In the late 2000s, the terms “techie” and “fuzzy” became cultural touchstones: The “techies” majored in engineering and the sciences, the “fuzzies” in arts and the humanities. Polarization between the humanities and the sciences is so ingrained in any academic conflict that it is easy to believe it describes the following fundamental division in human knowledge:
- STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) fields have now absorbed the virtues traditionally associated with the vita activa: practical application toward the public good; an emphasis on productivity, utility, and outcome; and an approach to learning that has come to be called “instrumental” by both supporters and detractors.
- The humanities are generally identified with the traditional values of the vita contemplativa: imagination, speculation, reflection, and an alignment with higher values beyond the “merely” practical, political, and economical.
Seeing the conflict as a carry-over of the ancient debate between the active life and the contemplative life explains why the two sides have remained so intransigent. Each is defined in opposition to the other, each needs the other to play counterpoint: useful versus useless, material versus idealistic, narrowly careerist versus broadly learned.
The conflict between what C.P. Snow famously called “the two cultures” will remain with us as long as we remain collectively divided about what it means to be an educated person. Until we can get out from under the debate’s deeply ingrained and oppositional terms, we will remain at a standstill.
Shifts in the relative values of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa began long before the advent of modern science. In 14th-century Italy, Cicero insisted that “service is better than mere theoretical knowledge.” As he put it, “To be drawn by study away from active life is contrary to moral duty. For the whole glory of virtue is in activity.” Strikingly, then, the fields first associated with the vita activa were the humanities, whose “usefulness” and application for “the common good” made them indispensable to the training of a new class of secular bureaucrats. Long before “science” emerged as a distinct set of disciplines, the studia humanitatis defined a new model of useful learning that the sciences would later claim for themselves.
In 17th-century England, the nursery of the new science was the Royal Society, a gathering of amateur scholars who met regularly to share their experiments and discoveries. The pioneer chemist Robert Boyle compared himself to a “Hermit” in his single-minded pursuit of scientific research and “averseness to society.” The world of the scientist appears to be the opposite of that of the civic-minded humanist. These early scientists borrowed the terms of the vita contemplativa, in part to distinguish themselves from followers of the humanities.
Later on, contrary to this view, John Evelyn insisted that “the wisest men are not made in Chambers and Closets crowded with shelves; but by habitudes and active Conversations,” and suggested that humanists, not scientists, enact a cloistered withdrawal in their studies. Against these bookish humanists, Evelyn insisted, “Action is the proper fruit of Science.”
As the humanities and sciences emerged as separate branches of knowledge, their opposition gave them their character and even their purpose. As the humanist educator Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini observed in 1450, “The disciplines are interconnected, and a person cannot master one unless he seeks light from another.” In General Education in a Free Society (1945), a Harvard committee described the humanities’ mission thus: “The purpose of the humanities is to enable man to understand man in relation to himself, that is to say, in his inner aspirations and ideals.” This definition, with its implicit contrast with the sciences, is still repeated — as when Geoffrey Galt Harpham writes, “Other disciplines offer knowledge about things; the humanities offer knowledge about human beings.”
Some recent defenses of the humanities explicitly separate “humanistic” from “technical” (or “instrumental”) education. But a deeper history encourages us to view the humanities as a long-term dialectic between episteme and technê, whose two poles it is necessary, though difficult, to balance.
At the same time, scientists should recall the associations that their own predecessors made between scientific pursuit and contemplation before prioritizing practice so emphatically over theory. The tendency to downgrade “theory” in the sciences and social sciences overlooks the importance of theoretical knowledge, as well as its potential to contribute to practical advances. Thus the active/contemplative opposition not only separates disciplines from one another but also creates further division within the disciplines themselves.
Though the opposition between “practice” and “theory” has served to divide and subdivided disciplines, these divisions do not represent the shape of knowledge today. Emerging academic fields increasingly bring the insights of two or more disciplines together to form new lines of inquiry: bioethics (biology and philosophy), digital humanities (computational methods in history and literature), philosophy of mind (philosophy, neuroscience, and, increasingly, computer science).
Where 20th-century disciplines defined themselves through distinction, the new fields of the 21st century are being produced through convergence. These fields, and the forms of knowledge they represent, testify to the emergence of “transdisciplinary thinking.” As Howard Rheingold explains it, “transdisciplinarity goes beyond bringing together researchers from different disciplines to work in multidisciplinary teams. It means educating researchers who can speak languages of multiple disciplines.” More than an amalgamation of discrete disciplines (as suggested by “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” formations), transdisciplinarity represents a way of thinking that can select perspectives, approaches, and insights from across an array of disciplines and deploy them strategically.
As researchers from the Institute for the Future suggested in their “Future Work Skills 2020” report, “While throughout the 20th century, ever-greater specialization was encouraged, the new century will see trans-disciplinary approaches take center stage.” Projects that bring together scientists, engineers, artists, humanists, and social scientists in ways that bridge traditional disciplinary divides produce fresh approaches to complex questions.
Rather than reinforce boundaries between disciplines and the value-laden hierarchies that keep them in place, we need to accept that studies in “imagination” and “humanity” are no less vital to work and citizenship than those of “facts” and “machines.” This is the time for humanists and scientists, fuzzies and techies, to overcome the divisions of knowledge, culture, and value that separate them. Doing so will transform the disciplines themselves, and displace the oppositional framework that has for so long defined and divided them.