§3. The Essence of Science


232. So much in regard to classification. Now if we are to classify the sciences, it is highly desirable that we should begin with a definite notion of what we mean by a science; and in view of what has been said of natural classification, it is plainly important that our notion of science should be a notion of science as it lives and not a mere abstract definition. Let us remember that science is a pursuit of living men, and that its most marked characteristic is that when it is genuine, it is in an incessant state of metabolism and growth. If we resort to a dictionary, we shall be told that it is systematized knowledge. Most of the classifications of the sciences have been classifications of systematized and established knowledge — which is nothing but the exudation of living science; — as if plants were to be classified according to the characters of their gums. Some of the classifications do even worse than that, by taking science in the sense attached by the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, to the word {epistémé}. A person can take no right view of the relation of ancient to modern science unless he clearly apprehends the difference between what the Greeks meant by {epistémé} and what we mean by knowledge. The best translation of {epistémé} is "comprehension.« It is the ability to define a thing in such a manner that all its properties shall be corollaries from its definition. Now it may be that we shall ultimately be able to do that, say for light or electricity. On the other hand, it may equally turn out that it forever remains as impossible as it certainly is to define number in such a way that Fermat's and Wilson's theorems should be simple corollaries from the definition. I do not mean to deny that those theorems are deducible from the definition. All that is here being urged turns on the falsity of the old notion that all deduction is corollarial deduction. But, at any rate, the Greek conception of knowledge was all wrong in that they thought that one must advance in direct attack upon this {epistémé}; and attached little value to any knowledge that did not manifestly tend to that. To look upon science in that point of view in one's classification is to throw modern science into confusion.

233. Another fault of many classifications — or if not a fault, it is at least a purpose very different from that which I should be bold enough to attempt — is that they are classifications not of science as it exists, but of systematized knowledge such as the classifier hopes may some time exist. I do not believe it is possible to have that intimate acquaintance with the science of the indefinite future that the discovery of the real and natural classification of it would require. At any rate, I will make no such attempt, except in one department, and there only partially and timidly.

234. Let us look upon science — the science of today — as a living thing. What characterizes it generally, from this point of view, is that the thoroughly established truths are labelled and put upon the shelves of each scientist's mind, where they can be at hand when there is occasion to use things — arranged, therefore, to suit his special convenience — while science itself, the living process, is busied mainly with conjectures, which are either getting framed or getting tested. When that systematized knowledge on the shelves is used, it is used almost exactly as a manufacturer or practising physician might use it; that is to say, it is merely applied. If it ever becomes the object of science, it is because in the advance of science, the moment has come when it must undergo a process of purification or of transformation.

235. A scientific man is likely in the course of a long life to pick up a pretty extensive acquaintance with the results of science; but in many branches, this is so little necessary that one will meet with men of the most deserved renown in science who will tell you that, beyond their own little nooks, they hardly know anything of what others have done. Sylvester always used to say that he knew very little mathematics: true, he seemed to know more than he thought he did. In various branches of science, some of the most eminent men first took up those subjects as mere pastimes, knowing little or nothing of the accumulations of knowledge. So it was with the astronomer Lockyer: so it has been with many naturalists. Now, did those men gradually become men of science as their stores of knowledge increased, or was there an epoch in their lives, before which they were amateurs and after which they were scientists? I believe that the answer is that, like any other regeneration, the metamorphosis is commonly sudden, though sometimes slow. When it is sudden, what is it that constitutes the transformation? It is their being seized with a great desire to learn the truth, and their going to work with all their might by a well-considered method to gratify that desire. The man who is working in the right way to learn something not already known is recognized by all men of science as one of themselves, no matter how little he is informed. It would be monstrous to say that Ptolemy, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and Posidonius were not scientific men because their knowledge was comparatively small. The life of science is in the desire to learn. If this desire is not pure, but is mingled with a desire to prove the truth of a definite opinion, or of a general mode of conceiving of things, it will almost inevitably lead to the adoption of a faulty method; and in so far such men, among whom many have been looked upon in their day as great lights, are not genuine men of science; though it would be foul injustice to exclude them absolutely from that class. So if a man pursues a futile method through neglect to inform himself of effective methods, he is no scientific man; he has not been moved by an intelligently sincere and effective desire to learn. But if a man simply fails to inform himself of previous work which would have facilitated his own, although he is to blame, it would be too harsh to say that he has violated the essential principles of science. If a man pursues a method which, though very bad, is the best that the state of intellectual development of his time, or the state of the particular science he pursues, would enable a man to take — I mean, for example, such men as Lavater, Paracelsus and the earlier alchemists, the author of the first chapter of Genesis, and the old metaphysicians — we perhaps cannot call them scientific men, while perhaps we ought to do so. Opinions would differ about this. They are, at any rate, entitled to an honorable place in the vestibule of science. A pretty wild play of the imagination is, it cannot be doubted, an inevitable and probably even a useful prelude to science proper. For my part, if these men really had an effective rage to learn the very truth, and did what they did as the best way they knew, or could know, to find it out, I could not bring myself to deny them the title. The difficulty is that one of the things that coheres to that undeveloped state of intelligence is precisely a very imperfect and impure thirst for truth. Paracelsus and the alchemists were rank charlatans seeking for gold more than for truth. The metaphysicians were not only pedants and pretenders, but they were trying to establish foregone conclusions. These are the traits which deprive those men of the title scientist, although we ought to entertain a high respect for them as mortals go; because they could no more escape the corruptness of their aims than they could the deficiencies of their knowledge. Science consists in actually drawing the bow upon truth with intentness in the eye, with energy in the arm.

236. Such being the essence of science, it is obvious that its first offspring will be men — men whose whole lives are devoted to it. By such devotion each of them acquires a training in making some particular kind of observations and experiments.

(Unfortunately, his acquisition of books, instruments, laboratory, etc., depends upon qualifications in which the man of science is usually rather wanting — as wealth, diplomacy, popularity as a teacher — so that he is less likely to be provided with them than are men less qualified to use them for the advancement of science.) He will thus live in quite a different world — quite a different aggregate of experience — from unscientific men and even from scientific men pursuing other lines of work than his. He naturally converses with and reads the writings of those who, having the same experience, have ideas interpretable into his own. This society develops conceptions of its own. Bring together two men from widely different departments — say a bacteriologist and astronomer — and they will hardly know what to say to one another; for neither has seen the world in which the other lives. True, both use optical instruments; but the qualities striven for in a telescopic objective are of no consequence in a microscopical objective; and all the subsidiary parts of telescope and microscope are constructed on principles utterly foreign to one another — except their stiffness.

237. Here, then, are natural classes of sciences all sorted out for us in nature itself, so long as we limit our classification to actually recognized sciences. We have only to look over the list of scientific periodicals and the list of scientific societies to find the families of science, ready named. I call such classes families because Agassiz tells us that it is the family which strikes the observer at first glance. To make out the genera and especially the species, closer examination is requisite; while the knowledge of orders, classes, and branches calls for a broader acquaintance with science.


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