In postmodernity the two cultures are one -- and many
Paul Forman


These days, these early days of postmodernity, the two cultures are becoming one. True, in the angry glare of today's so-called 'science wars' it seems as though the world views of the natural scientists and the humanists are drawing even farther apart than C.P. Snow found them to be in the middle of the twentieth century, at the apex of modernity. This, however, is a misimpression. Considered more closely, it is evident that today's 'science wars' were begun by self-anointed paladins of science with the purpose of preventing just that merger, well under way, of the two cultures. Their crusade is directed against a dangerous heresy recently emanating from various fields of humanistic scholarship: denial that there is any rigorous distinction between allegedly objective fact and admittedly subjective value, with the claimed consequence that there is no inherent epistemic disjunction between the natural sciences on the one side and the humanities and social sciences on the other.

Underlying the 'two cultures' concept was the belief, on all sides, in such an intrinsic difference in the modes and results of knowledge production in those two realms. On the side of modern science, belief in that intrinsic difference was essential to the scientist's self conception as pursuing truth in splendid isolation. The crusade against the heretical denial of an innate difference is inspired by fear that, should this belief lapse, the chasm ensuring science's putative isolation from its social and intellectual milieu will close. Thus while implicitly acknowledging that this chasm exists only because it is generally supposed to exist, the paladins of science dread its closure as exposing scientific knowledge production to polluting streams of prejudice, passion, and partisanship springing ceaselessly out of the ground of mundane human existence.

No more than Canute, however, will these crusaders for a pure unconditioned truth turn back the wave which they see sweeping in from the humanistic disciplines and from the outlying undisciplined hosts of popular culture, but which in fact is rising far more consequentially from within the sciences themselves. That broad cultural tide, bearing along all ships regardless of the flags they fly, assigns primacy not to a unique truth, pure and perpetual, but to the act of choice -- social and personal, singular and plural, based on morals and the market. Its consequence is indeed the closing of that one great cultural chasm -- and the opening of innumerable fissures in our cultural landscape, everywhere crevassed by divergent moral values and amoral interests.

One can best understand where the paladins of science are 'coming from' by recalling Max Weber's contrast between an "ethic of responsibility," which considers commitments and consequences in weighing incompatible interests and goals, and an "absolute ethic," an "ethic of ultimate ends," which "just does not ask for 'consequences'". This latter is the ethos of pure science, the creed of the paladins: their commitment is to a transcendent scientific truth, an end above all others and overriding all moral considerations. Individually they may (or may not) have political convictions strong enough to move them to support or subvert this or that structure of power and authority. But in so acting they always see themselves as expeditionaries, taking temporary leave from their realm of truth, sallying out over a drawbridge briefly let down and again drawn up only from science's side of the chasm. Always there is -- is permitted to be -- only one direction of movement, action, influence, causation: from science's side across the chasm to the wider social and cultural milieu. This unidirectionality, this 'rectification', is required by their concept of purity (and hence also of pollution) going way back beyond Plato, namely that no knowledge can be true knowledge if it is tainted by personal, social, or cultural interests. For millennia 'The Good' had shown beside 'The True' and 'The Beautiful' as cynosure of absolute ethicists. However, in late modernity -- this century -- as the religious grounding of morals lost credence and the rational grounding of morals was recognized as impossible, the scientists followed the artists in shunning moral considerations as incompatible with exclusive pursuit of their respective ideal -- and incompatible, coincidentally, with their personal and professional autonomy and authority (what at bottom is the real concern of the paladins). For the modern scientist (and indeed for the modern social scientist and disciplined scholar of any stripe), Truth alone was reverenced as the only true good.

Clark Kerr, looking back over a long career as professor of public administration, then Chancellor of the Berkeley campus and President of the University of California, recalled an incident from his first years at Berkeley that seemed to him characteristic for the five following decades:
 
As a young teacher at Berkeley [in the late 1930s], I was asked by a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, who had a Quakerly concern about the academic study of ethics, to bring together influential members of the Berkeley teaching staff, particularly scientists, to talk with him about it. They were polite to him but not to me afterwards. They made it clear that this was not a subject which could hold any interest for scientists or scholars of any sort and that I should have known this; ... that ethics was just a matter of personal taste and anything goes in matters of taste -- with one extremely important exception: a commitment to scientific truth in the academic world. Knowingly and gladly turning their backs on the domain of moral choice and responsibility, modernist scientists aimed to ascend to parnassian heights of "scientific truth" above all good and evil -- what they justified socially on classical liberal grounds by a sort of 'trickle down' theory of the moral economy, much as they appealed to a 'trickle down' theory of technologic and economic progress.

In claiming to transcend the moral domain modern scientists were unique only in the combination of freedom and support modern society accorded them: their flight from responsibility was integral with that of modernity generally -- modernity understood as "a gigantic exercise in abolishing individual responsibility" (Bauman). Thus the self-conception of truth seeker/finder as elevated above all consideration of consequences was not elaborated by the modern scientist unaided or alone. Modern scientists were permitted their stance of irresponsible purity not merely because they insisted that only by proceeding so could society get from science the desired practical benefits, but equally because such a stance was compatible with the transcendence-oriented political, aesthetic, and cognitive ideologies of modernity. Here indeed Snow's overly simple dichotomizing of culture creators quite collapses: in largely shunning moral purposes and criteria, all creators of culture stood on the same modernist ground.

But though all shunned the moral ground, in modernity not all creators of culture found such strong ideological support for doing so. Here lay a fundamental division -- which, once again, Snow misplaced -- placing the scientists and artists shoulder to shoulder against the humanistic scholars and social scientists. The modern scientists, especially, have been inclined to draw the line this way, pleased to liken themselves to artists. Many artists too have recognized their common aim of 'discovering' a reality transcending history, their common repudiation of responsibility, and their common enemy -- the critic. Behind this alignment is, once again, the notion that an individual capable of producing transcendent cultural goods is, ipso facto, placed beyond and above the reach of moral judgements. This romantic reworking of the renaissance concept of immortal achievement is evident still today in the remnants of the Western concept of genius to be found in any middlebrow organ -- but very little any longer in highbrow journals. With such broad cultural encouragement to flee responsibility, it is hardly surprising that all who in modernity credited themselves with a bit of genius -- visual artists, creative writers, natural scientists, pure mathematicians -- took the opportunity and ran.

The artist has always had to contend with the hated critic. But whence comes this new thing, the science critic? In retrospect we can see the sixties revolt against the common conviction of an essential difference between natural science and all other forms of knowledge as a first step into postmodernity. And certainly it was that for a figure like philosopher Paul Feyerabend. But neither Thomas Kuhn himself, nor the physics-envying/emulating social scientists, who hailed Kuhn with the jubilant shout ' bas la diffrence', saw themselves as detractors of scientific knowledge. Only in the eighties, when the scientistic aspiration of the social sciences had driven itself nearly to exhaustion, did that ambition of elevation to the epistemic level of the natural sciences get flipped -- largely by humanistic scholars, literary critics, and theorists of textwork. It is now fully ten years since George Levine, a critic especially attentive to the commerce between the two cultures, stated, in introducing a collection of essays he titled One Culture, that "on the whole, this book adopts the position, endorsed by the main directions of contemporary criticism (yet still not unproblematic), that literature and science, whatever else they may be, are modes of discourse, neither of which is privileged except by the conventions of the cultures in which they are embedded." Though "yet still not unproblematic", our intellectual proclivities continue toward epistemic conventionalism and pluralism, in good part because every defense or revival of foundationalism is so readily shown to involve dubitable, question-begging postulations.

This the more sophisticated paladins of transcendent science well understand. They recognize their want of 'affirmative defenses' of the quintessential truth of scientific facts and concepts, and for this very reason have limited themselves largely to ridiculing particular expositions and expositors of a heresy that they are unable generally to refute. When, rarely, they do come forth with an argument to demonstrate the innate superiority of the knowledge produced on their side of the chasm, it is invariably an appeal to the wondrousness of contemporary technology. This, they allege, is owing to the pure scientific knowledge underlying it, and is proof of its difference from other forms of knowledge. Such argumentation brings them into treacherous waters, for it may immediately be reversed, as by pragmatists like Richard Rorty, to allege that science is merely technology and nothing more: physics, says Rorty, is the construct of a community with a shared interest in pushing objects around. Furthermore, by bringing the issue of the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge across the chasm onto the mundane ground of technology -- which is always a complex system inextricably mixing social devices with material devices -- the paladins make science vulnerable to the postmodern doctrine most dangerous to their faith: the dependence of truth on power.

This doctrine, commonly associated with Michel Foucault, reverses the modernist reading of Francis Bacon's "knowledge is power" -- taking 'is' as an implication, rather than an equivalence -- to a postmodernist "power is knowledge", i.e., power includes the capability to create knowledge 'in its own image.' Per se, the circumstance to which the postmodern reading of "knowledge is power" points is by no means new; indeed it is far older than modernity itself, for the employment of the available knowledge producing capabilities to create a convenient reality is in effect the practice of all premodern, traditional societies and nearly all organized religions. In this, consequently, the critics of postmodernity who deplore it as a throw-back to pre-modernity -- e.g., Christopher Norris -- have a point, indeed they can very well point to Galileo's inquisitors and Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. But the validity of these precedents proves only the ostrich-likeness of the modernist response to the problem of knowledge.

It is, rather, in frankly affirming a conception of knowledge as bound and interested that postmodernity stands in striking opposition to both the classical and the modern conception of science as a liberal pursuit, i.e., as the free activity of unfettered minds, the results of which, freely published, will conduce to the freedom of all mankind. Indeed, this is the most distinctive criterion demarcating postmodern from modern science: postmodernity begins where the production of bound and interested knowledge is unequivocally accepted -- accepted as fully legitimate knowledge, in no way inferior to any other sort of knowledge, if not, indeed, as the only sort of knowledge. Needless to say, in turning away from that unconditioned "scientific truth" so prized by Clark Kerr's Berkeley scientists, away from unconditioned truth generally, postmodernity ceases to regard Truth as a prime value. No longer is truthfulness expected anywhere in our culture, and its breach is regarded as excusable in any circumstance covered by a moral intent and guided by a sense of responsibility.

Clearly, such may be asserted categorically of 'postmodernity' if and only if much the same has also been transpiring 'back at the science ranch'. And indeed it has. Today most scientists, even theoretical physicists, are participating in this revolution in ontic presuppositions, are abandoning their long-held quasi-religious attachment to 'truth and transcendence' as being both incredible and discreditable. While their would-be paladins claim to be slaying dragons as they tilt at windmills of social construction, the great majority is unselfconsciously accepting radically pluralist conceptions of knowledge. In place of the unique hierarchy established by nearness to Truth, today's scientist accepts a plurality of hierarchies associated with a plurality of Goods, with position in the hierarchy established by nearness to the particular Good pursued by that scientist and those with whom he has chosen to be associated. And those Goods lying as often outside science -- i.e., across the chasm -- as within the scientific pale, the traditional notions of the autonomy of the individual researcher and of the scientific enterprise as a whole are coming to seem quite senseless. No longer is it the conventional role of public institutions to hold private interests at arms length. "At issue," now, Sheila Slaughter has acutely observed, "is how academic science, primarily state funded, participates in a political economy that celebrates the market."

Through the four decades of Cold War the binding of knowledge to a national interest and its restriction to a national territory became the leading characteristic of a very large sector -- depending on definition, even the largest sector -- of the R&D industry in the United States, and a fortiori in the USSR. Although those nations' scientists -- especially their exact and physical scientists -- were deeply involved in classified research and embargoed technology, these features of knowledge production, lacking as they did legitimacy in the scientists' modernist ideology, were bracketed out, compartmentalized, denied any acknowledged place in their picture of how science is done -- in which picture the ideal was always made to stand in, largely, for the real. Had this compartmentalization not been so necessary to scientific self-regard in the Cold War, it would perhaps have begun gradually to disintegrate three decades ago in step with the broader cultural shift away from modernism. Now, with the evaporation of the Cold War, it is disappearing very rapidly -- and with it the disciplinary structuring of the sciences as hierarchies of purity. Plurality, not purity, is the password in postmodernity. The modernist self-conception of searcher after free and disinterested knowledge is being exchanged for a postmodern acceptance of the legitimacy of proprietary, interested knowledges.

A point to be noted, with respect to physicists especially, as indicative of a much greater susceptibility to pressures from the cultural environment, is the self- inculpation which they now display in facing the recent decline in financial support for 'curiosity driven~ research and in employment opportunities generally. Where even just a few years ago the American physicist saw any decrease in social support as manifestation of the 'others'' failure to appreciate him at his true worth, it is today commonplace for physicists to accuse themselves of various faults, particularly being arrogant, and to hold themselves in large measure responsible for their current difficulties. Further it is important as a precondition, or at least concomitant, of the acceptance of moral considerations in directing their knowledge production that these physicists also blame themselves for holding too tightly to their disciplinary orientation, now urging instead "maximizing our impact on the world around us" -- a sentiment to which Richard Rorty long since accustomed humanistic scholarship.

But if the notion of a unique, universal, transcendent truth is now incredible, if the scientific disciplines have now lost much of their legitimacy, and the hierarchical ranking of them in scales of abstract-practical or pure-applied has lost nearly all its authority, a 'space' is thereby opened for moral judgements. Furthermore, in postmodernity the act of making moral judgements is so much less threatening, not merely because their unavoidable relativity is implicitly accepted, but also because the need for an unambiguously clean conscience (purity!), which seemed so urgent in modernity, now appears hopelessly unrealistic. It is here, on the ground of the moral, that scientists and the humanists come together in this post-epistemologic era. Whatever differences there may be in the epistemic status of what respectively they call knowledge, whether really true as the paladins insist, or mere social conventions as their btes noires contend, are now both felt to be undecidable and thought to be irrelevant, beside the point. The main point, in postmodernity, is at best a moral point, at worst a callous, feckless, disingenuous, or simply corrupt 'bottom line' disguising itself as a moral stance. In any case, moral grounds are all there are. They admit of innumerable distinctions and divisions, but hardly one between the sciences and the humanities.