesture born of a feeling of inferiority and threat he sees as being borne by non-scientists towards science learning: "for it cannot be pleasant for the innumerate to discover the centrality of the mathematisation of nature to our culture" Precisely. If it does not feel unpleasant, then there is something amiss.