Letters in the Age of Science: A 19th-century Case for Optimism

by Jeroen Bouterse

The past years have seen many debates about the limits of science. These debates are often phrased in the terminology of scientism, or in the form of a question about the status of the humanities. Scientism is a notoriously vague term, and its vagueness can be put to the advantage of either side. If you position yourself among the ranks of those fighting against scientific overreach, it helps to define scientism as the easily refuted view that there is no knowledge outside of science; don’t the humanities produce knowledge as well? If, on the other hand, you believe that the methods and results of science can still profitably be exported to new markets, you will need as harmless a definition as possible – scientism becomes nothing more, for instance, than the claim that science encourages us to make an effort to understand things.

Are we bound to talk past each other, then, adapting our language to fit our intuitions? Not necessarily. Scientism can be the label for a well-defined philosophical position, and several articles in a recent volume on the subject manage to prep it for conceptual analysis. This is never a waste of time. However, interesting discussions can also take place in the grey zone between philosophical analysis and vague intuitions.

My favorite example of this comes from the 19th century. It concerns an exchange between Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold. Neither of them use the term ‘scientism’, or provide a formal definition of the issue, but both manage in a delightful way to have a productive debate about the reach of science.

Huxley is now most famous as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’: the enthusiastic promoter and exegete of Charles Darwin. Darwin himself took care not to go beyond defending the content of his new theory of evolution, which was radical and controversial enough as it stood. To his friend Asa Gray he confessed that he found his knowledge of the more gruesome phenomena in nature hard to square with belief in a good and omnipotent God; but when he received letters from eager theology students asking him to clarify the implications of his theory for divinity, he tended, ever-politely, to evade them.

His younger friend Huxley was more belligerent: upon reading the Origin of Species, he ensured Darwin that he was already “sharpening up my claws & beak in readiness”. In practice, this meant not just defending Darwin’s claims, but also spelling out their broader repercussions in well-attended public debates. Science for Huxley was not just a body of theories, but a vocation, a way of life, and the center of gravity of his naturalistic worldview.

This worldview he advocated tirelessly, against everyone who tried to belittle science and its fruits. In 1880 Huxley was asked to speak upon the occasion of the opening of a new college, whose benefactor, Josiah Mason, had explicitly demanded that the college not limit itself to “mere literary instruction and education”. Huxley knew that this was a controversial demand – the nineteenth century had seen vigorous debates on the topics best suited for education – and he decided to defend it, pre-emptively striking against the classical scholars who were bound to object to it.

“How often have we not been told that the study of physical science is incompetent to confer culture; that it touches none of the higher problems of life; and, what is worse, that the continual devotion to scientific studies tends to generate a narrow and bigoted belief in the applicability of scientific methods to the search after truth of all kinds.” (Italics mine.)

As a representative of this anticipated ‘humanist’ objection, Huxley chose the poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold. Arnold had recently defended the study of literature – “the best that has been thought and said in the world” – as the means of a ‘criticism of life’. Huxley dealt with this statement in all seriousness: Arnold and Huxley were good friends, who knew, respected and on occasion defended each other’s views on education. Which is not to say that the differences between them were not principled.

In his lecture, Huxley agrees that culture requires more than technical skill; it implies a view of life in its fullness. However, this does not settle the question, for science is a source of culture too. The knowledge we have acquired in recent centuries simply has greatly altered our perspective on the big questions: the place of the earth in the universe, the place of man in the world, the history of this world – on all of these issues it has become impossible to believe the things our forefathers believed. In this sense, science has delivered the most potent ‘criticism of life’ conceivable, going further than any study of letters, because it is unique in not relying upon authority but only on nature. It “bids the learner seek for truth not among words but among things”. This is not to say that there is no place for literature or classical study; it is just to make the point that the life that science has on offer is far richer than those old-fashioned humanists tend to assume.

Huxley’s celebration of science resonates well with the arguments of recent defenders of scientism, and he makes a strong case that science is quite plainly too significant to be confined to the status of a mere instrument. Its findings and its procedures bear upon our deepest convictions, our noblest ideals, our highest values.

Now imagine that you feel you need to push back against this. Several options are available. You could contend that Huxley has not cared to define science, so in a sense there isn’t a real case to answer. You could say that his implicit definition of science is essentialist and utopian. You could point out the gap between statements of fact and statements of value. All of these are pertinent objections, yet they don’t seem to cut it. They seem to pale in significance before Huxley’s contention that “our whole theory of life has long been influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the general conceptions of the universe, which have been forced upon us by physical science”. It matters if the earth is not the center of the cosmos, if elementary particles behave according to mathematical laws, if life evolves according to the Darwinian mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.

Matthew Arnold takes none of these routes. He responds to Huxley a few years later, using the occasion of the Rede Lecture in Cambridge (reference below; a similar version of the argument can be read online here). To be fair, Arnold does define science, namely as systematic learning traced back to its original sources. He relates this definition to the broader sense that the term has in German scholarship. Under this definition there is no immediate conflict between letters and natural science; “a genuine humanism is scientific” (219). But the main thrust of his argument is less semantic and far more generous. Yes, among “the best that has been thought and said in the world” we also need to count the great observers of nature; yes, the results of science are a part our culture; yes, the habits science encourages are most valuable.

It is only late in his lecture, and carefully, that Arnold parts ways with Huxley. To this end, he distinguishes between knowledge that is primarily instrumental and knowledge that we can relate to “our sense for conduct, to our sense of beauty” (222).

Do you think you know where this argument is heading? Then brace yourself. Arnold is not going to make the worn-out case that science is a tool and letters are the end. The natural sciences are emphatically not “instrument-knowledges”. On the contrary. People find themselves interested in natural phenomena, much more than in obscure intricacies of grammar. When Darwin teaches us that our ancestor was a “hairy quadruped”, or when Huxley says that nature is “the expression of a definite order with which nothing interferes”, we feel a strong instinctive desire to make something of this; we need to relate our new-found knowledge to our ethics and our aesthetics.

Science is culturally relevant, there is no question about it; but the ways in which it is relevant are not self-explanatory, and scientists don’t usually deign to explain them. When older syntheses of knowledge, morality and beauty become obsolete, we need ‘humane letters’, or the humanities (a term Arnold uses less frequently but interchangeably) all the more urgently. Huxley says that new scientific notions are fatal to those of our forefathers. Well, says Arnold:

“Grant to him that they are thus fatal, that they must and will become current everywhere, and that every one will finally perceive them to be fatal to the beliefs of our forefathers. The need of humane letters, as they are truly called, because they serve the paramount desire in men that good should be for ever present to them, — the need of humane letters to establish a relation between the new conceptions and our instinct for beauty, our instinct for conduct, is only the more visible” (225)

We need to absorb this new science; but almost all of us will also need sources outside of science in order to make sense of the new world we live in. Arnold’s lecture is, in the end, not apologetic, but quite sanguine about the place of letters in our culture. They will survive, and even remain prominent, because the need for them is firmly grounded in our nature.

There is more to this than we can unpack here, and obviously there are many conceivable objections to Arnold’s argument as well. How does the classical literary canon help us to come to grips with 19th-century science, for instance? Arnold believes quite literally that it is in our nature to need to learn Greek, in which case our nature seems to be in some trouble after all.

Still, Arnold’s lecture is quite remarkable in building a positive case for the need of literature and the humanities that does not depend on playing down the importance of science. There are no limits to the epistemic, moral and aesthetic repercussions science can have in principle; it is not excluded from relevance on a priori grounds; no skeptical arguments are being brought against its more ambitious claims. The only thing is that the cultural relevance of science is not self-explanatory; it requires interpretation.

We can put a less philhellenic, slightly more democratic spin on Arnold’s argument, and bring it back to the 21st century. There have, in the meantime, been plenty of robust scientific and technological discoveries that seem to force upon us a rethinking of our place in the world and our values. We can modify DNA, we can scan our brain in action, we can assess our impact on global climate and temperatures, we can build computers that beat us at quiz games. These and many more facts, in Arnold’s terms, relate to “our sense for conduct, our sense for beauty”; the notion that we can wall them off, that science and technology can’t or shouldn’t touch our values, seems slow and weak – it’s the tortoise explaining why Achilles can’t catch it.

At the same time, the world doesn’t tell us what all of this means, and our scientific informers of it have no inherent claim to more wisdom. Not one of our new discoveries and inventions detracts from Arnold’s claim that we are in need of sources of criticism, that there will always be use for “the best that has been thought and said in the world”. On the contrary. But this ‘best’ does not need to be an ancient Greek or Western canon. Arnold is at his best when he provides us with literary examples that do not rely on their status as part of an authoritative tradition for their strength, but rather whose very power encourages us to wonder if there is more where that came from.

Science seems simply irresistible – “No wisdom, nor counsel, nor understanding, against the Eternal”, says Arnold (217). And simply by doing that, by letting ancient literature (the Bible, book of Proverbs) evoke the irresistibility and inevitability of his subject rather than merely stating it flatly, he is making a point. The humanities aren’t even optional; the hold that letters have over us is as overpowering as the scientific truths about us that Huxley has been listing in his lecture. “And so we have turned in favour of the humanities the No wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against the Eternal! Which seemed against them when we started” (229), Arnold summarizes – with some deserved pride.


Matthew Arnold, ‘Literature and Science’, The Rede Lecture. The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Aug. 1882, 216-230.