Henry Adams in “A Law of Acceleration” nearly one hundred years ago eloquently brooded upon the increasing split between the mind of the scientist and the mind of the historian-humanist. In this prescient essay, to become the penultimate chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams speaks without the defensive shield of his customary irony; there’s an urgency to his prose, a sense of foreboding, and an air even of prophecy, as he contemplates the romantic concept of the nineteenth century’s “law of progress” (to Adams a “chasing of force into hiding-places where nature herself had never known it”) in terms of the alarming acceleration in the increase of a certain kind of knowledge he has witnessed in his lifetime. Adams’s conviction is that the civilization he has known is being transformed in ways that he and the (non-scientifically educated) class for whom he presumes to speak can’t comprehend. As science doubles, or quadruples, its complexities every ten years, says Adams, even the astute student of history will soon be left behind. Scientific minds are in the process of reducing the universe to a series of mere relations:
They had reduced themselves to Motion in a universe of Motions, with an acceleration…of vertiginous violence. With the correctness of…science, history had no right to meddle, since their science now lay in a plane where scarcely one or two hundred minds in the world could follow its mathematical processes…. If any analogy whatever existed between the hu-man mind, on one side, and the laws of motion, on the other, the mind had already entered a field of attraction so violent that it must immediately pass beyond, into new equilibrium, like the Comet of Newton, or suffer dissipation altogether, like meteoroids in the earth’s atmosphere.
“A Law of Acceleration” is a feat of remarkable intellectual abstraction and bravura; it resonates with us at the start of the twenty-first century as the work of few other of Adams’s contemporaries (excepting always William James) does. Where we have become accustomed, or resigned, to the abyss separating the knowledge of “hard” (mathematically based) science from the “soft” sciences and the humanities, Henry Adams despaired as one for whom the abyss, and the separation, were immediate and real. If Adams had been able to foresee the chaos of human suffering initiated by scientific “progress,” he would have recoiled in horror, yet without having been essentially surprised.
E.L. Doctorow’s ebullient and knottily structured City of God would seem more temperamentally akin to Henry Adams’s engaged agnosticism than to the Christian certainties of Augustine, whose fifth-century City of God defines history as the intersection between divine purpose and humankind, but whose presumption is that a narrowly defined Christianity controlled by Church doctrine is the one true philosophy. (“But City of God, that’s a good title. I like the image, don’t you?” one of Doctorow’s characters, a writer, observes.) Doctorow’s contemporary city is New York …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.