A Duh Moment in History?

On Berfois Christopher Beckwith provides a history of the emergence of the scientific method in medieval Europe. He argues that Europe inherited the method from “Classical Arabic civilization,” who received it from Central Asian Buddhism.

So far so good. He filled in some holes for me.

Then he jumps forward to the twentieth century. 

He asserts that European “scientific culture” has largely disappeared. This is a debatable conclusion, but what struck me was Beckworth’s claim that modernism led to the disappearance of scientfic culture.

Scholars today seem to have trouble with [‘scientific’ attitude], but that is because in the twentieth century the movement called “Modernism” [. . .] destroyed the European ‘high’ art tradition, along with much else. The destruction of Modernism continues down to the present day, but it remains more or less completely unnoticed by historians. I must ask, what is their problem? Has not enough been destroyed yet, or what?

As a result of Modernism and its offspring (including the equally uncritically-examined hypermodernist dogma known as ‘Postmodernism’), philosophers of science nowadays can no more define science than artists or aestheticians can define art, musicians or musicologists can define music, and so on. This suggests that to some extent, at least, they do not know what it is that they are supposedly doing. It should be no surprise to learn that most do not know why they are doing it either, or what it means, or much of anything else about it. It seems not to have occurred to anyone to explain how and why this has happened, what is wrong with it, and what (if anything) can be done to fix it. Is this a “Duh…” moment in history? An “Oh, well…” moment? Or a “Gosh!” moment?

There’s lots to take issue with here, starting with his characterization of postmodernism as a “hypermodernist dogma”? Where did he get the idea that postmodernism was “uncritically-examined”? Where has Beckworth been for the past 20 years? My entire post-graduate education could be summarized as “critically examining postmodernism.” His assertion that philosophers can’t define art would be news to the entire discipline of aesthetics, roughly two hundred years old and counting. Just because philosophers and artists can’t agree on the definition of art doesn’t mean no one has one. In fact, if there’s one advantage art has over science is that art must constantly justify itself, while science’s value is (generally speaking) understood to be self-evident, at least among scientists.

Finally, Beckworth’s claim that modernism “destroyed the European ‘high’ art tradition, along with much else” is simply wrong. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, to take the first two modernists who come to mind, were vigorous defenders of European high art in its proper historical moment. They claimed that art moved forward, just like science. Mozart was great, but to compose symphonies like Mozart in 1930 is wrong. The twentieth-century European avant-garde, a subset of modernism, attacked art institutions, which isn’t the same thing as high art. In any case, the avant-garde wasn’t motivated by any anti-science animous. 

Seventeenth-century European scientific culture burned witches because it made sense. Clearly scientific culture had issues to work out before the Dadaists set to work.

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