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…

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