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.


Lapa said...

read Cristóvão de Aguiar