Literature and Science
What is the relationship between science and literature?
Oh mighty is knowledge but to this we are blind
Art can create, science can only find.
- Sir William Watson
Literature and science are two fundamental and fundamentally different activities of human mind. Coleridge at one place has said that the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse, and the opposite of poetry is not prose but science. Literature is a way of experiencing the world which naturally finds its expression in either a kind of prose or a more fully ordered rhythm which is called verse while science is altogether another way of experiencing the world. It represents a different habit of mind. Nevertheless we must not suppose that because these principles are opposites, therefore if we adopt one we must exclude the other. Nor do we have any intention in our mind of suggesting that one of these things is better than the other. Human life needs both for its richness and perfection.
Science, in its older meaning, was used to define knowledge generally, the state of fact knowing. The common ground between the scientist and the artist is that they, in the same way as mystic, are engaged with experience itself; the artist is attempting to express the experience in its own terms, and the scientist is trying to see experience as a connected system. In this sense boththe scientist and the artistemploy imagination. The artist is freer than the scientist for he is not controlled by a system. Again the man of science seeks truth as a remote, lonely and unknown benefactor; the poet singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Wordsworth said of poetry that it is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.
In science, “We murder to dissect.” The word with which science deals is what we commonly call the world of fact; the world of physical actuality objectively considered. The scientist is concerned with things as they really are in themselves. For the scientist it is of primary consequence that the real and objective world should correspond to his theory. Science, therefore, aims to afford a systematic and rational explanation of things, an explanation which shall include their nature, genesis and history in terms of cause, effect and physical law.
But in our daily practice we are interested, not with things as they are in themselves, but with the aspect which they make to our emotional natures. The poet as the artist is concerned with value and is indifferent to fact. It does not the least matter to the poetic excellence of the Iliad whether there was a Trojan war. “Poetry”, says Leigh Hunt, ”begins where matter of fact or of science ceases to be merely such, and to exhibit a further truth, the connection it has with the world of emotion and its power to produce imaginative pleasure.” To the botanist, the lily is “Hexandria Monogynia” or some other jaw-breaking bombast of the kind; to the poet it is the ‘lady of the garden’ or ‘the plant flower of light’. The region of the scientist is one entirely unpeeled by dreams, hopes, longings, ideals, impulses, instinct and other constituents of the human mind. We do not question the vast utility of science, but we may still be pardoned for repeating what Tennyson speaks in Locksley Hall:
Science grows and beauty dwindles.
Roofs of slated hideousness
Art and Grace are less and less.
The relationship of the artist and the scientist has not been a simple one. For, in certain periods the write has welcomed the new development of science, while at others he has turned on them with a conscious though sometimes, unreasoning hostility.
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