The damage caused by the ridiculous dichotomy between humanistic culture and scientific culture


A reflection on the current insulting debate pitting humanistic culture against scientific culture, and the damage such pitting causes.

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in his 1974 essay, The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities (“The Divorce between the Sciences and Humanistic Culture”), identifies in the thought of the antiscientist philosophers of the eighteenth century the origin of the allegedly deleterious opposition between “scientific culture” and “humanistic culture.” The reference, in particular, is to Giambattista Vico (1688 - 1744), who saw history as the only form of knowledge possible for man, since it was produced by man himself: for Vico, nature, as a divine creation, cannot be the object of accurate investigation. It would thus be in the Vicoian principle of verum factum est (“one can only know what one has made”) that the beginning of the dichotomy is consummated: a dichotomy that began to make itself felt towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of positivist culture and its attempt to orient education according to the belief that only the scientific method would guarantee knowledge of reality, and which, according to many, became manifest, at least in Italy, on a very specific date, 1911.

That year, the Fourth International Congress of Philosophy was held in Bologna, and many point to the contrast between the thought of mathematician Federigo Enriques and that of philosopher Benedetto Croce as the origin of the division of knowledge: it was during that diatribe that Croce expressed the famous assumption that “reality is history and only historically is it known, and the sciences measure it rather and classify it as is necessary, but they do not properly know it.” According to the view of many historians, Croce’s ideas would later heavily influence Giovanni Gentile ’s 1923 school reform, which would accord excessive weight to “humanistic knowledge” at the expense of scientific knowledge. In reality, this view is now outdated (suffice it to say that the scientific high school was precisely established with the Gentile reform), not least because neither Croce nor Gentile ever denied the importance of the technical sciences. The developments of the rift between “scientific culture” and “humanistic culture” are more complex, and probably, as we know them today, could be rooted in the distrust of technological progress in the aftermath of World War II, which would thus for many have accentuated the gap, or, limited to Italy, would find an explanation in the chronic inability to invest seriously in research, culture and innovation: an inability which, coupled with creeping special interests even decades ago, would have nipped in the bud in the 1960s the opportunity to make our country a world beacon of innovation, as described by Marco Pivato in his book The Snatched Miracle. The fact remains that decades (if not centuries) of wrong choices and often sterile philosophical contrasts have today handed us this Manichean vision of culture, which is difficult to eradicate.

Raffaello, Scuola di Atene
Raphael, School of Athens (c. 1508-1511; Vatican City, Vatican Palaces, Stanza della Segnatura)

But also quite harmful and deleterious. Because, if we think of current events, in the years of the economic crisis, it has mutated into a more insidious fact, which has transformed, supported by a series of studies and surveys that are often however unreliable and contradictory, some fields of knowledge into “useless subjects” and others into “useful subjects” to carve out a position in the labor market, with the consequent logic according to which universities by many are no longer considered as centers for the formation of an individual’s critical consciousness and thought, but rather as places where simple workers are cultivated: that these workers may or may not also be endowed with an independent capacity for discernment, would seem to have become a secondary aspect of education. A highly distorted idea of the university is therefore in danger of being posed as a common thought, which therefore demonstrates aninability to see both the past and the future, because the evolutions of society have always been possible also thanks to cultural debate, which has always been an important basis of technological progress.

It should also be pointed out that the damage of the ridiculous dichotomy that opposes the knowledge we might call “of words” (letters, art, theater, social sciences, communication... ) to that “of measurements” (mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering... ) is not limited to that which it might do to the cultural setting of the individual. And, just thinking in such terms, enough damage would have already been done: it would be impossible, for a cultured person, on the one hand to think of a scholar or an artist completely unaware of the centuries-old results and procedures of the scientific method (not least because the scientific method is also applicable to the so-called human sciences), and on the other hand to think, for example, of a physicist unaware of the cultural debate around a technical subject (he would become a kind of machine, an automaton: and technical progress must not be directed by automatons, but by men who can think and reason). The damage is also quick to transfer to that same labor market that is now an inescapable point of reference whenever the debate emerges in newspapers or websites. Remaining in the field of art, if we think of thebackwardness from which Italian museums suffer in the field ofopenness to new technologies (which then, by now, are not so new anymore), it is not difficult to recognize how much the impermeability between “humanistic” and “scientific” knowledge has harmed. The anecdote of the humanities teacher who is not only totally ignorant of mathematics, but moreover boasts of his own ignorance, in some cases corresponds to sad reality: there are museum directors, even important ones, who flaunt their complete lack of knowledge about the Internet and social networks, often even taking pride in it, justifying this pride on the basis of distrust of these means. As a result, when the museum director has to choose toward which activities to allocate his institution’s meager funds, his mindset will direct his choices, and there is a very good chance thattechnological innovation will be the one to suffer.

And if the aforementioned museum has risky funds, the problem is also upstream, particularly in the choices made by successive governments in recent years, which with continuous cuts to the cultural heritage sector (and, we might say, to education as a whole) have scuttled an already rather delicate situation, forcing institutions to make very often difficult choices with little money at their disposal. And if we think of famous assumptions that have guided the actions of certain governments and certain ministers (such as the infamous “with culture you can’t eat”) it is not far-fetched to assume that the insulting dichotomy between “culture” and “science” has led to a heavy penalization of both humanistic and scientific culture. Firstly, because, as mentioned above, the humanities have often, wrongly, been regarded as a luxury good only for bored students of high wealth, and secondly, theutter and despairing inability to assess the importance of the technical sciences for the advancement of knowledge (because many people miss the fact that the ultimate goal of science is not economic profit, as many people think, but precisely the advancement of knowledge) has led the country to accord little investment to the development (and even popularization) of technical subjects, with the result that nowadays our universities train excellent professionals who will then emigrate to other countries.

Clearly, in a society such as ours, which is founded on specialization, it is necessary that an individual’s education be oriented toward a specific field of knowledge. But it is equally obvious that culture, real culture, is not compartmentalized: all fields of knowledge are permeable and influence each other. One could cite many personalities who, over the centuries, have excelled in both “scientific” and more strictly “humanistic” fields of culture. It is useless even to name names, but it is useful to reiterate that no person of culture ever thought that one’s actions should be guided by mere economic profit: to be guided by the economic opportunities that a field of study presents is harmful both to the individual himself, who will not be able to indulge his own aptitudes and will therefore be a dissatisfied person because he has not been able to do what he loved, and also to society, because someone who has embarked on a course of study against his own inclinations will most likely be a mediocre professional. It is necessary, therefore, to clear the field of theanti-historical misunderstanding that values a knowledge according to the economic gain from it. And it is then necessary to open a broader debate on what culture should be and how culture, analyzed according to a broad view, can and should guide educational paths and even the labor market. Certainly, it is necessary from the outset to understand that the opposition between humanistic culture and scientific culture is something old and outdated: culture is one.


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