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Science and Poetry

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Science, according to the received wisdom of the day, can answer any question we choose to put to it - even the most fundamental about ourselves, our behaviour and our cultures. But for Mary Midgley it can never be the whole story, as it cannot truly explain what it means to be human. In this typically crusading work, universally acclaimed as a classic on first publication, Science, according to the received wisdom of the day, can answer any question we choose to put to it - even the most fundamental about ourselves, our behaviour and our cultures. But for Mary Midgley it can never be the whole story, as it cannot truly explain what it means to be human. In this typically crusading work, universally acclaimed as a classic on first publication, she powerfully asserts her corrective view that without poetry (or literature, or music, or history, or even theology) we cannot hope to understand our humanity. In this remarkable book, the reader is struck by both the simplicity and power of her argument and the sheer pleasure of reading one of our most accessible philosophers.


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Science, according to the received wisdom of the day, can answer any question we choose to put to it - even the most fundamental about ourselves, our behaviour and our cultures. But for Mary Midgley it can never be the whole story, as it cannot truly explain what it means to be human. In this typically crusading work, universally acclaimed as a classic on first publication, Science, according to the received wisdom of the day, can answer any question we choose to put to it - even the most fundamental about ourselves, our behaviour and our cultures. But for Mary Midgley it can never be the whole story, as it cannot truly explain what it means to be human. In this typically crusading work, universally acclaimed as a classic on first publication, she powerfully asserts her corrective view that without poetry (or literature, or music, or history, or even theology) we cannot hope to understand our humanity. In this remarkable book, the reader is struck by both the simplicity and power of her argument and the sheer pleasure of reading one of our most accessible philosophers.

30 review for Science and Poetry

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    I really wish I had read this book years ago when my mate George told me he was reading it. For years I've been arguing with people, even here on Good Reads, that Dawkins' idea of memes has to be treated as a metaphor. It turns out that although a meme clearly is a metaphor, it might be that that is not how Dawkins intended it to be understood and so therefore there is more to this story than simply that the absurdities that come flowing from such a simple-minded understanding of social science, I really wish I had read this book years ago when my mate George told me he was reading it. For years I've been arguing with people, even here on Good Reads, that Dawkins' idea of memes has to be treated as a metaphor. It turns out that although a meme clearly is a metaphor, it might be that that is not how Dawkins intended it to be understood and so therefore there is more to this story than simply that the absurdities that come flowing from such a simple-minded understanding of social science, humanities and, dare I say it, poetry that is meme theory, and that these absurdities are even more fundamental than a mere misunderstanding of the nature of metaphor implies. The problem is not only with applying genes to social science metaphorically - even Dawkins idea of genes is deeply problematic for biology, never mind philosophy. This is a book with a lovely title, but one that is also a little misleading - this is certainly not a book about poetry, this is a book about science. And so that is a bit of a problem, as I think if I was writing this book I would have had more to say explicitly about poetry - particularly about metaphor, that most central of poetic ideas, and I presume the reason for the title in the first place - and I would certainly have had more to say on how inescapable metaphor is. Don't get me wrong, that is clearly a central theme of this book, but I think it really did need to be expressed much more forcefully and, given the title, should have been repeated early and often. That, however, is about my single criticism of the book, and is hardly a criticism at all – read it. People tend to confuse metaphors and similes. And, look, with good reason. ‘He is like a lion’ doesn't really seem all that different from ‘he is a lion’. But the difference isn't really all that subtle. With a simile you are expected to list off all of the ways that 'he' and 'lion' are similar. And this is a one-way relationship, with the lion as the provider of adjectival content, if you like. With a metaphor you don't only say something new about 'him', you also say something new about 'lion'. The two concepts aren’t really compared, they are smashed together. A metaphor is a kind of bizarre equals sign. But this isn't the same as one-plus-one-equals-two. Saying 'he is a lion' only works as a metaphor if you also know that, in actual fact, he isn't a lion at the same time. Metaphors are stepping-stones - they support us as they help us understand things we don't currently understand. They provide us with things we do understand as the pathway to that understanding. The problem is that metaphors are more powerful than we are often able to realise. Far too often we forget we are dealing with a metaphor and think we are dealing with equations and identities. Metaphorical assistance becomes metaphorical hegemony, the metaphor stops being a prop we can use to understand something more complex, it becomes something simpler that replaces the complex. Is light a wave or a particle? It is, and can be, neither, that is because it has to be both. But whatever a particle is, it is certainly not a wave, and whatever a wave is it is not a particle – but whatever light is cannot be understood without the stepping-stone metaphors we use to understand it – wave and particle – that is, that we use to help us understand what we can’t understand otherwise – light. Dawkins' memes are metaphors because they are trying to do to culture what genes do for biological systems. For years I have been attacking this idea because genes clearly have a physical existence and memes really, really don’t – really don’t even if you can hum remarkably well the first few bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, memes don't have a role in anyway similar to gene’s 'expression of proteins' – hum as much as you like. But this was completely the wrong line of attack - something this book makes all too clear. Genes too do not stand alone - genes too are abstractions and need an entire world for them to make sense. Our love of atoms not withstanding, looking at the world though a microscope is never enough. The Enlightenment sought to develop what we today would call a scientific vision of the world. So much so that to call any other vision 'non-scientific' was the same as to call it 'wrong'. This meant that people like Marx and Freud sought to align their theories with 'science'. There are a number of reasons why this might not have been a great idea - but the main is that science seeks to be 'purely objective' - and while this is great when you are dealing with the motion of billiard balls, it is much less useful when you are dealing with people or society. For many 'scientists' the way of overcoming the difficulties that 'being objective' entailed denying subjective reality at all. Behaviourism is the example given here - where since we can't see the internal motivations of people, we are advised that we should simply ignore or deny that these even exist and instead look purely at what we can see - behaviour. This is the ‘it worked with billiard balls, it will work with people too’ line of attack. This is the idea that if you reduce everything down to atoms, its fundamental bits, there is nothing left over that needs to be explained. The beautiful refutation given in this book is money. Everyone agrees money is socially constructed – I mean, there was no fifth day when God said, 'let there be money, and there was money and it was good, or the root of all evil, take your pick'. No, money requires agreement – but it requires the agreement of all of society as to what will be accepted as money and what will not, it isn't arbitrary, it is conventional. Today money is very much less a physical reality than probably at any time in history – it is mostly a string of ones and zeroes bouncing down an optical cable – but would anyone really think they could learn anything interesting by getting say a hundred dollar bill and analysing the physical construction of that bill, looking at what atoms constitute it or what inks have been used? Do you think you would have understood the nature of credit, fiscal austerity, interest rates, rents and so on from such an analysis of a physical manifestation of money? Perhaps you might want to think about your answer to that the next time someone finds a gene that ‘explains’ homosexuality or a brain region that 'shows' why women can’t read maps. Fundamentally, this book is a call for a return of the subjective, not a call for irrationality, but a call to acknowledge the subjective as equally part of our reality – but even that is far too simple a reading – it is actually a call for a rejection of the binary between objective and subjective. The problem is that we are not just brains in a vat – which in the end seems to be our preferred notion – and we are certainly not ‘individuals’ in any meaningful sense. These are real problems for us to grasp, as our subjective experience seems to confirm both of these – we feel we are fundamentally alone. But everything that makes us human only exists because we are us, not because we are I. Language is meaningless without an us. The pitiful achievements we are capable of alone pale when compared to the assistance we all received from each other because we are together. We are deeply embedded in society and in the world. As she points out here – people love to say that the brain is the most complex lump of matter in the universe, but the brain is impossible without the human body – so by definition that body must be more complex than one of its parts - that isn't subjective irrationalism, it is simple logic. That body would not exist without being in a society – by definition, then, society must be more complex than any of its parts too. That society only exists because of this planet – one we seem remarkably keen to destroy – go individuals! Why is it that we seem to assume that all of the things that are by definition more complex than individual brains are somehow to be explained away by simple reductionism or assumed not to exist? Remember Thatcher saying society doesn't exist? Why do we think we can so easily be held apart from this world and take on a god’s eye view? The nice example given here of how we are embedded in the metaphors of our age is again to do with Dawkins – the fact that his selfish gene is really little more than Thatcherite Biology. Not unlike what Foucault does in his Order of Things, it is hard to escape the connection between 'greed is good' and 'selfish genes'. By seeing such metaphorical connections between ideas does much to illuminate the constraints those metaphors impose on our thinking. To expect that such might make Dawkins more humble is, obviously enough, far too much to ask. But if it does anything to overcome the simpleminded reduction of complex human social and cultural realities to the operation of supposed meme-plexes - such is to be welcomed. This is a really lovely book. Read it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    201227: i have upped the rating from four as it has persisted through the years (decades...). it is not dated. though it is just past enough i can remember the ideological popular culture of the times, or the early 2000s anyways, when everything was 'genes' and 'memes' strenuously misinterpreted as active, living, personality-characterised forces in human life ie 'selfish'. midgley traces lineage of these ways of scientism all the way back to atomic theory of ancient greeks, but suggests it is t 201227: i have upped the rating from four as it has persisted through the years (decades...). it is not dated. though it is just past enough i can remember the ideological popular culture of the times, or the early 2000s anyways, when everything was 'genes' and 'memes' strenuously misinterpreted as active, living, personality-characterised forces in human life ie 'selfish'. midgley traces lineage of these ways of scientism all the way back to atomic theory of ancient greeks, but suggests it is the modern dualism of descartes that creates our current, mistaken, separation of ways of thought. this is not a book of science or of poetry alone. this is book of philosophy... she notes the poetic paradigms scientists used at given evolutions, how, for example, gender inflects early modern science. gravity cannot be 'attraction' at a distance, let alone 'love', because those are female, and francis bacon was concerned in creating a 'masculine' science and rather than nurtured an understanding of nature conceived of investigations as attack, subjugation etc... she also notes how more modern scientists, physicists in particular, are able to see their pursuit of understanding as ultimately religious, fully aware that one sort of methodology, that of natural sciences like physics, is not applicable to all sorts of science such as sociology, simply because there is no causal minimalism, no final units... 201221: great, basic idea is confusion of dualism and ideological wars between ways of thought, science and poetry. must be first read nineteen years ago, after intros to philosophy of art, of science, of language etc... and my ideals of sartrean existentialism. this is anglo philosophy that led me to phenomenology of merleau-ponty and ‘freed’ me from thinking science was omnicompent way of thinking... read twice

  3. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Roe

    Finally finished this, having been "reading" it for about 6 months. It never takes me that long to read a book, especially one this short. I'm slightly ashamed to say that the review of it will be affected by my poor levels of perseverance at points, but what can you do? Where this book shone for me was the clear, succinct and engaging descriptions of different approaches to scientific enquiry. It provided a great summary to concepts like social atomism, Gaian thinking, sociobiology, atomism and Finally finished this, having been "reading" it for about 6 months. It never takes me that long to read a book, especially one this short. I'm slightly ashamed to say that the review of it will be affected by my poor levels of perseverance at points, but what can you do? Where this book shone for me was the clear, succinct and engaging descriptions of different approaches to scientific enquiry. It provided a great summary to concepts like social atomism, Gaian thinking, sociobiology, atomism and behaviourism. It was clear to see how the concepts had influenced the way in which we "do" science now, and very interesting to learn the origins of those theories and practices. Where I struggled more was in the interpretative sections. Although Midgley provides a fantastic introduction to various concepts, she does have a tendency to explain why they're flawed using about four pages. I wouldn't mind this but those four pages tend to be the same argument presented over and over, using different words but ultimately making the same point. At times, this made the book feel about a thousand pages long. It also sometimes impedes the flow of the argument; you lose the sense of where the train of thought is heading as you're just reading repetition. I really enjoyed the use of poetry to supplement the arguments made but this appeared to tail off as the book moved on. A shame, as it made a very powerful point when it was used. Maybe no-one has written a poem about why the Selfish Gene is wrong. *adds that to to-do list*. As a psychologist I did find the content interesting. I'm no behaviourist and I do agree with the interpretation Midgley presents of the current reductionist approach to scientific enquiry. The book would have worked even better (IMO) if she'd framed her argument around real-life examples over theoretical standpoints. I know she is first and foremost a philosopher so this would have not been a natural approach to her (or indeed the purpose of a book trying to frame scientific approach in the surrounding cultural landscape), but the section criticising the sociobiological approach to altruism stood out as one of the best argued sections in the book. Likewise, the later section on environmentalism was equally effective, firmly contextualising the issue in the here and now. I would recommend this book as an interesting (and refreshingly different) read to psychologists (and all scientists and social scientists alike). Just don't be afraid to occasionally scan the odd page until the discussion finds its way again.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shahed Hosseini

    فکر می‌کنم باید این کتاب رو دو‌یا سه باره بخونم. مطالبش بسیار پراکنده بوده یا دست‌کم برای من ثقیل. از فصل ۲۱، صفحهٔ ۳۵۷، چاپ اول: شاید بهتر باشد دربارهٔ حیات به مثابهٔ نوعی «نظم» بیندیشیم، چیزی که می‌تواند به صورت‌های مختلف و در واحدهایی با اندازه‌های مختلف وجود داشته باشد.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mark Leidner

    shrill. the prose is okay, but it reads like someone had a drum to beat, and they beat it. florid argument. file this under 'books by authors who cannot restrain themselves from slightly incendiary verbs and adjectives all the way through that limit their convincingness.' i bet if you already agreed with her, this might make fun beach reading. but if you come to it with a skeptical mind, the introduction alone will make you want to do something better with your time. makes you respect poetry mor shrill. the prose is okay, but it reads like someone had a drum to beat, and they beat it. florid argument. file this under 'books by authors who cannot restrain themselves from slightly incendiary verbs and adjectives all the way through that limit their convincingness.' i bet if you already agreed with her, this might make fun beach reading. but if you come to it with a skeptical mind, the introduction alone will make you want to do something better with your time. makes you respect poetry more, though, since its authors have to kowtow to formal constraints that force, i suppose, a certain degree of honesty. but this book is written at breakneck rant-speed, with a sheer veil of 'i swear i'm being objective' draped over it. saw no shape i recognized in its arguments. like some mid- to high-level television writing, the associations proceed with dishonest, fallacious, or equivocating logic (but its plausible if you aren't paying attention). wish someone would've shrieked against science more persuasively. i'm still looking for a convincing deconstruction. the best thing she said was how physicists have moved beyond determinism, which is true, or at least they seem to have in the little literature on the subject i have ingested - if only she could have been patient, you know? start us with this portrait of physicists, slowly and painstakingly and vividly elucidate upon it, then move with more narrative savvy from there, toward the gaea idea. but instead the author rails and leaps and beats that drum. but i can't hear it anymore.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Istvan Zoltan

    In Science and Poetry Midgley gives an interesting tour of the many facets of science's and poetry's relation. She argues that poetry has many functions, among them to inspire people and orient them in the world. Poetry can provide emotionally moving, imaginative and inspiring ideas about how to live and move into the future. In this respect it is similar to other ventures grasping imagination and feeling, for example to religion, but it does not have the same dubious institutional surrounding. M In Science and Poetry Midgley gives an interesting tour of the many facets of science's and poetry's relation. She argues that poetry has many functions, among them to inspire people and orient them in the world. Poetry can provide emotionally moving, imaginative and inspiring ideas about how to live and move into the future. In this respect it is similar to other ventures grasping imagination and feeling, for example to religion, but it does not have the same dubious institutional surrounding. Midgley also describes well a - justified - worry, that many science popularisers try to move into the ideological space left open by the shrinking of religion. They try to offer simplicistic and quite primitive ideas on how to live and how to organise society, based on crude analogies with how certain parts of nature work. This is of course not science, it is morality, politics, and culture, but not very good quality and sophisticated culture. It is closer to some of the primitive ideologies advocated by economists who only care about the economy and GDP growth, or by priests who emphasise obedience to a god above all else. As such, they are unfit for fair, just, and compassionate societies. Midgley makes clear that this is not against science; it is against those who want to use science as a cover to advocate their own ideologies and personal views as scientific. It is a well written, clear, and very timely book. The kind of fetishisation of technology and science that Midgley describes in the book is very much with us, and it is partly what politicians and large companies use to justify owning our personal data, skewing the economy in favor of big tech companies and GDP growth, at the expense of social safety nets, healthcare and education. We are being cut off from our cultural and intellectual sources, which is a bond that each generation has to build up and renew. As a result, we become even more vulnerable to marketing, propaganda, and advertisements.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    A call to avoid category errors that for me followed on from something I read by Wolpert in the 90s, was reflected in New Scientist just a few days later (can't look it up because I can't find my subscriber number atm) and was satisfyingly expanded in a fictional context just a week later by Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces. The basic argument is that one cannot use objective, atomistic, deterministic language to describe the intrinsically subjective. it is clearly, if sometimes rather repetitivel A call to avoid category errors that for me followed on from something I read by Wolpert in the 90s, was reflected in New Scientist just a few days later (can't look it up because I can't find my subscriber number atm) and was satisfyingly expanded in a fictional context just a week later by Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces. The basic argument is that one cannot use objective, atomistic, deterministic language to describe the intrinsically subjective. it is clearly, if sometimes rather repetitively, developed and is far easier to read than many philosophy books I have struggled to read in the past.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mehdi

  9. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dan

  11. 5 out of 5

    Erica Deters

  12. 4 out of 5

    Víctor Bermúdez

  13. 5 out of 5

    John

  14. 4 out of 5

    Gordon Schultz

  15. 5 out of 5

    Emre Sahin

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lucas

  18. 4 out of 5

    Trish Ritchie

  19. 4 out of 5

    George

  20. 4 out of 5

    Neil Morrison

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sam C

  22. 4 out of 5

    Peter Geyer

  23. 5 out of 5

    Pierre Corbeau

  24. 4 out of 5

    Error Theorist

  25. 5 out of 5

    Shay E

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rick

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laura

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Tallent

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kamyab

  30. 4 out of 5

    Phil Christman

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