Science v. Poetry in History

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Photo by Axlwaii entitled ‘Poetry in Python’ (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Recently I wrote a post about Ada Lovelace, a new idol of mine because she:

  1. Was the first computer programmer
  2. Was a sassy woman who hung out with Charles Darwin
  3. Coined the term ‘Poetical Science’

Ada Lovelace’s poetical science was a revolutionary way of thinking – and it may still be too revolutionary for most modern intellectuals. Dr. Betty Toole is a Lovelace scholar and, in reading her paper ‘ADA LOVELACE’S POETICAL SCIENCE‘, I came across some fascinating information about the contentious history of poetry and science that I thought I would share with you.

Beginning in Greece:

According to Toole, the first evidence of a conflict surrounding poetry and science begins with Plato’s Republic where poetry is banned from the utopia because it “gives no truth of its own, stirs up the emotions, and thereby blinds mankind to the real truth.” Plato views poetry as the anti-thesis of truth (which is an objective fact found through scientific inquiry) not as a different way of uncovering or viewing the truth.

Aristotle, however, did not agree with his teacher; he saw poetry and particularly metaphor as having significant societal value, saying in his Rhetoric that “ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh.” Given that Aristotle wrote Poetics, an entire book dedicated to literary theory and craft, it’s safe to say that he finds poetry to be worthy discipline.

Through the Industrial Revolution:

While philosophy saw the rise of subjectivism in the writings of Descartes (cogito ergo sum, anyone?), objectivity wasn’t officially solidified until the early nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution.

With objectivity being loosely defined on Wikipedia as “the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings”, it actually harkens back to some of Plato’s original philosophy on the state of truth. By contrast, subjectivism is defined as “the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience””.

According to Toole, “The allies of objectivism were scientific truth, digital skills and reason. These empirical skills were in contrast to subjectivism, which came to be associated with analog skills, emotions, imagination, intuitive insight and “higher truth.” With the development of technology and its dehumanizing influence… the Romantic poets left reason, science and technology to the empiricists.”

Both objectivity and subjectivism appear to be diametrically opposed despite utilizing similar fundamental principles in a quest to find truth – doubt, questioning, and repeatedly testing a theory to see where the truth lies. With the defining and popularization of these theories, the gap between poetry and science only grew.

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Photo by Steve Johnson entitled ‘magnetic fridge poetry’ (Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

To Modern Times:

C. P. Snow famously argued in his 1950s ‘Two Cultures‘ essay that there was a cultural divide separating the sciences and the arts, the two greatest areas of human intellectual achievement. According to an excellent article run in 2009 in the Scientific American, “Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. Alas, Snow’s vision has gone unrealized. Instead literary agent John Brockman has posited a “third culture,” of scientists who communicate directly with the public about their work in media such as books without the intervening assistance of literary types. At the same time, many of those in the humanities, arts and politics remain content living within the walls of scientific illiteracy.”

This is not entirely true – as groups such as Neuwrite try to pair literary types with scientists to communicate more effectively with the public – but on the whole, Brockman is likely correct and it’s hurting us all. Despite science and art having a contentious history, modern intellectual problems are too complex to solve with one area alone; to find the truth will require the kind of searching Ada Lovelace employed – one that mixes the arts and sciences. Until then, media misrepresentation and public misinformation will run rampant and both art and science, the foundations of human health and progress, will suffer.

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