Scientists are philistines. No!  

This is the text of a contribution Dick made to a Phys Soc debate some time in the 1950s, probably 1957 plus or minus one year.   The motion that Scientists are philistines was proposed by Dr Marion Ross - she's in one of the photos from the class of '56.   Click here to see it.   In this context "R.H.S." stands for "Royal High School", the oldest school in the city, now in Barnton but initially in High School Yards and then on Calton Hill in the building that in the end was not chosen to house the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

It's a great pleasure to be here tonight speaking in the the staff-student debate which is now established as an annual event in the Society's calendar;   I remember the first of these debates, five years ago, for then, as tonight, I found myself opposing the motion with the aid of a seconder from the R. H. S.   The motion was proposed that night by Dr Wolf, a very good friend of mine - who subsequently had to leave the country!   I hope tonight's proposer fares better.

The shorter Oxford Dictionary, gives four definitions of a philistine. In order, they are:
  1. One of an alien war-like people who occupied the southern sea-coast of Palestine, and constantly harassed the Israelites.
  2. Applied to "the enemy", into whose hands one may fall, e g, bailiffs, literary critics, etc.
  3. Applied by German students to one not a student at the University, in form "Philister".
  4. A person deficient in liberal culture; one whose interests are material and commonplace.
It's interesting, by the way, to note that this fourth meaning, which I take it is the one we are debating tonight, came into English in an essay by Matthew Arnold on the German poet Heine; for his part, Arnold borrowed it - and translated it - from the German Philister, which acquired its implication of 'non-academic' in 1693 when a student at the University of Jena was killed in a clash between students and townspeople, and the funeral orater took as his text:   "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson."

And so, hallowed by 250 years of German-English use, we have the term philistine to describe one "deficient in liberal culture; one whose interests are material and commonplace."

And proposing the motion we have Dr Ross.   Is she a scientist?...   No one here will deny that she is -- there are too many degrees at stake.   Is she a philistine?...   No.   No philistine could have concealed the shambolic logic of an argument behind such an elegant facade of wit and erudition.   On such an occasion as this it is of course necessary that someone should sacrifice truth and principle in the interests of entertainment, and Dr Ross has made a very accomplished job of it.

But by her manner of doing so she gave away her case.   The only method by which her seconder can retrieve it is by arguing that Dr Ross is a freak.   I hope he's got his passage booked!

The proposition that scientists are philistines is a serious one, and one which has concerned educators and others for a very long time.   The suspicion that scientists are "deficient in liberal culture" originated at just about the time that our culture really began to be liberal - and this liberalisation came largely through the efforts of scientists.   It was the scientists who ended the Middle Ages by their revolt against the authoritarianism which for so long had confined scholarship in a straitjacket of classical cut:

Bacon, who attacked the establishment by listing as the chief causes of error: "authority, custom, the opinion of the ignorant many, the concealment of ignorance under a show of knowledge."
Leonardo da Vinci - artist, scientist, engineer; whose devotion to observation illuminated his artistic and scientific work alike.
Galileo, who showed men new heavens, and suffered for it on earth.
Harvey, whose contribution to the circulation of new ideas was as momentous as his demonstration of the circulation of the blood

--   these were the men to whom we all owe the best traditions of our culture.

The charge that scientists are Philistines is part of an old, old smear campaign.   When authority resided in the church, and the discoveries of science challenged anachronistic theologies, it was convenient to retort that the scientists were traffickers in materialistic ideas which were contrary to those ideals of the spirit which alone are true and enduring.   Later, the redistribution of wealth which accompanied the Industrial Revolution - the large scale application of the new ideas in science and engineering - led to the charge, from those literate enough to frame it, and wealthy enough to be literate - that since the advance was the enemy of elegant and cultured society, hence scientists are the enemies of culture and tradition.

Now when the word 'tradition' is used in such a context as that, it usually can be replaced by 'stagnation', and science is indeed the enemy of stagnation.   But so is any creative activity   -   in music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and science the tradition is one of creation, and advance.

Nowadays the cry that scientists are philistines is a defensive cry of the arts man who finds himself to his surprise ill-equipped to face a world which sets no great store by the piffling pseudo-historical researches which pass for scholarship in certain Arts departments.   "Shakespeare's use of the comma"   or   "Some less well known sermons of Andrew Gray, minister of the parish of Dryfesdale from 1702 to 1709" may be worth that PhD to someone with no job to go to, but that's all they're worth.

And at this point we arrive at the question which really matters -
not "are scientists Philistines",   but   "does specialist education make Philistines?".  
"Are philosophers Philistines?"  
"Are historians Philistines?"  
"Are literary specialists Philistines?"   For it's specialisation that may breed Philistines.   Tonight we're confined to the question "are scientists Philistines?".   But if you have followed me thus far you will see that it isn't anything in the nature of science that may make its practitioners Philistines - it's the specialisation of modern education that may make Philistines of people who pursue advanced studies in any field.

This isn't a new point - it's been discussed for a long period. James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest mathematical physicists of all time, who applied for and was not appointed to the Chair of Nat Phil in this university in 1860, once said that there was a great danger of a narrow professional spirit amongst scientists and it is their duty to preserve their acquaintance with literary and historical studies.   Peter Guthrie Tait, who was appointed to the Chair in 1860, also spoke many times about this danger, and pointed out that the passing of examinations - which then as now seems to have been considered by some students to be their purpose at the University - really signified that one had successfully accomplished some of the earliest steps towards being educated.

For myself, I think that there is that in science which, if the subject is properly taught, will go far to prevent the scientist becoming a mere Philistine.   First of all, science is not a materialistic and mechanistic subject.   A true understanding of, say, physics, and of its abstract concepts, needs imaginative effort of a high order - needs in fact that disciplined imagination which is needed in all creative fields.

Badly taught, science is a set of faits accomplis - what Tait described as "a landscape trimly levelled, the shrubs and trees clipped into forms of unnatural symmetry like a Dutch hedge, smooth straight walks laid down leading to well-known 'points of view', and undergraduates are warned against walking on the grass."   But if the subject is properly presented, it appears as an unknown and exciting land, in exploring which it is a help to understand the experience of former pioneers, but we must in the long run learn to have faith in ourselves, and make our own decisions on the basis of the best observations we can make.

And that, you know, isn't such a bad prescription for life.   We are all of us - scientists and non-scientists alike - human beings before anything else.   We grow up conscious of pictures, of music, of words; our preliminary general education extends our opportunities for appreciating all these things.   In our families, our schools, our communities we learn to manage and to value human relationships.   As our scientific training is extended we become aware of philosophical and theological problems which grow out of our own special interest; and we become aware of them not as material for intricate word games - as do so many professional theologians and philosophers - but as problems having a bearing on the whole foundation of our professional activity.   And always there is the pull - the inescapable pull - of our social, spiritual, emotional lives - our human-ness to prevent all except a very few of us from degenerating into Philistinism.

Think how the writings of men like Huxley, Hogben, Blackett, G P Thomson, CG Darwin, Bronowski, C P Snow, Norbert Wiener   -   to name only a few   -   show the broad sympathy and human compassion which the busiest of scientists possess in such high degree.   Look at the correspondence columns of the Scotsman and see how far Edinburgh University scientists show their interest in the affairs of the community among which they live.

And then, thinking of the scientists and embryo scientists you know, compare their concern for music, or painting, or politics, or social affairs with the average Arts undergraduate or graduate's interest in science   -   the force which created and is the true guardian inheritor of our liberal culture   -   and vote against the motion

Sir - I move the direct negative.

Site index