Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/October 1882/Editor's Table



IT was hardly to be supposed that Professor Huxley's address at the opening of Sir Josiah Mason's College would be left without some attempt at a formal answer. The bare establishment of a collegiate institution, from which "mere literary instruction" was excluded, was not in itself very important, as it is not expected that mechanical, technical, and industrial schools will give much attention to literature at any rate. But when literary education, as a method of culture, was attacked as narrow and inadequate, and another method more liberal, more efficient, based upon science, and claiming superiority upon that ground, was forcibly presented so as to elicit extensive assent, the challenge to the devotees of literary cultivation could not be passed by.

In this crisis, Mr. Matthew Arnold comes forward as the champion of literature. His position was recognized by Professor Huxley as among the foremost in English literature, and he quoted from him the positions to be contested. Mr. Arnold was therefore in a sense called out, and he has made his response in an address before the Cambridge University, which we re-print from the "Fortnightly Review." We are interested in seeing how an eminent literary man deals with the two methods of study, and from this point of view the discussion will justify some comment.

Mr. Arnold first deplores what he considers the crusade of science against literature; and then tries to make out that, properly considered, there is no ground of controversy. But, because he does not or will not see the other side, is not a sufficient reason for denying its existence. There is undoubtedly a broad issue at the present time between literature and science, as distinctive methods of mental culture. The literary method grew up and was carried to great perfection by the creation of the masterpieces of literary art long before science appeared. That method has continued to the present time as a separate influence, and with a distinctive ideal in the traditional systems of education. It is undeniable that, as our colleges are constituted, a liberal, classical, literary education can be obtained with but very little knowledge of science, and it is notorious that great multitudes acquire a comprehensive literary culture while remaining as ignorant of the sciences as they would have been in the scholastic ages. If there is to be any comparison of methods, their characteristics must be limited and defined, and certainly there is no difficulty in distinguishing the quality of literary cultivation.

Mr. Arnold had said, "In our culture the aim being to know ourselves and the world, we have, as the means to this end, to know the best that has been thought and said in the world." It is fair to infer that the word "best" is here to be interpreted by the literary standard—not by everything that has been thought and said, but by the "best," that is the choicest, the finest, the most excellent, as found in the supreme literary performances of both the ancient and modern mind. That this was Mr. Arnold's meaning is evident from another passage quoted by Professor Huxley. He says: "Europe is to be regarded as now being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation bound to a joint action and working to a common result; and whose members have for their common outfit a knowledge of Greek, Bo man, and Eastern antiquity and of one another. Special local and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress which most thoroughly carries out this programme."

From this Professor Huxley dissents and declares that he finds himself "wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. An army without weapons of precision, and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man devoid of knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century upon a criticism of life."

To this Mr. Arnold replies by flatly repudiating the accepted interpretation of the scope of literary culture; he would even so widen it as to include all science. He says: "When I speak of knowing Greek and Roman antiquity as a help to knowing ourselves and the world, I mean more than a knowledge of so much vocabulary, so much grammar, so many portions of authors in the Greek and Latin languages. I mean knowing the Greeks and Romans, and their life and genius, and what they were and did in the world. . . . By knowing modern nations, I mean not merely knowing their belles-lettres, but knowing also what has been done by such men as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin." And further, "in the best that has been thought and said in the world, I certainly include what in modern times has been thought and said by the great observers and knowers of nature." That is, science disappears as a separate intellectual interest by its complete absorption in literature: neat but unsatisfactory.

Mr. Arnold is quite aware of his disadvantage in dealing with Professor Huxley, who is strong in both literature and science, and he repeatedly refers to the slenderness and deficiency of his own scientific attainments. But, had he been more perfectly aware of them, he would hardly have ventured upon this mode of escaping from the issues that have arisen between literary and scientific culture. Had he better understood what is meant by the scientific method, he would not have tried to stretch the literary method so as to embrace and incorporate it.

Without asserting that the relations of these two methods of culture are essentially antagonistic, it remains true that they are so profoundly different that they are not to be confounded or identified. By literature we mean, and rightly mean, the study of books of language, of the arts of expression and criticism, and familiarity with the most perfect written productions, as such, whether in prose or poetry, that have been produced in all time. And literature as a method of mental culture is simply a training in these Various acquisitions and exercises.

But the scientific method which has arisen in modern times began in an open and declared revolt against this mode of occupying the human mind. It involved new objects, new procedures, and new disciplines of thought. Seeing that the mind for ages had been arrested at verbal studies, and had failed in the production of solid knowledge, men began to demand an advance to the actual study of things. This is the essence of the scientific method, and it has achieved its great results only by repudiating the old literary occupations, and proceeding directly to the research of nature. The sciences have arisen, knowledge has been extended, power over nature conferred, and a new civilization created only by concentrating thought upon the realities of experience instead of studying nature, life, and man, as they are represented in literature. To incorporate the scientific method with the method of literature is impossible; to subordinate it to that method is to destroy it. That which is obtained from books alone, without an acquaintance with phenomena, is not true science but sham science. Scientific culture is a training and a grounding in the scientific method, a mental habit of observing, analyzing, and comparing the actual facts, and the advantages of this method can only be gained by a distinctly recognized, independent, and systematic culture.

How different and how contrasted the literary and scientific methods really are, becomes again apparent when we observe the feelings to which they respectively give rise. Mr. Arnold continually refers in his article to two elements of human nature to be satisfied by culture, the sense for beauty and the sense for conduct; but he nowhere speaks of the sense for truth, and this, obviously because truth, as an object of feeling, does not enter into the literary ideal. It was, in fact, because literature as a method had never cared for truth, and had no interest in the search for it, that the need for science arose to repair the omission; and science has only advanced as the feeling for truth has been developed and deepened. To the man of letters, devoted to the beautiful, the fine in art, and the pleasing in life, the scientific passion for truth is unintelligible and very naturally repugnant. The annals of literature are full of the aversion of its cultivators to science and all that belongs to it. The last example is given by Mr. Boyesen, who talked much with the poet Longfellow, and has printed some of his chronicles in the "Christian Union." He says of Mr. Longfellow: "The scientific questions which agitate the intellectual atmosphere of the century also left him cold; and if they were touched upon in his presence he soon showed by the vagueness of his answers that the topic was not congenial to him. His thoughts moved in a purely literary sphere, and I believe I do him no injustice if I say that life interested him primarily in its relation to literature. He was of opinion that Goethe made a mistake in devoting so much of his energy to scientific pursuits, and that his later works (particularly 'Elective Affinities' and his second part of 'Faust') were much injured by the influence of his scientific theories." This dislike of science means nothing more than intense devotion to an ideal that is foreign to science. But, on the other hand, the scientific ideal gives rise to emotions of its own, of equal if not even greater intensity. The history of science has proved that the love of truth is one of the strongest passions of human nature. It has abundantly proved that men will forego all the lower and common enjoyments of life, when that becomes necessary, to promote the attainment of truth. So powerful may this feeling become that the customary selfish pleasures and ambitions of men seem trivial and contemptible in comparison; and who will say that this love of truth, which is the inspiration of the scientific method, is not the noblest impulse that can animate the mind of man?

But, when half through his address, Mr. Arnold does find an issue between literature and science. He says: "But it is proposed to make the training in natural science the main part of education, for the great majority of mankind at any rate. And here, I confess, I part company with the friends of physical science, with whom, up to this point, I have been agreeing. . . . At present it seems to me that those who are for giving to natural knowledge, as they call it, the chief place in the education of the majority of mankind, leave one important thing out of their account, the constitution of human nature." Knowledge, he admits, is interesting, and much of it important, but it comes in fragments, and Mr. Arnold thinks there is something in human nature that desires "to relate these pieces of knowledge to our sense for conduct, to our sense for beauty." And again: "We feel, as we go on learning and knowing, the vast majority of mankind feel, the need of relating what we have learned and known to the sense we have in us for conduct, to the sense we have in us for beauty."

But, if Mr. Arnold had gone on to say and to the sense we have in us for truth, he would have struck an element in human nature more potent than any other for bringing the disjointed fragments of knowledge into harmony and unity. It is that use of the faculties which has led to the creation of knowledge which must be trusted to bring it into the most perfect relations. Mr. Arnold parts company with science in the name of the demands of human nature, but our first demand concerning human nature is that it shall be understood. Literature never explained it—could not explain it, because the study of principles and laws, and the decomposition of complex things into their elements, and finding out the truth, were not embraced in its method. In parting company with the students of science on such grounds, Mr. Arnold virtually concedes that they have a method of their own, though a method which he can not approve. He raises the issue of superiority, but he does not settle it. He expatiates on the utilities of literature, but he offers no proof that its past ascendency is still justified, because he seems to have no true or adequate conception of the claims of the scientific method. We point, on the other hand, to what science has done for mankind as evidence of the greater things it may yet be expected to do, and to the soundness, comprehensiveness, and thoroughness of the training which it enforces in proof of its superiority in the preparation of men for the intelligent discharge of their duties to themselves, to their families, to society, and to humanity.



The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting this year in Montreal, under the able presidency of Dr. J. W. Dawson, Principal of McGill College, and eminent as a geologist and paleontologist. The gathering was large, the various sections were strongly represented, and the labors of the scientific body every way successful. A large number of papers were registered, many of them important, and they were got well through with, notwithstanding the tendency to consume time in their discussion.

The American Association met at Montreal twenty-five years ago, and had an excellent convention at that time. But the changes of a quarter of a century have been marked. Strong men have passed away, and new men of no less promise have taken their places. Old scientific questions have taken on new aspects, and new questions have come to the front. The city whose hospitalities were so liberal in 1857 has become a much larger and more beautiful city in the interval, and the generous reception given to the large body of strangers shows that the prosperity of Montreal has not been at the expense of its liberal spirit and hospitable feeling. We print the excellent address of Professor Brush, given upon his retirement from the presidency of the Association. His theme was well chosen, and, if less ambitious than those frequently taken on these occasions, it was none the less instructive and important. Mineralogy is not one of the show sciences, that attract much popular attention, but it is a science of profound interest and great economic importance, and Professor Brush could not have chosen better than to give us this admirable account of its American progress.