- The Sciences, the Humanities, and the Illusion of Progress: A Comment on Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Berlin's Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities
- Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 25, Number 1, Autumn 1981
- pp. 136-143
- View Citation
- Additional Information
THE SCIENCES, THE HUMANITIES, AND THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS: A COMMENT ON KUHN'S STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS AND BERUN'S DIVORCE BETWEEN THE SCIENCES AND THE HUMANITIES RAYMOND D. PRUITT* Introduction I wish to identify what struck me as a paradox that emerged in the course of my reading in sequence Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  and Sir Isaiah Berlin's Tykociner Memorial Lecture entitled The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities . Berlin proposed that the purported divorce was rendered inevitable by a perception of Giambattista Vico expounded in his principal work, The New Science (1725). Vico's postulate was as follows: There is no progress from the imperfect towards perfection, for [in the humanities] the very notion of perfection entails an absolute criterion of value; but there is only intelligible change. The stages are not mechanically caused each by its predecessor, but can be seen to flow from the new needs created by the satisfaction of die old ones in the unceasing self-creation and self-transformation of perpetually active men. Yet this thesis, intended by Vico as the essential opposite of science, has striking similarities to a view of science very prominent today and set forth by Kuhn in The Structure ofScientific Revolutions [I, pp. 171-173]. He argued: We are all deeply accustomed to seeing science as the one enterprise that draws constantly nearer to some goal set by nature in advance. But need there be any such goal? . . . The entire process may have occurred, as we now suppose biological evolution did, without benefit of a set goal, a perma- *Dean emeritus and professor of medicine, Mayo Medical School; Consultant in Cardiovascular Diseases, Mayo Clinic and Mayo Foundation, Rochester, Minnesota 55905.© 1980 by the Mayo Foundation. Permission to reprint here has been granted by the Mayo Foundation and R. D. Pruitt. 136 I RaymondD. Pruitt · Sciences, Humanities, andProgress nent fixed scientific truth, of which each stage in the development of scientific knowledge is a better exemplar. Now if, as Berlin asserted, the sciences and the humanities were divorced in the early eighteenth century, then how can two statements, each crucial to the logic of the respective author's discourse, one on the history of science and the other on the history of human societies and the humanities, have a ring of consonance, not discord? Admittedly, I have selected two quotations to display this seeming paradox, but they are indeed of a kind with many others that evoked in my reading of Berlin on Vico a haunting echo of phrases and ideas that I had encountered in my earlier reading of Kuhn. Has the divorce that Berlin believes was engendered by Vico's insights been annulled by the observations of Kuhn? Novelty and priority are not at stake here. Rather, under scrutiny in both quotations is an age-old reflection on the illusory nature of those various phenomena commonly subsumed by the word "progress." Even those of us whose exposure to the abstractions of philosophy was arrested at the stage ofEmerson on self-reliance will recall his staccato and, as compared with Kuhn and Vico, simple and direct treatment of the same indestructible theme. Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given something is taken.  It is a cyclic theme, which itself has been alternately in the ascendancy and the decline over the centuries. It still is. About Revolutions and a Divorce Kuhn's Structure  was published in 1962. In a recent review of this spare volume of 180 pages, Wade has identified it as "a landmark in intellectual history which has attracted attention far beyond its own immediate field" . Sir Isaiah Berlin's lecture, The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities , was delivered at the University of Illinois in 1974. Its text, like that of Kuhn's monograph, is a model of clarity and condensation that defies succinct review, and I shall have to settle for...