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Western Culture At The American Crossroads: Conflicts Over The Nature Of Science And Reason

Western Culture At The American Crossroads: Conflicts Over The Nature Of Science And Reason

by Arthur Pontynen, Rod Miller

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ISI Books
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Edition description:
1st Edition
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6.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

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Western Culture at the American Crossroads

Conflicts Over the Nature of Science and Reason
By Arthur Pontynen Rod Miller


Copyright © 2011 Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-935191-74-2

Chapter One

Science and Reason in the Pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—or Power

Since the Enlightenment, culture, science, and reason have been engaged in a particularly contentious historical dialogue; the contentiousness of that dialogue affects our understanding not only of science and reason, but of culture itself. The Scholastic unity of science, ethics, and art via the pursuit of wisdom was replaced by an empirical Scholasticism. Empirical Scholasticism assumes that science is the pursuit of facts, and that facts are not intrinsically reasonable. The Scholastic unity of understanding a meaningful world via knowledge (scientia) and wisdom (sapientia) is replaced by the Enlightenment's reductionistic limitation of knowledge to manufactured descriptive fact (scientism) and rationalized or experiential feeling (existentialism) within a purposeless world. The Scholastic is onto-, teleo-, cosmo-, and theo-logical, whereas empirical Scholasticism is none of these. The Scholastic associates fact and reason with purposeful completion—that is, with truth and love. The empirical Scholastic replaces truth and love with fact and power.

The shift from truth and love to facts, feelings, and process was explained by the Baroque scholar Giarnbastista Vico (1668–1744). That shift is one from Verum est ens (Truth is Being that is, truth is knowledge of the eternal essence of things) to Verum quia factum (Truth is made—that is, truth results from making accurate descriptions). Factum is that which is done, made, accomplished, and that which is manufactured is that which is manually done, made, accomplished. So the shift from truth to fact is a shift from truth found to facts made. It is, then, a shift from truth to power, and culture to barbarism. Truth made is power revealed and culture cannot exist on the basis of power alone.

Scientism blossomed in the West during the Baroque period and became dominant after Newton. Scientism takes for granted that knowledge is limited to empirical fact; modernists associate fact with an extrinsic rational clarity, while postmodernists associate fact with experiential power. In neither case is science associated with a rational meaningful completion. The foundational premise of this paradigm of knowledge is positivism. But neither a factual and rational clarity, nor power can remedy the Enlightenment's denial of wisdom—and therefore its denial of the unity of science and reason. As a consequence, it cannot defend culture as the arena of responsible freedom. At best it defends freedom as self-expression and self-realization in an ultimately purposeless world. As such, the modernist-postmodernist tradition is not only antagonistic to classical-Judeo-Christian culture; it is antagonistic to the very possibility of culture as the realm of responsible freedom. It denies the foundational principle that as conscious beings all of humanity has the ability, responsibility, and intrinsic right to try and make good choices grounded to some degree in ontological reality. It denies that we have the right and responsibility to freely and conscientiously attempt to comprehend and pursue what is true, good, and beautiful.

In this sense, Scholasticism and empirical Scholasticism share a common goal: to address the dialogue between science and reason. But the empirical Scholasticism of the Enlightenment undermines that dialogue. Its redefinition of science and reason results in a redefinition—and a denial—of the pursuit of objective truth, of knowledge of what is true, good, and beautiful. Just as David Hume redefined reason as feeling and power in his A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), in his Enquiries concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), he advocated a naturalistic metaphysics in which morality is grounded in the pursuit of power. For Immanuel Kant, truth, goodness, and beauty are separated from reality via his three great—and Tragic—works: The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Critique of Judgment (1790). In Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), Hegel redefined reason as power, personified by the state, obedience to which is deemed freedom.

It is the disassociation of knowledge from meaningful completion that undermines the objectivity of science and reason, and therefore the objectivity of truth. But lacking the goal of objectivity, of the notion of meaningful completion, then truth and love are replaced by fact and power. The mind and will are at war with each other, a war that the mind cannot win.

So the critical question today is: how can a culture of responsible freedom via the pursuit of wisdom be restored without repeating previous errors. How can culture, science, and reason be newly and better reconciled? That is the vital conversation occurring within American culture today. It is a conversation with international implications.

If the conversation between culture, science, and reason cannot be resolved, then culture, science, and reason are trivialized and brutalized. As the Medievalists pointed out: ars sine scientia nihil est—art without science is nothing. Their point was that in daily life science (knowing), ethics (doing), and art (making) cannot be separated. But just as art without science is nothing, it was realized at the height of nineteenth-century positivist influence that science without lofty purpose is brutality. That brutality centers on the denial of reason and virtue as a means of living a cultured life.

If science is reduced to mere fact and meaning to mere feeling, then reason does not really matter. For Kant, scientific narratives are meaningful fictions. For Hegel, scientific narratives evidence a dialectic of power. If grounded in opinion or power, reason is denied as a means of obtaining knowledge of meaningful reality. If knowledge is limited to fact, and understanding is limited to feeling, then reason is deontologized, reduced to utilitarian expediency, or into an ontology of violence. Reality, or Being, is reduced to process, or becoming. Science is denied the status of being objectively reasonable, and is limited to logical consistency, utilitarian calculation, or a dialectic of violence. It is trivialized—and brutalized.

Since the Enlightenment, science has been reduced to facts, and culture has been reduced to feelings and power. Ethics are approached via existentialism or scientism, but if behavior is understood via either, then what we do is grounded in nature, nurture, or the will rather than in conscious moral choice. Denied is culture as the realm of responsible freedom. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional pursuit of wisdom as championed by the classical-Judeo Christian tradition in the West. For that tradition culture is the realm of responsible freedom, informed by the unity of science and reason in the pursuit of what is true (scientia) and also good (sapientia).

Culture as Responsible Freedom

In contrast to the social sciences, which at best describe what we do, culture presumes our ability to freely make choices, and for those choices to be meaningful, they must be qualitative and grounded in meaningful reality. To put it differently, becoming seeks Being, quantity in motion seeks quality as a degree of realized perfection. The qualitative cannot be a matter of quantitative dominance, theoretical interpretation, subjective preference, or authentic momentary experience. The quantitative cannot become qualitative on its own, or by modernist rationalism, utilitarian calculation, or postmodernist claims of empiricist identity and self-realization. Qualitative choices necessarily are scientifically grounded and rationally engaged as a matter of conscience, but qualitative science and reason must transcend the limits of a factual or process-oriented positivism (Being as Becoming). Qualitative meaning depends upon teleological or cosmological purpose (Being) otherwise it is reduced to violence rationalized or not.

For culture to make sense it must be qualitative, not quantitative. (This is a foundational principle of the present text.) Qualitative wisdom is driven by fact and process (the realm of becoming) realizing degrees of Being as an act of completion. That realization of meaningful completion is traditionally referred to as truth and love. Meaningful completion informs both truth and love. The positivist separation of science and reason marks the opposite of truth and love: fact and violence. Positivism volitionally replaces objective qualitative science and reason with a quantitative view of violent change, and views that as escaping superstition.

By the positivist reduction of science and reason to fact, logical consistency, and violent process, scholarship and art are limited to an aesthetic vision. Beautiful science and reason seek completion grounded in meaningful reality. In contrast, an aestheticized science and reason are subjective constructs and experiences. They are limited to the realm of facts, feelings, and power. We now live in a dominantly aesthetic culture in which the focus is on the pursuit of facts, feelings, and power rather than truth and goodness. Consequently, the interaction of science, ethics, and art is viewed aesthetically. That is to say, the nature and relationship of science, ethics, and art is viewed as a matter of facts, feelings, and style, a matter of aesthetic taste. But all lack any objective unifying content or purpose. The attempt to universalize taste, as did Burke, Kant, Marx, and others, is dangerously incoherent because taste cannot be understood to be good or bad; the term good taste—like good will—is oxymoronic. Taste and will cannot be good without the presence of truth; with truth, taste and will are elevated to beauty and wisdom, to sapientia.

An aesthetic approach to science, ethics, and art dogmatically assumes a nominalistic viewpoint, and that viewpoint mandates positivism, relativism, and existentialism. That viewpoint maintains that particular facts and preferences exist, and attempts to comprehend a meaningful reality via science, reason, and culture, and thus obtain judgments of quality, make no sense. Quality is judged a matter of taste, which we can trivialize in the name of tolerance, or make absolute in the name of authenticity.

This positivist assumption reduces science to the mere pursuit of purposeless facts; those facts are placed within explanatory narratives that are ultimately a matter of opinion or power. The effect of this upon culture and virtue is devastating. This reduction of science results in two culturally destructive and mutually contradictory consequences: it simultaneously asserts that culture is indifferent to science, or that culture is the product of science. It maintains that either positivist science determines what culture is, or that positivist science is denied by those who equate culture with feelings rather than facts. The former is called scientism, the latter, romanticism. That positivist-romantic dialectic is hopelessly conflicted about science and culture, but united by the denial of intelligence. A banal positivist mysticism concurs that the world is unintelligible. Human existence is asserted to be grounded in necessary fact or arbitrary feeling. In neither case is responsible freedom and virtue in the pursuit of wisdom permitted.

Within this self-contradictory positivist-romantic view, culture is limited to being both a deterministic matter of nature or nurture and an arbitrary matter of sheer willful preference. Lacking is the notion that culture can be the pursuit of that which is true, good, and beautiful in reality. Without this pursuit the notion of a purpose-granting beauty enabling responsible freedom, is denied.

Government lacking a ground in qualitative culture produces not responsible freedom but anarchy. To be distinguishable from anarchy, freedom requires the possibility of conscious and responsible choice. It requires the possibility of virtue (and perhaps Grace). In turn, virtue must aspire to more than tolerance and authenticity. Indeed, virtue defined as such is virtue denied] A modernist seeking tolerance denies virtue its grounding in reality; a postmodernist seeking authenticity grants license to violence. Nonetheless, Kant advocates the association (and redefinition) of virtue with tolerance and fairness. Indeed, he argues for a duty to do so. But Kant's position is deontological; it is not grounded in knowledge of reality—or wisdom. Therefore, it can only be, as John Milbank puts it, the great delayer of nihilism. In contrast, postmodern advocates of authenticity claim to be ontological, that is, they claim their position to be grounded in reality. But that reality is understood as one of violence, which again negates virtue.

Virtue—or the exercising of responsible freedom—relies upon the existence of objective purpose or purposes, on what Aristotle refers to as final causes and an unmoved mover. It centers on the pursuit of Being, rather than mere becoming. The story of the shift from Being to becoming is the narrative of Western culture since the Baroque. That deep cultural pendulum is now swinging from becoming to Being. But that shift newly faces the challenge of how to understand the nature and content of Being and its relationship with becoming.

Bacon, Hobhes, Hume, and Newton all deny that science has anything to do with an objectively purposeful reality or Being. During the nineteenth century a later positivist, August Comte, went further than the deist Newton. Whereas previously the goal was to rise from mere fact and confusion to philosophical and theological wisdom (scientia and sapientia), Comte redefines intellectual progress as the transition from superstition and religion to empirical fact (scientism). But curiously, while ostensibly denying the very existence of any metaphysical knowledge, Comte argues that we should act as gods. Being is us becoming.

The tragic result of Comte's choice to so redefine science is not just to den), the possibility of meaningful choice; the tragedy is that he mandates meaningless choice. He mandates self-deification as the key to progress. But then progress is reduced to mere willful change. In a factual and purposeless reality, objectively meaningful choice cannot be recognized. Lacking meaningful choice, two options remain: a fact based determinism, and sheer subjectivism, positivism and romanticism. Not even Kant can successfully bridge the gap between positivistic fact and emotional preference his rationalizations notwithstanding.

Responsible decision-making is key to the very existence of culture, and that responsible decision-making that is, responsible freedom—must be grounded in knowledge of reality. For our choices to be good, and not problematically tolerant and a matter of identity, they must be grounded via science and reason in purposeful reality)2 Otherwise the impulse toward tolerance, fairness, equity, and authenticity descends into a sociopathic realm where envy and anger are justified. Truth becomes a lie, culture is deemed oppressive, and the goal of a purposeless scholarship is not to be subversive of ignorance, folly, and hate, but rather to subvert all those allegedly oppressive lies which claim to advance the true and good.

The observation that the pursuit of wisdom liberates us from violence should be tempered with humility; false claims of wisdom have indeed done harm. But as discussed later, Abraham Lincoln's noble Second Inaugural Address is to the point: we must strive to do what is right, as we are given to understand the right, with charity for all and malice towards none.


Excerpted from Western Culture at the American Crossroads by Arthur Pontynen Rod Miller Copyright © 2011 by Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller. Excerpted by permission of ISI BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Arthur Pontynen, the author of For the Love of Beauty: Art, History, and the Moral Foundations of Aesthetic Judgment, is professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

Rod Miller is associate professor of art history at Hendrix College in Arkansas. He is the author of The Campus Guide to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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