Dissolving the Two Cultures

Dissolving the Two Cultures, a talk by Nicholas Popper

A Georgian Papers event at King’s College London, 29th June 2017

Over lunch today I attended a talk organised by the Georgian Papers Project by Nicholas Popper, who is the Christopher Wren Association Fellow in William & Mary’s Center for the Liberal Arts, in the US state of Virginia.

The talk centred on the history of Early Modern thought and sought to dissolve the two cultures approach, perhaps crystallised by C. P. Snow, that says the humanities and natural sciences are two distinct and separate fields of enquiry with little commonality and no shared history. Modern science argues it is different from the humanities because it involves a new way of knowing, whilst humanities simply supplanted scholastic method.

Using examples of scholarly practice from Early Modernity, Nicholas breaks down this idea arguing that whilst humanities are textually based and emerged venerating ancient epistemologies, it is distinct to scholasticism and the product of Renaissance humanism. Nicolas noted that early modern sciences engaged in alchemy and magic.

Indeed, early moderns tried to combine cosmology, the history of Christendom and ancient history. Early Modern Bodin used numerology to study the history of empires. Kepler praised Bodin for trying to impose order on chaos. Copernicus was just as much about deep history as deep space. There was a mathematisation of history.

Despite the genesis myth of natural science, crucial aspects of modern science came from redirections of humanities practices. Before trying to predict nature patterns there was the attempt (and failure) to predict human affairs and providence. There were collaborations, mutuality, and  a symbiosis of creativity and innovation.

Yet disciplines do come into existence, with distinct disciplines start forming in the 18th century and solidify in the 19th century. There is a growing assumption that certain objects can only be studied through a certain set of practices. And so begins the reification of disciplinary boundaries, borders we are striving now at the beginning of the 21st century to either cross, transgress or undo.

What interested me about all this was the linkage through to posthumanism and ideas around and/both rather than either/or. I’m wondering how a historical account of the development of the humanities and modern science, and the idea of them being very different approaches, as a socially situated phenomenon may illuminate Posthuman criticism of humanism. Nicolas noted that a great deal of scholarly activity has gone into researching the practices of modern science, but not other fields.

There is however an emerging history of humanities, but this is a nascent field. Broadly speaking, these histories fall into one of three approaches:

  • Ignoring science
  • Trying to capture the credibility and prestige of science for the humanities
  • Looking at continuity between the two

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Nicolas prefers to look at the symbiosis of the two.

As side note, Nicholas mentions “invisible technicians” whose labour actually achieved or achieve scientific outcomes but who have been side lined in history because of power relations. I know Nicholas was talking about people working in labs but it made me think of librarians. We have a silent history of supporting, enabling and shaping scholarly endeavour.

So in relation to libraries, the talk has made me ask three questions:

  1. What role do libraries play in disciplinisation? Did libraries simply reflect scholarly practice or did the need to collect/curate/arrange ever increasing amounts of information and knowledge affect the way disciplines developed?
  2. What role did libraries play in early modern scholarly practice?
  3. How does the way we select and arrange knowledge affect scholarly practice?




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