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The Science of Jacques Barzun

Science: The Glorious Entertainment

by Jacques Barzun
Harper and Row, 307 pp., $6.00

Among his other attainments, not least is Mr. Barzun’s virtuosity at the art of disarming critics. On this occasion he has outdone himself. So little store does he set, or profess to set, by his contentions that, although by his own confession he sometimes resorts to the “rhetoric” of argument, he does so only because, of all the tropes, argument is “the form that most naturally incites the internal action called thought.” Nicely said. Other writers may wish by their arguments to convince their readers; Mr. Barzun seeks only to arouse them. For him, accordingly, it would appear to be more devastating to say that his book is at last a bore than to contend that its conclusions are false or that his arguments are fallacious. Does this seem fantastic? Well, consider: “To the reader,” says Mr. Barzun, “it should not greatly matter whether or not he agrees with the conclusions I reach. For the point of offering them is to reduce confusion and to provide a spur to reason.” Here, it would seem, is a midwife’s midwife, a spur’s spur. But in the case of a mind as full of ambivalence and as prone to ambiguity as Mr. Barzun’s it would, I think, be a mistake ever to take him simply at his word. And this, from the standpoint of the critic, plainly makes him all the more disarming. The reader must therefore decide whether Barzun really does not mean to “furnish a philosophy” and whether, as he says repeatedly, his only purpose is to offer a “description” of some facts, pleasant or otherwise as the case may be, about our scientific culture, its conformations and history, its drift and its prospects.

In his second chapter, entitled “One Culture, Not Two,” Mr. Barzun disarmingly informs us that “It is now a journalistic commonplace to write: ‘In a scientific culture such as ours…’ ” He then goes on, without dropping a stitch, to justify the commonplace. “The scientific stance,” he tells us, “is everywhere, even among the overt enemies of science; it is the strongest unifying force, because in the world of thought it is the only one.” So much for Sir Charles Snow’s diagnosis of “the two cultures.” Mr. Barzun admits to be sure that, owing in part to the machines made possible by a technology only recently become scientific, art “has latterly won from the western masses a naive admiration …” But Mr. Barzun, from his dean’s perch on Morningside Heights, takes a rather dim view of the masses or at least of their capacity for the assimilation of culture, including scientific culture. And art, what there remains of it, is, like everything else, “under the sway of science, which it resembles in being a pure and self justifying activity.” The rider, here, is fascinatingly placed. What Mr. Barzun ultimately makes us doubt is whether art or science or indeed anything at all in our scientific culture can possibly be regarded as self-justifying.

Mr. Barzun’s ambivalence extends naturally to what, by analogy, might be called “science appreciation” courses in our schools and colleges. According to him, “the scientific requirement” is simply “wasted on three fourths of those who are forced to endure it.” It would be interesting at this point to inquire of Mr. Barzun how he knows this, and to invite him to produce his statistics and achievement tests. But statistics, like numbers generally, are a somewhat sore point with Mr. Barzun, so I forbear. But even if for argument’s sake, we accept his calculation, is not the same true, give or take a fourth, of all education in all ages, including linguistic and humanistic studies? Notoriously, Jack has always been a dull boy, easily distracted by distracted teachers. However, lest it be supposed that the fault is to be found in our current methods of teaching science, Mr. Barzun explicitly disavows any faith in the suggestion that “if the sciences were better taught they might prove more titillating …”

It is nonetheless a primary contention of Mr. Barzun’s that science might provide a civilizing form of “entertainment” if only we could rid ourselves of the notion that every student of science must become a little scientist. Science, in short, could be fun for the “observer,” but only if the specialism and professionalism were taken out of it. But of course Mr. Barzun knows that science, as distinct from pseudo-scientific talky-talk, cannot possibly be an entertaining and civilizing “object of contemplation,” whether for the many or for the few, unless the student is provided with some of the intellectual equipment required for doing science. Here he would do well to reflect upon C. S. Peirce’s wise insistence upon the operational element involved in the very meaning of scientific ideas and the necessity of conceiving the internal “practical bearings” of a scientific hypothesis if one is to grasp what it asserts. Doing and appreciating, in science as elsewhere, grow up together, even though they admittedly are not the same thing. Mr. Barzun has some wry comments to make upon the leveling effects of the use of numbers; but numbers, as he acknowledges, are of the essence of modern science. How then is he or anyone, however gifted, to imbue the ordinary Columbia student, not to mention still lesser breeds, with an intelligent appreciation of scientific thought and practice save by equipping him with a modicum of the professional mathematical and technical apparatus which such appreciation demands? On his own showing, in short, the budding young “observer” of the scientific scene must become, in spite of himself and Mr. Barzun, a budding young “maker” of science as well. What then does Mr. Barzun really propose? My guess is that he has nothing to propose and that in fact he despairs of scientific education except as a technique for processing expert young makers.

This guess is reinforced as we follow Mr. Barzun’s prolonged review. As things stand, and will probably continue to stand, we make up our bundles of scientific theory into ever tighter, more compact little packages which cannot be opened without the special instruments provided by the respective scientific disciplines. What chance therefore is there for our young, even those entering upon a scientific career, freely to read and criticize scientific work as they are (presumably) taught to read and criticize literature or music? Our scientists for the most part ungladly teach, and when they teach they automatically do so as if to intending professionals. Thus is the hypothetically “glorious entertainment” of science largely, inevitably forgotten, and we are left with an activistic, neo-Baconian scientific establishment which, indissolubly wedded now to technology, has become the primary power as well as the universal obsession of our culture.

Continuously, Mr. Barzun scores point after deadly point off the scientific method(s), the professional scientists, the sorts of “knowledge” they are capable of achieving, the fantastic pretentions of “behavioral science,” and, not least, the effect upon historical and humanistic studies of aping science. But as one watches the “facts” pile up, the impression becomes blurred. And eventually one begins to wonder whether, in his heart of hearts, Mr. Barzun takes seriously, even in principle, the analogy between art and science. The chapter entitled “Science: the Glorious Entertainment” is in fact one of the grimmest and most savagely critical in the whole book. For here, by a double irony, he aims to show that “classical science,” all eye and no heart, all look and no see, is so completely given over to the “vision” of processes that it can literally form no idea of anything involving a purpose, a concern, an attitude, or a sentiment. First and last, “science clings to phenomena, that is, to appearances, and finds or makes objects of what it sees.” Again, “Because scientific method excludes from the start whatever cannot be brought to the test of visibility, and constructs a material machine out of selected phenomena, the scientist—once again understandably forgetful—comes to believe and to say that matter is the only entity.” But now the scientist, at last overreaching himself, becomes a metaphysician, “which he has a right to do like any other man, except that in so doing he violates his original contract with reality.”

Description?” Sad to tell, Mr. Barzun has no trouble in rallying to the support of his own “presumptions” a number of distinguished philosophers of science and philosopher-scientists such as Karl Popper and Albert Einstein who, on their days off, tell us that “Our science is not knowledge…,” that it is “difficult to attach a precise meaning to the term ‘scientific truth’…” In the end, it seems, science merely presumes, abandoning all efforts to give an account of the cause of its objects or to determine whether or not they are real. Its entities, wholly abstract now, and devoid of connections with the things of everyday life, have significance only within the artificial contexts of scientific computation and experiment. And the mind of the scientist, preoccupied with such—one is tempted to add—non-entities, “moves away from the world—as it does also in modern art. There is indeed much nowadays for the eye to see, but in both art and science the recognizable is taboo.”

So we are left with nothing, and Hieronymo’s mad again. In a later chapter, entitled “The Treason of the Artist,” Mr. Barzun almost lovingly recounts the movements of modern art and literature which, beginning with the romantic dissent against the dehumanized, lunatic unreality of the modern world, have sought, with ever-increasing frenzy, to make us see and resist “our peril.” Their chief device, according to him, has been “to divorce us from the world by breaking the established bonds between our ideas and our feelings.” Thus, the artists themselves, sedulously shadowing the scientists even if only to expose them, end by breaking up and misusing common speech, glorifying the pointless “gratuitous act,” creating anti-worlds inhabited only by anti-heroes, until they come at last to the ultimate agony and degradation of anti-art. But as the exposition, or exposé, proceeds it finally dawns on the reader that Mr. Barzun’s own descriptions are themselves as guilty of what has been called “the expressive fallacy” as the “objects” of modern art which he excoriates Consider the following remarks: “It’s [i.e. modern art’s] prevailing tone is suspiciousness, hostility, and ill-natured parody…” “Moved, then, by contradictory duties, the modern artist finds himself doing the work of dehumanizing he abhors. By mirroring, as plastic artist, he shows man attenuated and anonymous…” until life itself is presented and felt to be a “hateful fraud.” It will not do for Mr. Barzun to disclaim, as he does, the imputation that he himself is talking about anybody in particular. And when he adds that there is “no such person as the modern artist,” and that therefore “he” has not done these things, has committed no treason, we must reply: who then is it that is showing us something called “man,” “the scientist,” and “the artist” as something “attenuated and anonymous”? And who is it that presents modern scientific culture as something at once fatal and fateful, against which “we” are powerless as philosophers, scientists, or artists, to resist?

I do not ask these questions only for rhetorical effect. At the end of his lengthy epistle to the reader, Mr. Barzun remarks, “To guard against error, rather than to humor the prejudice in favor of expert authority, I have asked—as is the academic custom—a number of my colleagues to read my manuscript. Half of them are scientists, and of these several have won great awards. They naturally do not all agree with everything I say, nor do they agree with one another about what they accept and reject in my views.” Here it seems to me Mr. Barzun shows that he has become quite lost in his own coils. For even if his scientific colleagues gave him A-plus as a describer, this fact would mean virtually nothing. The real blunders committed by Mr. Barzun belong to another realm of discourse, or being, which he might rediscover, but only if he, unlike Henry Thoreau whom he so greatly admires, should go out to Walden and sit brooding without pen and paper for a winter or two.

Let me not fail to record that Mr. Barzun can still be very funny. His chapter on the vagaries of behavioral scientists, including in particular sociologists, rivals the similar efforts of Elizabeth Hardwick. And his description of what he calls “misbehavioral science” provides one of the best lampoons going of pretentious pseudo-science in business, law, advertising, politics, and even religion. But his subject as a whole cries out for a kind of treatment, sympathetic as well as humorous, loving and not merely full of summary professions of love, ready to rise openly and without irony to the philosophical level. Despite his disclaimers, Mr. Barzun has many of the natural and acquired qualifications for such a job. He has wit and style, he has cultivation; he is, or has been, a sound historian of ideas who moves with ease across the disciplines; he is not afraid of not being a specialist; he is capable of depth, both of thought and of feeling; and if his powers as an analyst of concepts are not fully developed, they might with a little serious practice become quite formidable. The great thing is that he perceives the necessity for a genuine philosophy, and not merely a methodology or an “analytic,” of science. That is to say, he sees or half-sees that we desperately need men who will search out, serenely and in good faith, the wisdom in and about science, about its history, its fruits, its promise. This is half the battle. Mr. Barzun’s last pages, entitled “One Mind in Many Modes,” rise finally to a genuine and affecting rhetoric (a word he, like myself, favors, if not over-favors) which recalls us to ourselves, to our freedom, to our need for every talent which is available to us if we are to “retreat[s] from the indulgence of self-annihilation.” It is these pages which make it certain that he has not fallen victim to the modern “enemies of promise.”

Mr. Barzun’s case is not unique. All of us are full of ambivalence both toward science and toward its elder sibling, technology. Let us admit it; science, joined with technology, has become a Pandora’s box. If, as has been said, every unhappy, disillusioned, alienated son of science must have a scapegoat, it is perhaps not unnatural, even though it is extremely dangerous, to make a scapegoat of the modern scientific establishment. But let us remind ourselves that we are science, just as we are also art, and government, and religion. And if we make of science a scapegoat is that scapegoat an alien or is it not rather one of us? Is it not indeed our very selves?

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