The Metaphysics of Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler; drawing by David Levine

When this extraordinary book—part treatise and part biology and psychology copy book, part independent scientific speculation and part romantic Naturphilosophie—was published in England earlier this year, it caused something of a sensation. No one quite knew how to take it. Some reviewers (and it was reviewed profusely and often at great length) professed to think that, however improbably, The Act of Creation is itself a true act of scientific creation, conceivably the greatest and certainly the most ambitious work in the life sciences since Darwin’s epochal Origin of Species. On the other side, perhaps misled by Koestler’s reputation as a novelist (it is not without significance that Koestler has been mainly a political novelist for whom the work of imaginative literature may be at the same time a moral and political act), by his inappropriately lively and witty style, by displays of subjective reactions presumably irrelevant to questions of objective scientific understanding and truth, and by his bland refusal to be daunted by any intellectual problem, no matter how technical or complex, many were unable to take him seriously in the role of scientist In their view, Koestler does not fully realize what is involved in scientific inquiry, and his book, for all its learning, must be judged as the misplaced product of an incurably poetic imagination. Yet on both sides of the controversy, the critics seemed uncertain of their own reactions, and before they were through they had usually managed to hedge their bets by radical, if piecemeal, concessions to the opposing point of view.

I scarcely blame them. For one thing, The Act of Creation contains not one but two (no doubt related) books of very different ranges, perspectives, and styles. The first is beautifully readable and, for the most part, intelligible to any informed twentieth-century reader; the other is highly technical, occasionally unintelligible except to specialists and sometimes (I suspect) not even to them, but at the same time immensely ranging, not to say visionary, in its purview. For another thing, both books, for all their differences, have similar defects. Here I am not speaking of factual errors, most of which could no doubt be removed without affecting the main drift of Koestler’s arguments. The underlying difficulty concerns the intention of the book as a whole. What is Koestler really up to? Would it be an egregious mistake to take the book at its face value? But, then, what precisely is its face value? Practicing scientists will be, have been, disposed to dismiss Koestler as a possibly gifted but presumptuous and uncritical “writer” who has wandered unaccountably into a field for which, by training and aptitude, he is intrinsically unfitted. Literary men, especially those who have erected a wall between “imaginative literature” and other forms of writing, whether scientific, historical, criticial, or philosophical will “submit” that Koestler is at once making clear at the theoretical level what was always…

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