Poesis and the Scientific Imagination
The disciplinary divide between literary study and the sciences, between knowledge of making (or poesis) and theoretical knowledge seems inevitable from our contemporary vantage. After all, the dispute between poetry and philosophy was old enough that Plato in The Republic (in the 4th century BCE) could refer to it as an “ancient quarrel.” And while recently some have tried to make STEM into STEAM by smuggling the arts between engineering and mathematics, the separation of aesthetic from scientific education appears natural. But what is the history of this separation? How were poetic and scientific knowledge distinguished from one another, and how did the contemporary understanding of these “two cultures,” emerge?
These are just a few of the questions that this course will explore as we study institutionalization of the divide between science and poetry in early modernity. Through readings in history and philosophy of science, early scientific texts, and poetry we will explore continuities between scientific and poetic knowledge, and study what makes them different. We will pay special attention to how disciplinary training reinforces Plato’s “ancient quarrel” by inducing students into forms and habits of research, and consider what is gained – and what is lost – in processes of acculturation. As we go I will ask you to reflect in informal written assignments on your own disciplinary training.
This course meets a writing requirement (a "W" course) and consequently you will be asked to write multiple 400-500 word paragraph commentaries, informal response papers, a written take-home midterm exam, and a final paper of 4-6 pages. The shorter writing assignments are designed to lead into the longer papers and afford opportunities to practice the skill of slow, deliberate and focused reading that is essential to successful longer papers. No previous knowledge of philosophy of science or of poetry is required.
Some of our course texts blur the distinction between poetry and science while others canonize it. The texts are drawn from early western European natural philosophy (the original name for what became known only in the nineteenth century as “science”) and English poetry. The readings are challenging and the load is substantial, but we will work through them carefully. In written work (including response papers, commentaries, essays and exams) you will be asked to read technically, and to walk your colleagues and myself through your reasoning with care and deliberation.
The goals of the course include:
1) an introduction to the history of science, and to some trends in philosophy of science from the last fifty years;
2) introduction to the interdisciplinary study of science and literature as a method of literary study;
3) introduction to a sampling from important, but by no means representative, poets and natural philosophers of the early modern and Enlightenment period.
4) Develop analytical reading and writing skills through shorter commentary assignments that lead to well-constructed, carefully reasoned longer (4-6 pages) papers.