Science in Society

Bryn Mawr College

2002-2003 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
"The Science of Culture/The Culture of Science"

April 10, 2003
Catherine Conybeare (Greek, Latin and Classical Studies)

"Scientia" and "Cultura": The Origins and Development of these Words

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions,revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Acknowledging the "hubris" of offering to trace, at this stage of the year, the etymology of our key terms, Catherine set out to show us "what Classical Studies have to contribute" to our discussions of "science" and "culture": the generative capacity of looking "painfully closely" at these words, their histories, and the ideas bound up in them. Suggesting that an "uninflected use of the words sets up precisely the polorization that our brown bag conversations have attempted to combat," Catherine offered her presentation as a "footnote" to Paul's recent talk on Science in the 21st Century , which aimed at bridging the contemporary separation of the practice of science and the questioning of values.

What has been meant, through time, by the terms "science" and "culture"? What are their hidden connotations? Catherine began in the place where she is "most happy and at home," in Latin, where "cultura" refers to "tilling or cultivating the land," and by extension, through the fifth century C.E., to the application of cultivation: to our minds, our faculties, our acquaintances, even to "cultivating" a memorial (by picking the lichen out of it!?). Closely related to the Latin term "cultus" (worship, as of a God), "cultura" is, paradoxically, an insistently agricultural metaphor, since "culture" is today thought to be "what farmers don't have time for," a higher, "more worthy" work than manual labor of any sort.

"Culture," "cultus" and "colonize" are derived from "colo," which means "to live in." Etymologically, we "live in" ("colo") a place, "cultivate" it for extended use, establish "cultura" there; with increased leisure and money we adorn ourselves and our wives [sic] and develop generic "cultural" practices such as worship ("cultus"). In its origins, the word "culture" has a huge semantic range, out of which, in our present use of the term, we select a very small set. For instance, when we speak (as we have been speaking here for the past eight months) of the "culture of science," we are referencing what thinkers do, not the unconscious work of laborers.

Playing on the ambiguity between descriptive and prescriptive notions of "culture," Catherine moved on to constitutive meanings, looking at how we might use the term to shape the culture in which it is employed. There is a nexus of further associations: men have culture, while women are associated with what is instinctive and "natural" (although "scientia" is gendered, and always represented, as female). "High culture" is a socially loaded term implying self cultivation to social ends. In The Idea of Culture, the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton makes hay of this notion of high culture.

The term "science" is much more straightforward both in origin and in use. "Scientia" is from the Latin "scire," to know, and the range of Latin uses of the word, through a span of fifteen centuries, is not very wide. When it passed into English in the 15th century, it was still coterminous with "knowledge," without any connotation of specific sub-branches of erudition. Until the 17th century, "liberal sciences" and "liberal arts" were interchangeable terms; then the first phrase passed out of general use, and a fundamental distinction arose between "science" and "conscience," between theory and moral conviction. The division of science from ethics, which Paul argued against in his talk on the future of science, first emerged at this time, when the sense of "science" which we use today first arose. This very specific meaning is indexed in the Oxford English Dictionary as "a more restricted sense: A branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain." (Catherine noted the "magnificent concantenation of value-laden words" in this definition.)

In 18th century Enlightenment [sic] usage, the adjective "scientific" was a guarantee of approval for trustworthy methods. "Science" was split from the arts, and the humanities were "demoted" to processes considered more touchy, feel-y, intuitive and effeminate. Certain arts disciplines, such as philology, started "desperately elbowing" each other to be counted as "scientific, or systemic, in their methods of authentic dating; bitter debates arose over the "history of transmission" of classical texts. A particularly outrageous example was supplied by A. E. Housman, the poet and "formidably brilliant textual critic" who prefaced his edition of Lucan with an invective against his predecessors, whom he "touched with reluctance and dispatched with impatience." Dismissing "transmission history as a longer and nobler name than fudge," Housman took "exactness" and 'truth" as his touchstones in am attempt to "outscience the scientists" of philology. His position is still extent, even pervasive, in ways the discipline continues to consider textual work more worthwhile than cultural studies.

"Perversely obligated" to the Enlightenment for our current use of the term "science," we have traveled a long way from the term's original meaning of "general knowledge"; it is now loaded with very specific connotations. The emergence of the social science disciplines in the mid-19th century also created a range of negative connotations for the "hard," "other," "most important" sciences, which then became "unsocial" or "antisocial," divorced from society. And yet--as in the tenor of our discussions here--science has remained "on top"; those who are not scientists feel obligated to engage with it and feel rebuffed when they find that engagement too difficult. Although science has become highly specialized, it still retains the high ideals of the term's original meaning.

Catherine called our attention to a February 16, 2003 New York Times Magazine article"Unspeakable Conversations," in which the disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson describes a "civil discussion" with the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer "about whether she ought to exist." A philosopher in the audience challenged Johnson that, since her objections to assisted suicide were "grounded in current conditions," she might try assuming that such conditions did not exist, in order to "get to the real basis for her position." Johnson remarked wrily that, in "talking about life in the real world," she seemed to be "losing caste."

The philosopher was inviting Johnson to take "the view from nowhere," an invitation which, Catherine argued, has an increasingly deleterious effect. The illusion that such a view is possible, and charging opponents with lacking access to it, has blighted work in many disciplines. Even moral philosophy has been "reduced to intellectual exercises based on text exemplars," rather than ethically engaging with real life circumstances. Drawing on the etymology of "culture" and "science," Catherine issued a call to all disciplines for ethical engagement, for inquiry that is not and can not be divorced from its polemical context. She ended her presentation by evoking, out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:--"arbor scientiae boni et mali."

Discussion began by questioning the assumption that "we know what knowledge is," and by calling for a broader definition, one that is experiential and embodied. Ancient philosophers thought their subject was "the knowledge of how to live"; they considered facilities of mind and spirit meaningless unless enacted, and took friendship seriously as a philosophical subject. Their work passed into theology, and philosophy--once the art of thinking about how to live--became attenuated and specialized. As we have developed an elaborate knowledge independent of values, we have played out the original 17th-century split between "science" and "conscience." We speculated together about the range of cultural forces which may have contributed to the valorization of a "view from nowhere": what fed the work of Newton and Descartes, the objective/nonobjective split, the mechanistic division of mind from body, the use of mind to guarantee our existence? As the Catholic world view disintegrated, the globe "expanded by 2/3," "the other" was introduced, the world came to seem an increasingly uncertain place. Perhaps that is why the "uncertain questions" of morality were jettisoned, in order to create a separate culture of science, a "more certain place" to live and think. The work of the Enlightenment (such as Kant's attempt to locate the ethical imperative) might then be understood as an effort to "repair the damage," to restore a sense of morality to knowledge.

Catherine had given us a descriptive process that illuminated the prescription with which she ended. Her way of writing this narrative--with its alternating, inevitable movement of expansion and contraction--so evocative of the originary moment of the fall--was challenged as "curious and suspicious." Might we write the story differently, less nostalgic for an "ideal first moment" when there was an appropriate way of articulating the relation between principles and particularity?

Trying to do so, we turned our attention again to the "view from nowhere," the attempt to get a larger perspective than that offered by one body. Perhaps what is needed instead is the "view from everywhere": sorting through our shared views, not in order to strip away all that is personal, experiential and contextual, but rather to incorporate the widest range of particular views in order to discover what can be seen in common. Might the attempt of realist philosophers to "get far enough away" to get the "correct picture" be replaced more productively by a fundamentally different "view from everywhere," a form of knowledge that is culturally transcendent without attempting to shed all particularity? The attempt would be not to become less particular, but to think through the particular, to construct a story that includes the perspectives of each of us and is written by all of us together.

Perhaps contemporary science's attempt to discover a "real thing" we can all believe in is a replication of Neoplatonic attempts to find "skeletal irreducible forms." Might science give up that formula, ceasing to search for a "kernal of irreducible something" as its intended outcome? There is no assurance that the story we write is "reality" or true; it need only to be "stable enough to be useful" in the construction of further stories. Whatever is found in common may--indeed will--disappear, to be replaced by new constructions in common.

The biologist Ernst Mayr contrasted "Darwinian thinking" (that variation is real) with "Platonic thinking" (that what what we experience are simply variations on real types). Are there many versions, or are there only a few types with many variations? A critique of Steven Pinker's newest book in this week's New York Review of Books observes that it is the work of science to reduce the dimensionality of the universe, by compressing enormous variation. Such a claim reflects the history of physics, which attempted to reduce diverse forms to a few fundamental concepts; it does not describe the evolutionist perspective of biology, which understands that what exists now is an increase in diversity over what existed earlier, and is in turn only a small sample of what will exist in the future.

The debate here seemed to circle around the differences between deductive and inductive sources of knowledge: are there forms "out there," from which those in our world derive, or do we generate knowledge from out of ourselves? We harkened back to an earlier discussion about "Metaphor, Metonymy and The Two Sciences," in which we considered two different ways of studying biology: by constructing theoretical models or looking first at particular cases. We ended with speculations about taxonomies of disciplines, about the evolutionary "tree of knowledge."

Discussion has continued (and is warmly invited to continue further) on our on-line forum, and will pick up again in person next Thursday, April 17, when Melissa Pashigian of the Bryn Mawr Anthropology Department will be "Imparting the Social in Science." Melissa will pick up on several of the discussions we have had over the course of the academic year, questioning and discussing how culture and social relations are infused in the making of science and its products. How do scientists construct their arguments, descriptions and reality (applications, formulae, etc)? How is a scientific point of view a privileged one? In what ways do culture and social relationships shape scientific reality? Is there such a thing as "truth" or "universalism" in science? What is (are) "authentic" reality(ies)? Finally, how can social and cultural studies help us in contemplating these questions?

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