Friday, December 5, 2014

What Is Science, What Is Philosophy?

To all of you who are so obsessed with precisely determining what is and what isn't science, be aware that science is defined quite differently in different languages, and that the Latin word for "science," "scientia," was in use over 2000 years ago, long before Francis Bacon and Galileo were born, long before there was an English language. In German, the word for "Science," "Wissenscaft," is applied much more broadly than in English. Not only is history a Wissenschaft to ze Chermans -- they even have things like "Literaturwissenschaft," "the scientific study of literature," which sounds very silly even to me, and will presumably make your head explode if you're one of those English-speakers currently very much at pains to label as incorrect all definitions of "science" but the most narrow.

Is philosophy scientific, is science philosophical? Again, it's partly a matter of semantics. The term "φιλοσοφία (philosophia)" is even older than "scientia," and the ancient Greeks who were called philosophers in their day, from Thales to Pythagoras to Plato to Plotinus, we still call philosophers today -- which leads me to suspect that the present-day English-speakers squabbling about the definition of "science," and defining it very narrowly, don't know very much about those ancient Greeks, or they'd be disturbed that one of them who's always been referred to as a philosopher, Thales, acted very much like someone they'd call a scientist, using mathematical principles to determine things such as the height of Egyptian pyramids, the distance of ships seen from the shore, and the size and shape of the Earth. Then there's Pythagoras, whom these strict categorizers today call a mathematician, but in his time was known as a philosopher along with Thales and Plato. The present-day categorizers call Plato a philosopher, but how many have heard that Plato is believed to have put a sign at the entrance to his Academy which asked all those unfamiliar with geometry to go away? But wait, there's still more bad news for those would have clear and clean distinctions between one academic discipline (Did you notice where the term "academic" comes from?) and the next: Although Plato called geometry "γεωμετρία, geometria," it's not at all clear that he or his contemporaries restricted the use of the term anywhere nearly as English-speakers do today. If you break the word into its parts you see "geo" and "meter," "Earth" and "measurer." To the ancient Greeks this could have meant all sorts of things including the study of history and literature and art botany and all other things in categories as diverse as the Earth. Could have, and in the practical everyday use of the word, probably did.

And, finally, to really make the New Atheists swallow their gum: in Medieval universities, theology was often referred to as the "Queen of the sciences."

Except of course that New Atheists are not swallowing their gum: since I'm rambling on about stuff that happened a long time ago when everybody was ignorant, they're impatiently asking, as they impatiently ask whenever I point out that one of their own has said something wildly inaccurate on an historical subject, "So what?"

So Thales and Pythagoras and Euclid and Bacon and Galileo and Einstein and Heisenberg and many others (Many, many others. It's a long time from Euclid to Francis Bacon, and 1 person who knew that science didn't stop in the meantime, and wasn't waiting to be invented, by Francis or by Galileo, depending on which New Atheist yahoo you talk to, was Francis Bacon. I know this because I've read some Bacon and noticed all of the earlier scientists he mentions and praises. He knew he was building on their work, as opposed to having sprung fully-formed from the brow of Zeus.) did what they did while entirely un-plagued by this English-language mania, particularly virulent right now, to section science off from mathematics and and philosophy and history and linguistics and music and art all the other things which have gotten us out of the trees eating grubs and berries and trying in vain to fight off panthers with sticks and made life somewhat more bearable. Yes, science when extraordinarily narrowly defined has helped with that, too. Yes indeed it has, it's helped greatly. But Einstein didn't cordon himself off from the rest of the world. He played the violin, he loved the visual arts and philosophy. Galileo wrote a treatise on Dante. You think that's odd? His contemporaries would have found it odd if an Italian as learned as he had not done so. (Milton published some scientific works.) You want to talk about this supposed division between science and art -- can you say "Leonardo da Vinci"?

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