The two cultures revisited
16 February 1996
Newton’s Sleep: The two cultures and the two kingdoms by Raymond Tallis, 260pp., Macmillan, 1996.
RAYMOND TALLIS is a philosopher, poet and literary critic who also happens to be a professor of medicine. His latest book, Newton’s Sleep, is an investigation of the roles played by art and science in human culture, and is at once ambitious and energetic. Tallis can, and frequently does, write extremely well. He also writes with considerable passion. The first part of the book in particular, which is given over to the question of the Two Cultures, and in which the debate between F. R. Leavis and C. P. Snow is re-run for the 1990s, is written in a kind of lucid rage.
Tallis himself offers an interesting clue to the origins of the intellectual passion which runs through all his work. As a medical student, he writes in his preface, he considered himself rather bright. He eventually put his abstract medical knowledge into practice by making a series of ‘brilliant’ diagnoses, in which he identified a number of rare conditions. All these diagnoses, however, turned out to be wrong. And they were wrong, as Tallis notes, ‘precisely because they were brilliant’. From this he learnt that patient observation may be more useful than abstract thought and that interpretations which reflect the brilliance of one’s own mind are almost certain to be mistaken.
The experience, he writes, made him angry both with himself and with the intellectual world in general. He confesses to a particular animus against humanist intellectuals who habitually make large pronouncements about literature or about life on the basis of unfalsifiable theories. Those who are familiar with Tallis’s earlier book, Not Saussure, may recognize one of the outcomes of this experience. For by harnessing his anger to a profound critique of Lacan, Derrida and like-minded theorists, Tallis produced one of the most brilliant and effective of all rebuttals of post-Saussurean literary theory.
Tallis’s self-confessed animus against some humanist intellectuals is also in evidence in Newton’s Sleep. Like Snow before him, he is disturbed by how little most people know about the methods and principles of science. His particular target, however, is not ‘most people’ but those ‘humanist intellectuals who, ignorant of science themselves, have been influential in ensuring that such ignorance should be acceptable . . .’. Many of his strictures are entirely just. He is clearly right to reject the kind of shallow disdain for technology which declines to acknowledge the immense material benefits which technology has brought with it. He is right also to point out that Romantic opposition to science has been exaggerated and to remind us of the immense role played in science by the human imagination. Yet his defence of science is so zealous that even his admirers (of whom I am one) may find some of his arguments extreme.
The humanities are never dismissed. But they are firmly put in their place as exhibiting just the kind of ‘ordinary gossipy interest’ in human life which scientists eschew. Science, we are told, ‘is about as remote as possible from gossip. It doesn’t appeal to the airhead in us.’ The totally objective view which science idealizes is, in Tallis’s view, ‘far from the egocentric particulars of everyday life and the self-absorption that is our natural and comforting standpoint’. Novels, in contrast, appeal to our ‘everyday curiosity’. Even history is an easy option, since ‘The stories told by historians are closer to the tales told in pubs than to a scientific account of a natural phenomenon.’
In so far as Tallis puts forward these characterizations in order to account for the appeal of the humanities and the relative difficulty of science, he is entirely correct. But the moralism of his view cannot be hidden, and he himself compares the ‘strenuous’ renunciatory demands made by science with those of religion. ‘Science’, he writes, ‘teaches humility: the Great Man matters less than the Great (co-operative) Enterprise.’ He goes on to suggest that the search for truth undertaken by science ‘in which one’s own contribution is likely to be at best that of an anonymous ant to a great ant-hill is perhaps a better model to young people than certain sectors of the humanities . . .’ Some may be prompted by such morally uplifting rhetoric to submit to the refined disciplines of physics. For myself, I must confess that I still find the stories told by historians more attractive.
One of the reasons is that the stories which they tell about science are indeed replete with the ‘gossipy’ details that Tallis tends to pass over, but which are essential to any understanding of the historical process. The extent to which the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was ‘caused’ by Puritanism is a matter of dispute. But what cannot be disputed is the intimate association between the rise of modern science and Christianity. Even when Darwinian biology broke this profound alliance, the Church Scientific which emerged under Huxley and others continued to see itself in terms dictated by Christianity. The Huxley of history, as opposed to the ‘benign’, ‘well-mannered’, ‘gentle’ Huxley who appears fleetingly in Newton’s Sleep, was a pugnacious preacher of the scientific gospel who looked forward to a ‘New Reformation’ and to the time when he might see ‘the foot of Science on the necks of her enemies’. No man, as was observed at the time, ‘ever manifested more of the moral presuppositions of a Puritan evangelicalism’.
Raymond Tallis, in this book at least, is perhaps best seen as an exceptionally interesting and broad-minded heir to Huxley, preaching the cause of the Church Scientific not simply because it affords accurate, objective knowledge of nature, but also because it promotes ‘honesty’, ‘rigour’, ‘humility’ and ‘co-operation’, while all the while battling against the ‘ignorance’, ‘idleness’ and ‘self-absorption’ frequently displayed by humanist intellectuals.
The great irony about this particular historical lineage is that Tallis, while himself invoking the example of Huxley, goes out of his way to repudiate the very doctrine upon which the original Church Scientific was founded. For, in a philosophical interlude entitled ‘The Uselessness of Consciousness’, he returns to the theme of his last book, The Explicit Animal, and expounds afresh his view that, pace the neo-Darwinians, human consciousness ‘is largely without purpose’ and that it cannot therefore ‘be understood in terms of biological utility’. Entering yet further into the realm of scientific heresy, he explicitly denies the status of consciousness ‘as a biological phenomenon’. As he himself notes, this view ‘assaults one of the great received ideas of this present century that animality lies at the heart and root of humanity’.
It may well be true that current Darwinian thinking is unable to account adequately for the extraordinary richness, complexity and seeming evolutionary redundancy of human consciousness. But, just as the fact that a particular natural phenomenon may be difficult to explain does not mean that it is ‘paranormal’, so the fact that human consciousness remains problematic does not mean that it is ‘para-Darwinian’. It suggests rather that evolutionary theorists need to try harder. In boldly maintaining that consciousness is not a biological phenomenon at all, Tallis puts forward a view which, though it is clearly not intended to lead to a creationist or spiritualist conclusion, seems to be motivated by a similar impulse towards transcendence.
Since, according to Tallis’s argument, art is the perfection of human consciousness, it follows that art too is useless. He goes on to expound a theory of art which develops this view. It should immediately be said that this argument, which contains a beautifully written account of ‘The Systematic Elusiveness of Cornwall’ as experienced during a family holiday, is complex, subtle and richly freighted with real insights. But like all grand aesthetic theories, it operates at a level of generality which too often transcends the particularities of individual works of art in order to enter the realm of metaphysics.
In one respect, the tendency of Tallis’s arguments to soar impressively, far above the evidence provided by ordinary human behaviour, is mysterious. For it is just such a tendency which he criticizes so cogently in Not Saussure. But Tallis is at his best when, as in that book, he subverts his own metaphysical impulses. In Newton’s Sleep, however, it is his allegiance to the remoteness and mathematical abstraction of the physical sciences which triumphs, and his subversive vitality which, while still very much in evidence, suffers defeat.
Times Literary Supplement, 16 February 1996
© Richard Webster, 2002