Scientific Sublime


Slides …

“It’s Alive!” …

Notes …
Science in the 19th Century marks a turn towards positivist, materialist, and quantitative methods that still underwrite the science of today.

The sometimes noted fact\value or fact\significance distinction, may be followed through several threads of 19th Century thought.

What is a fact?

That is which observable through the senses, or the extensions of the senses, recordable, measurable, and, repeatable (at least, as a class of events). Facts are publicly agreed as such, and guaranteed within an accepted frame of reference.

Science involves the production of facts within agreed frames of reference.

19 Century science focuses, coheres, and gives institutional form to the positivist approach.

Positivism thus moves further from a qualitative science, underpinned by the observations of the scientist and their engagement with nature, to reinforce the trend for a quantitative science underpinned by the formal representation of nature within a mathematical framework.

Science becomes political insofar as scientists – as members of institutions – censor or suppress contrary modes of knowing and understanding, going so far as to refuse any critique of science, its methods or knowledge.

By these lights, science involves the disenchantment of the world through the refusal of a qualitative and interpretative engagement with nature – left now to the arts & humanities. Only those values supportive of scientific enterprise are acknowledged as valid.

However, since observations have to be interpreted and organised within an explanatory framework, it is necessary to construct theories about the nature of nature. Thus, values re-enter by the the back door.

19th Century scientific theory building asserts those theories as factual.

Science thus stands against religion, but – in its positivist form – also stands against mood, emotion, and imagination – those qualitative aspects of our experience of nature. Scientists must conform to the facts, and suppress all of those other aspects of their being that appear now as just so much unwanted ‘irrationality’.

Dickens satirised this attitude with his character of Thomas Gradgrind. “Facts, facts, facts!”

The wider significance of science, as a positivist & materialist enterprise, was picked-up and carried throughout 19th century thought in mixtures of attack and counter-attack, as various schools of thought attempted to come to terms with the dynamism of this positivistic science.

However, at the same time romaticism developed what might be termed a ‘scientific sublime’, perhaps best shown in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

What Frankenstein shows is that the scientific enterprise is not dispassionate, but passionate – the pretence of objectivity, the very framing of objectivity as being without emotion, is itself a kind of passion …  In Frankenstein, science and the sublime cannot be separated,  science remains in tension with the sublime.

In ‘Frankenstein’,  something awful is produced from lightening (natural force), and this shows life to be created from dead matter through the agency and mastery of a scientist … science is the scientist’s magical means – note the ritual of vitalising the corpse … the monster is sublime. What sublime ‘monsters’ will we make tomorrow?