Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mapping out Science and Literature

I want to study the intersection of science and literature. But what does this mean? There are a few basic divisions to make here, and they help to map out this odd and interesting field of study. Some of the following divisions are interdependent (it would be nice to get rid of this interdependency; in the meantime, richness takes priority over clarity).

Method and matter
What happens when scientists apply the scientific method* to the phenomenon of literature, and vice versa? Scientists, especially psychologists, can study the cognitive processes that go on in an poet's head. Less interestingly, they can analyse handwriting and manuscripts as physical phenomena (eg. to date old scrolls). Likewise, there are novels about science and its social etc. implications (though usually about the implications of science, not science itself. I don't know any works of laboratory fiction, expect perhaps the writings of some sociologists).
*Here I've interpreted "method" broadly, to span discovery, justification and method of presentation (ie. language).
A study of the above kind will provide "weak" answers to the question of how each discipline contributes the other. I say "weak" because the answers do not tell us whether or not literature types are doing the same sort of things as science types. Science can give us insights into the workings of the literary mind; but it can also give us insights into the workings of the solar system. "Strong" questions about science and literature will reveal similarities and differences between the scientific and literary methods. For example, some people think that imagination is the link between physics and poetry: is it really, and what do we mean by "imagination"? And where do metaphors fit into all of this?

Parallel cases and the rest
A good way to examine the respective methods of science and literature is to look at cases where they are applied to the same subject matter. For example, large parts of psychology are not relevant to the method of science or of literature. But these parts of psychology are part of the subject matter of both disciplines. Finding this sort of common ground helps to eliminate unwanted variables, giving better grounds for comparison.

Foreground and background questions
We can think of science and literature as consisting in their respective subject matter and their respective methods of inquiry and expression. A naive view would clearly separate these spheres from the rest of the world. But an awful lot happens outside of these two spheres, and a lot of it is relevant to the spheres themselves. People possess values and make statements about those values; they have social lives and form political parties. They have rich psychological lives. In a lot of cases these happenings will be effected by what goes on in the two spheres; in some cases (certainly in the realm of literature) the causal arrow will run in the other direction. One way to illuminate the connection between science and literature is to look at how they interact in the background world of daydreams and social lives and politics.

Historical and philosophical questions
This division is more straightforward for some people than for others. The problem is that some philosophers of science reckon they need historical examples to verify their claims about ideal scientific methods (eg. Popper can't be right, because that's not how Newton did it). And some historians reckon they need the philosophy of science to decide whether or not they are studying science (as opposed to superstition or popular rubbish).

Still, there are some straightforward mistakes that one can make in this area. To avoid controversy, perhaps it is better to talk about general questions, about all known science, and questions about specific historical fields. It is known, for example, that the Roman poet Lucretius wrote a poem that theorised about the natural world, putting forward an early version of atomism; and that this poem was influential in the development of science. But it would be wrong to conclude that all known science is necessarily poetic in origin.

It is interesting and valuable to learn about particular epochs and particular figures in known science (what were the literary influences of Peracelsus? What, if anything, did the nineteenth century discover about the role of the unconscious mind in literary composition?) But this is quite different from making broad hypotheses about all the science that has ever been done.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Some info. on my blogging

Below is a bit of information about the topics I favour on this blog. (There is also a general welcome lying around somewhere).

The idea is to say why I find these topics interesting and what I will do with them. If the summaries below are not enough to persuade you of the overwhelming value of any particular topic, try the linked posts in the sub-heading. If they do nothing else, these linked posts (I like to call them "Introductions") will bore you intoagreement.

Travel (as literature; as philosophy)
Writing is not just a way of expressing the world, but also of sensing the world. Travel-writing is easier than creative writing, because it places fewer demands on the imagination. It is easier than philosophy because you don't have to think too much. When I am traveling, this suits me. Frequently when I am not traveling it also suits me.

I would like to think that metaphor is the one true link between the crafts of the intellect and the arts of the imagination, the fibre in the knot that binds the threads of science and poetry. There is a faint possibility that this view is a bit fanciful. But I like metaphors anyway. I also like to collect them - here's a sample. I deny that this hobby makes me in any way odd, obsessive or eccentric.

I would like to say that I am deeply enthusiastic about education. But really I am deeply enthusiastic about the idea of education. I like to say that good education is rich and empowering and full of wit and wisdom, that good education is key to human flourishing, that we should all become school teachers. I probably should think about these claims a little more. I should also admit that I am not really as keen as I might be on the idea of being a school-teacher. I wrote a series of three essays on education; it is called "Education as an Ideal."

Philosophy (and here and here)
In the first of the linked posts I wrote: "I do not have the will or the ability to live a life of philosophy, but I do wish to life a philosophical life." On reflection, this is really just a way of saying that I'm a pretty amateur philosopher. The things I do write on this topic are just as likely to be stimulated by a book or an abstracted idea, as by a real-life event. I am not equipped to say anything really interesting about ethics, education, politics, aesthetics or science; and I am not equipped to say anything at all about logic, metaphysics or semantics. But I like to exercise my mind and I like to reward my curiosity. I aspire to asking interesting questions. Failing that, I hope to make some interesting errors.

Everyone likes a good yarn. A lot of people also like words. Some people like writing books. Some people like writing poems. Some people like sticking a bunch of words together to see what happens. A poem is a good way of decorating a thought that would otherwise be uninteresting. It is also a good excuse for bad arguments. I like writing poems that rhyme, especially sonnets.

There are lots of good-sounding reasons for people to write dialogues. However, it is easier to write about writing dialogues than to write dialogues. Watch this space (intermittently).

Does this need an introduction?
People read books, and then they write about them. I write about them because it enriches the experience of reading. Reviews can be long and ponderous or little more than a quote. Often they are just a way of making one's blog look better by including the prose of people who get published.


Stories About Cows

Signpost 4: More Odds and Ends

[Update: by the looks of things, graduate life is a constant scramble to meet yesterday's deadlines. Probably I will not have much time over the next few months to post on this blog, except on topics directly related to my studies.]

Subject-wise, the writing on this blog over the next little while will be the same as it has been over the last little while ie. odds and ends. Style-wise, it may change: I'll make an effort towards brevity. Or rather, I will yield to the temptation of failing to spend hours writing long and ponderous essays on obscure topics.

This is not as easy a decision as it looks; but nor is it very hard. On the one hand, I quite like the idea of being an earnest long-winded scholar who shuns worldly delights in service of the wordy exposition of minutiae. On other hand, I would like people to read this blog. (And worldly delights are, after all, delightful).

My first act of popularist summarizing is to condense all of my bloated introductions into a single easy-to-read no-nonsense pocket of information. And here it is.

The jury is out on the merit, readership-wise, of writing odds and ends. I've heard that success in blogging is impossible without a fairly narrow and consistent subject matter. But surely there is something to gain from appealing to a wide audience. At any rate, I'll give top priority to what appeals to me. Thanks to the people who have left comments behind so far.