Here is the text of my lecture remarks - it ran to about 15 typed pages, so it's longer than your average post:
Knowledge of Ignorance:
What the Humanities can Teach the Sciences
For Delivery at the McConnell Center
University of Louisville
April 4, 2011
America might be called the technological republic—born, nurtured, and raised to its mighty stature by its close affiliation with the modern scientific project. Befitting its creation during the Age of Reason, America’s heroes have often been its inventors and scientists, from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs. If other nations can claim great theoreticians—the Darwins and Mendels and Heisenbergs—the reputation of American science lies more in its applications. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “the more democratic, enlightened, and free a nation is, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer on their authors gain, fame, and even power.”
The United States was self-consciously founded as a polity based upon technical knowledge. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton attributed the proposed Constitution’s inspiration to “the new science of politics,” premised upon “reflection and choice” and no longer relying upon the unconscious accumulation of ancient practice, prejudice, and tradition, which he equated with “accident and force.” Reflecting this modern faith, the Constitution has been described as “the machine that would go of itself,” and the colonial physician Benjamin Rush characterized its citizenry as “republican machines.” There has been a close identification with the New Republic and the image of machinery; if America was, according to some, to be a “New Eden,” nevertheless – as Leo Marx recognized half a century ago – it introduced a “machine in the garden,” finding in the virgin land of the New World sufficient space and resources for the factories of industrialization.
The “new science” introduced by the Founders rested upon a distinctively modern conception of liberty, and the efforts of science, and its applications, were themselves to be the main underpinnings of the modern ideal of liberty. Drawing on the modern philosophies of Machiavelli, Hobbes and John Locke, the Founders rejected the model of the “ancient republics and principalities” that – as Madison concluded – had led to endless stasis and conflict in the small city-states of antiquity, and instead sought create the first application of the new theoretical science of politics. At the heart of this new theory was a rejection of the ancient idea that a main aim of the polity was the creation of the conditions for the education of the human soul in virtue. Rather, as Madison contended in Federalist 10, “moral and religious motives cannot be relied upon,” reflecting the decisively modern teaching that virtue was fundamentally unreliable, at the heart of the insecurity that pervaded the ancient regimes. Rather, Madison argued, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
The role and place of self-interest fundamentally changes according to modern theory. According to the ancients, liberty was a condition of self-governance, both within the individual soul and the polity, resting the capacity of individuals and polities to live within self-imposed limits in accordance with human nature and humanity within nature. An education in and inculcation of virtue aimed at the abridgment of self-interest, and the small polity was seen as the appropriate sphere in which a moderate and self-governing populace could flourish. According to modern theory, liberty was to be understood as the absence of constraint. This modern conception of liberty required a political society that was large and diverse, allowing for the fullest possible range of human choices and experiences: as Madison stated, “the first object of government,” Madison wrote, “is the protection of the diversity in the faculties of men.” Self-interest becomes to be seen as the main wellspring of human motivation, and the great challenge for modern government becomes to channel and harness its potentially destructive manifestations into productive and useful ends. Through the twin solutions of modern representation and an enlarged sphere, Madison concludes that the citizenry’s self-interest will be re-oriented toward private ends and desires, channeled especially into commercial pursuits.
If ancient polities had been riven by the factions that had been the result of the failings of the training in virtue – the inescapability of self-interest – modern theory sought to reorient the hostility of man against man toward a new aim: the conquest of nature. According to modern theory, liberty was limited not essentially by our fellows, but by the constraints imposed by the natural order. Rather than seeking to live within naturally imposed limits, as was held by ancient theory – including limits of human nature itself – modern theory argued that natural limits must be overcome to the fullest possible extent. Peace and concord among humans could be achieved by the expanding power of humanity over the natural domain. Francis Bacon – the early employer of Thomas Hobbes, and one of the “trinity of men,” along with Newton and Locke, whom Jefferson regarded as the greatest men to have lived – argued that science must be reoriented away from a contemplation of the nature of things, and rather toward the effort to seek practical applications that would lead to the “relief of the human estate.” If the highest form of life according to ancient theory was the pursuit of knowledge in the form of philosophy, Bacon argued instead that “knowledge is power” – in particular, the power to expand human dominion over the natural order.
From the very outset, America was thus oriented toward the aim of progress, understood not only in material terms, but also in moral terms. One of the Constitution’s most ardent supporters, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, delivered his renowned “Lectures on Law” in 1790, and articulated a deeply American belief in progress that combined material and moral advance – long before the “Progressive” era:
“It is the glorious destiny of man to be always progressive….. The principles and the practice of the liberty are gaining ground, in more than one section of the world. Where liberty prevails, the arts and sciences lift up their heads and flourish. Where the arts and sciences flourish, political and moral improvement will likewise be made…. In every period of his existence, the law, which the divine wisdom approved for man, will not only be fitted to the contemporary degree, but will be calculated to produce, in the future, a still higher degree of perfection.”
It is perhaps fair to say that we all have been shaped to a significant degree by the vision of the Framers and the modern conception of liberty that has placed the advancement of science and technology as its main engine. We live in a world pervaded by the practical implements of our scientific advances, from the longer and healthier lives we lead, to the transportation system that allows swift movement of people to any part of the globe, to that still evolving new form of information and communication, the internet. Our universities have become dominated by the aim of advancing “research,” an activity that takes its cue from, and reinforces the preeminent role of, the natural sciences. And, a parade of modern Presidents – perhaps none more so than President Obama – have urged young Americans to take up the pursuit and study of science or its associated applied - “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” or STEM.
In short, what I have laid out is a very brief summary of America’s “official” political philosophy, one that has been captured in its founding documents and deeply ingrained into its basic worldview and orientation. We are all “progressives,” in a sense: can one imagine a political candidate standing before the electorate arguing against progress or growth or an optimistic vision of America’s future greatness?
Yet, from the very outset there was another set of voices who warned against the dangers of the modern understanding of liberty, drawing in substantial part from the ancient ideal of liberty and its emphasis upon limits, nature and virtue. According to ancient theory, the belief that liberty consisted in the limitless pursuit of the goods of the world was in fact nothing other than a form of slavery, the enslavement of the soul to the appetites, or the basest part of our nature. Such a pursuit was suitable to the tyrant – or the tyrannical part of our soul – but not to a free people. Early critics of the Constitution – the so-called “Antifederalists” – argued that the Constitution was inattentive to the needs and demands of virtue required among a republican citizenry, and feared that the new system would incline the citizenry toward privatism and an orientation toward commerce that would undermine the necessary virtues of a free citizenry. Echoing the ancient teachings, they urged that the republic should retain a strong support for local practices of self-governance. They emphasized the need to recognize the existence of cultural distinctiveness throughout the States, fearing that increasingly national legislation and identification would eviscerate local practices and customs that rested on a close connection with local natural conditions.
The dark side of the scientific orientation of this project was also recognized. In America’s “official” philosophy the self-confidence and optimism of the prospects for the conquest of nature remained strong and dominant. One need only consider the writings of an author considered by many to be America’s leading and greatest philosopher, John Dewey (whose views substantially dominate pedagogical theory in our schools of education. In his book Reconstruction in Philosophy, written in 1920, he begins by acknowledging his debt to Francis Bacon, whom he regarded as “the forerunner of the spirit of modern life,” the “real founder of modern thought.” Echoing Bacon, Dewey wrote that the aim of science was “to force the apparent facts of nature into forms different than those in which they familiarly present themselves; and thus make them tell the truth about themselves, as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.” If liberals today object to torture as an inhumane practice, one of its leading lights earlier in the last century regarded the image of torture to be the appropriate metaphor for humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
Given the dominance of the belief in science, technology, progress, and the modern conception of liberty in America’s “official” philosophic tradition, one might conclude that there is a scant tradition that opposed this dominant view. One would be hard pressed to discover a coherent oppositional tradition in America, particularly if one limited oneself to officially recognized philosophical texts. That would be to overlook the true locus of the main voices of this “opposition,” which tended to persuade an increasingly democratic and egalitarian public not from the halls of academe, but in the stories and novels consumed by a literate and reading public. The literary venue of this more ancient tradition represents a fundamental continuity with the ancient understanding of the nature of that teaching itself, which tended to emphasize less that virtue and limits could be taught and reinforced through appeal to philosophical arguments, but rather rested extensively on stories and storytelling. As Alasdair MacIntyre has written in After Virtue, in classical cultures, “the chief means of moral education is the telling of stories.” Beginning not with the anthropological assumption of the radically autonomous individual – the assumption that informs liberal theory and underlies the modern theory of liberty – ancient theory emphasized the fact of human interconnection, insufficiency, need and limits. Stories were and remain the medium of this teaching, drawing readers out of their own minds and circumstances to inhabit imaginative worlds that can be more real than their own.
One finds throughout America’s literary tradition strenuous warnings about the belief that science and technology will set humanity free. One might begin with that great inheritor of Ameirca’s first tradition, its Puritan inheritance, who early in America’s history saw its deepest and most troubling tendencies. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, in particular, contain a consistent theme in which the ancient temptation of hubris is recast in the efforts of men of science to transform the people whom they love. No other story better exemplifies this temptation than Hawthorne’s great cautionary tale, “The Birthmark.” The story tells of a man of science, Aylmer, and his young and beautiful wife, Georgina. Aylmer, we are told, is the type of scientist whose “love of science” might rival “the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy.” Like many of that zealous believers in the power of science, he pursued “the secret of creative force … [to] make new worlds for himself,” and thus the narrator suggests that he possessed a “degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature.” Only by combining his love of science and his love of his young wife could he be satisfied.
That combination comes to pass in his casual observation one day that he could remove the one blemish from his beautiful wife, a birthmark upon her cheek. Husband and wife become increasingly unhappy about the imperfection that had once been described as a “charm,” and Georgiana eventually succumbs to Aylmer’s request to remove it through scientific intervention. Their relationship grows more untrusting and distant as Aylmer’s love of the idea of perfection crowds out his love for his actual wife. The story culminates with Georgina agreeing to consume an elixir that succeeds in removing the birthmark, but also kills her in the process. In her dying words she absolves him, telling him that he “rejected the best the earth could offer…”
This story was the subject of the first meeting of President Bush’s Bioethics Commission chaired by the philosopher Leon Kass, and at that meeting, it was a medical doctor, William May, who observed that the story showed the modern tendency toward a kind of Gnostic hatred of the given world. In a penetrating analysis, he argued that science partakes of two kinds of love that can be compared to parental love, and warned of the dangers of tending too far in the desire of transformative love over accepting love:
Parenting entails a double passion and loyalty -- both to the being and to the well-being of the child. Neither loyalty is complete alone. On the one hand, parents need to accept the child as he is. As Frost said, home is where when you go there, they have to take you in. Parenting requires accepting love. On the other hand, parents must also encourage the well being of the child. They must promote the child's excellence. If they merely accept the child as she is, they neglect the important business of her full growth and flourishing. Parenting requires transforming love.
Attachment becomes too quietistic if it slackens into mere acceptance of the child as he is. Love must will the well-being and not merely the being of the other. But attachment lapses into a Gnostic revulsion against the world, if, in the name of well-being, it recoils from the child as it is.
Ambitious parents, especially in a meritarian society tend one-sidedly to emphasize the parental role of transforming love. We fiercely demand performance, accomplishments, and results. Sometimes, we behave like the ancient Gnostics who despised the given world, who wrote off the very birth of the world as a catastrophe. We increasingly define and seize upon our children as products to be perfected, flaws to be overcome. And to that degree, we implicitly define ourselves as flawed manufacturers. Implicit in the rejection of the child is self-rejection. We view ourselves as flawed manufacturers rather than imperfect recipients of a gift.
Parents find it difficult to maintain an equilibrium between the two sides of love. Accepting love, without transforming love, slides into indulgence and finally neglect. Transforming love, without accepting love, badgers and finally rejects.
It may not overreach to observe that modern science exhibits the two sides of love suggested here. On the one hand, science engages us in beholding; it lets us study and savor the world as it is. On the other hand, science and the technologies it generates engage us in moulding, in the project of transforming, amending, and perfecting the given world.
We can find further warnings about the dangers of the embrace of science and its attendant modern technologies even in the works of authors themselves who were swept up in the technological and progressive craze of the late-nineteenth century. As Mark Twain achieved success as an author, he invested much of his wealth in various experimental technologies that he believed might hold the key to modern convenience and not a small sum of profit for his efforts. Yet, for all his technophilia, in 1889 Twain published the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a rollicking tale involving the time travel of a young employee of Hartford’s Colt arms factory back to the Middle Ages of Arthurian England. Much of the novel features the comical send-up of the backwardness, gullibility, and ignorance of the Medieval court and peasantry, with the lead character – Hank Morgan – eventually establishing a 19th-century advanced society in the midst of the Arthurian age with the assistance of capable young men he has educated and molded. Still, at the book’s conclusion it is the very 19th-century technology – and particularly its weaponry – that lead to the demise of Hank and the young men, when, attacked by some 30,000 knights of Christendom, they decimate the host with electricity and Gatling guns. Trapped by a wall of rotting corpses, the modernists succumb to disease and the transplanted industrial revolution comes to a quick demise. While the vast majority of Twain’s tale mocks and ridicules the ignorance and foibles of the Middle Ages, its ending provokes the disquieting suspicion that all along, faith in modern science and technology obscures from its true believers its greater capacity to destroy, perhaps above all by overlooking the more ancient admonitions that would force us to recognize our propensity to sin and self-aggrandizement. Twain would seem finally to invite us to consider that material progress does not imply moral progress.
It is in that genre that Twain’s book in some ways inaugurated – science fiction – that one finds many of the cautionary tales about the human tendency to overestimate the power of science to solve human problems, and even the ways it exacerbates some of our worst failings. In more modern times, there has been no author in the genre of science fiction who better explored this theme than the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Most of his novels touch on this theme – for instance, Breakfast of Champions recalls his presence in Dresden during the horrific Allied fire-bombing of that city, a scene that recalls the conclusion of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and explains some of the reasons why Vonnegut modeled so much of his personal style on Twain’s – and a host of other of Vonnegut’s novels explore related themes of the dangers of science, technology and humanity’s sometimes dehumanizing faith in progress, from Cat’s Cradle to Galapagos to so many of the wonderful stories in his collection Welcome to the Monkey House. But the novel of which I remain most fond is his first, Player Piano, that tells of a future in which humankind has effectively eliminated meaningful work in the name of efficiency, profit, cost and leisure, rendering most of the population as nothing other than wards of the State, overseen by a small number of highly-educated and credentialed managerial elites whose job consists in being “symbolic-analysts.” A visiting dignitary from the imaginary land of Bratpuhr observes the degraded and meaningless “make-work” labor of most of the American population, and tells the Secretary of State who is serving as his guide that in his country, too, they have many people who work as slaves – takaru, in his language. When told by the Secretary of State that these people are not slaves, but that they are citizens, the Shah gazes reflectively into the distance as if gaining a sudden understanding, then repeats as a mantra – “takaru – citizen… citizen – takaru….” Vonnegut’s book raises the question of whether there is not, in fact, something inherently noble in playing a piano with one’s own two hands – even if imperfectly, and when machines can do a perfectly adequate job in place of humans – and, by extension, whether there is a dignity to work that goes beyond measures of efficiency and profit.
If Vonnegut’s book implicitly asks what are people for?, this is the literal title of a book, and a major theme, in the writings of Kentucky’s finest writer and, I would argue, the best and most important living author in America today, Wendell Berry. Berry’s poems, stories, novels and essays present a coherent and powerful argument against most of the assumed prejudices of our day, particularly those regarding the central desiderata of science, technology, industrialism, globalization and the Gnostic impulse toward “perfectibility.” Among other of Berry’s targets of critique – which include our basic economic presuppositions, the industrial method that tends toward monoculture, our reliance upon warfare as a source of moral meaning, and the widespread dismissal of “country people” as the very essence of parochialism and backwardness – is centrally the modern university. Perhaps no other institution in modern America is more responsible for advancing the vision of a society dominated by the scientistic mindset. Universities today exist, he argues, largely to strip mine human capital from their localities, transform them into a usable commodity, and place them into the flow of international commerce where they can act irresponsibly as “itinerant vandals” while leaving in their wake the devastation and plunder of local communities. Thus displacing people from the people and places to which they might bear a responsibility, they are free to see the world as necessarily requiring the transformation of science and technology.
Berry points alternatively to the literary tradition that had at its core “the continually recurring affirmation of nature as the final judge, law giver, and pattern maker for the human use of the earth. We can trace the lineage of this thought in the West through the writings of Virgil, Spencer, Shakespeare, Pope, …” – and, of course, Wendell Berry himself. “The idea,” Berry writes, “is variously stated: we should not work until we have seen where we are; we should honor Nature not only as our mother or grandmother, but as our teacher and judge; we should ‘let the forest judge’; we should ‘consult the Genius of the Place’; we should make farming fit the farm; we should carry over into the cultivated field the diversity and coherence of the native forest or prairie. And this way of thinking is surely allied to that of the medieval scholars and architects who saw the building of a cathedral as a symbol or analogue of the creation of the world.”
Berry has been in the forefront in the criticism of efforts by modern universities – perhaps especially those in Kentucky, which he thinks ought to know better – to embrace the STEM agenda (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). He understands this agenda to be the necessary and inevitable course of an industrial economy that generates ever more clearly the unsustainability of its own activity. Noting that the industrial method aims at use of any resource until it is exhausted, he writes that “it is for this reason that the industrial economy has been accompanied by an ever-increasing hurry of research and exploration, the motive of which is not ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the spirit of free inquiry,’ as industrial scientists and apologists would have us believe, but the desperation that naturally and logically accompanies gluttony.” Berry has instead argued that the university’s primary mission and focus should be the cultivation of human beings - not “just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs of human culture.” They should educate humans to live in places with a view to the preservation of those places and ways of life for a long time, beyond their own life span and those of their children and their children’s children. Of today’s graduates of our leading institutions of higher learning, he asks the questions: “Do they return home with their knowledge to enhance and protect their neighborhoods? Do they join the ‘upwardly mobile’ professional force now exploiting and destroying local communities, both human and natural, all over the country? Has the work of the university, over the last generation, increased or decreased literacy and knowledge of the classics?”
As Berry points out, and these other literary examples testify, for a long time in American history there was an alternative tradition of self-understanding – and of liberty – that existed uneasily but persistently alongside the “official” American belief that liberty consisted in the conquest of nature. This tradition was maintained most centrally in the great literary tradition of the West and America, and found its greatest expression in the classical liberal arts education that most students were expected to master in order to be considered an educated human being. This tradition of “liberal arts” – by its own self-description, centrally an education in the art of being free – moderated and even from time to time restrained the dominant impulse to define and pursue freedom through the scientific overcoming of obstacles.
It is a long story to describe how this tradition was eventually weakened, undermined, and finally all-but routed. Today a coherent education in the liberal arts is hardly to be found in institutions of higher learning, and the humanities more broadly are under deep threat of evisceration. At institutions across the land, a growing chorus of voices (all the way up to the White House) insist upon the central need for education in STEM, either implicitly or explicitly at the expense of even a modest – much less sustained and coherent – exposure to the liberal arts. America today stands at a new and terrifying precipice in which it threatens to all but abandon its commitment to its “second voice,” that “alternative tradition” found especially in its literary tradition that has been a corrective and moderating influence from its very inception. In the wake of a financial crisis in which the masters of financial technique pursued ends inherent to that technique – increase of profit and utility – we have seen the further destruction of communities and the ability of people to live in homes. The masters of those techniques were the graduates of our leading institutions, yet – to my knowledge – not one has concluded that higher education has gone awry, and that the problem cannot be fixed by the application of better techniques, regulations, and applications. The question of the proper and appropriate nature of freedom and self-government, and the necessary kind of character to achieve both, continues to remain off the table.
I predict we will again learn to value the literary tradition that has always taught us that the human dream of dominion and perfection is simply raw and self-destroying hubris. I fear that this revaluation will only come after a time of terrible suffering that will bring into reality the imaginary scenarios feared by the likes of Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Twain and Berry. I hope that we will be wiser than to invite that eventuality, and am encouraged that we have the literary voices and tradition that can help us correct our course. Whether we have the wisdom and the foresight remains to be seen.