Inconsilience: Culture in an Age of Extreme Science

To blow up Creation. Now there’s an idea that would please mankind […]. Let’s get ready to hear space scream!” -Henry Michaux1

Paul Virilio noted “[…] there is no science of the accident” for Aristotle.2 Yet, Virilio saw something coming into focus, a standpoint from which human catastrophe loses any accidental quality: the unfolding of history as a science of disaster.3 The accident in substances has been accompanied by an accident in knowledge—and the emergence of previously unimaginable cataclysms—rapidly accelerating an existential crisis implicating both the Earth and the future of the species. These developments issue sharp challenges to both the Sciences and Humanities, thus colliding into the “Two Cultures” conflict, often taken to represent exactly that divide. Considering that prescriptions offered by the frontmost belligerents in that dispute appear to have failed, I now ask: “if History is increasingly a science of disaster, what’s the meaning of ‘culture’ in an age of extreme science?”

The Two Cultures”

Primarily at stake in the early 1960’s clash between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis was the trajectory for culture and society in the UK, its dissemination throughout the educational system and its associated worldwide effects. C.P. Snow sought to enact a paradigm shift consistent with the technocratic critique of Post-War British political economy, whereas F.R. Leavis mounted a defense of the literary intellectuals and the putative import of culture qua culture. The disciplinary component of the exchange is most relevant for us today, but must nevertheless be contextualized to avoid certain transpositions.

The social, cultural, and intellectual history of the debate includes shifting social dynamics pitting institutional power (the Oxbridge literary scene) against science as a relative upstart in terms of political cachet and cultural capital.4 CP Snow’s talk contained a radical, emancipatory edge, this as he was seeking to dislodge a decadent elite coupled with the stated ambition of elevating the world’s poor through science and technology. Leavis, by contrast, defended an elite view of culture as being crucial for life and offered the idea of the university as central to that task. As we will see, many of these associations appear to have been effectively reversed since the original exchange.

Snow’s claims can easily be made explicit: he believes that there are two “cultures” quite at odds (scientists and nonscientists); that the literary intellectuals are “natural Luddites;”5 that the scientific revolution should be carried out in the realm of education; and that scientists have “the future in their bones”6—claims that seem almost contemporary given the current ethos of science and higher education. Snow goes on to predict the possibility of a “third culture” constituting a harmonious interaction between the sciences and the arts.7 Snow’s manner seems marked by self-assurance, perhaps editorialized as cavalier optimism coupled with a distinctively “scientific” style of braggadocio.

Leavis wastes no time attacking Snow’s bombast instead of the argument. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of Leavis’ attack is that it distracted from the argument he actually did make. Leavis’ central point is that the future rests on the collaborative renewal of consciousness and respect for the living whole—culture properly understood—this rather than a loose grouping of specialized disciplines.

Exactly what we mean by culture is crucial here. Whereas Snow’s invocation of “culture” appears aimed at shared practices and methodological similarities (“without thinking about it, they respond alike”), Leavis’ perspective is more closely in line with the tradition running from Matthew Arnold to Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Gottfried Herder, a tradition in which “culture” might be understood as “the flow of moral energy that holds society intact.”8 In pertinent part, Leavis is well aware of the necessity of a cultural response to coming challenges:

“the advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds, of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences, that mankind—this is surely clear—will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity.”9

He goes on to indicate that humanity will require wisdom and vital instincts to mount a creative response to the future, but that these qualities are “something that is alien to both of Snow’s cultures.”10 Finally, Leavis grounds his plan for the transmission of such culture in: “concern for the idea of the university as a focus of consciousness and human responsibility.”11 Thus, Leavis’ hopes hinged on preserving the vitality of human life via culture centered in the university whereas Snow desired to fulfill the promises of the scientific revolution through education. Judging from the state of the world, the university, and the sciences & humanities today, it seems clear that both prescriptions have failed.


In any case, the dominant ethos of the contemporary scene most arises from the disciplinary heirs of C.P. Snow. Foremost among them would be E.O. Wilson, whose National Bestselling book Consilience attempts to unify human knowledge through a partnering of scientific knowledge with the humanities (the difference between Snow and Wilson being that Wilson goes further in practically demanding a cultural imperialism of science). While Wilson was well aware that logical positivism had failed, he appeared to believe that we should simply assume it. Wilson asserts this speculative positivism through passages like: “Scholars in the humanities should lift the anathema placed on reductionism.”12

I see Wilson’s view of Consilience as being fulfilled in what John Brockman calls “The Third Culture.” According to Brockman: “[t]he third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”13 Further, Brockman asserts: “Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time.”14 Brockman goes on to state that “[…] what has traditionally been called ‘science’ has become ‘public culture.’”15


Against the views of Snow, Wilson, et al., Michel Henry asks: “If the increasingly comprehensive knowledge of the world is undeniably good, why does it go hand in hand with the collapse of all other values, a collapse so serious that it calls our own existence into question?”16 Indeed, Virilio states that “the time of the accident in true knowledge is upon us,”17an “information bomb” ticking away while progressive catastrophe increasingly discloses “the hidden face of technical and scientific progress.”18 Consequently, whereas “the accident reveals the substance” we might now say that theScience” reveals the accident.19 Hence, technoscientific effects as the empirical refutation of “Consilience.”

Bertrand Russell noted that “as a result of the new control over the environment which scientific knowledge has conferred, a new philosophy is growing up, involving a changing conception of man’s place in the universe.”20 Russell goes on to contend that “this philosophy, if unchecked, may inspire a form of unwisdom from which disastrous consequences may result.”21 Marcuse locates one cause in the origins of technical rationality: “The qualification of nature, which led to its explication in terms of mathematical structures, separated reality from all inherent ends and, consequently, separated the true from the good, science from ethics.”22 This positivistic reduction inaugurates what Husserl refers to as “[t]he ‘crisis’ of science as its loss of meaning for life.”23 As Henry notes: “Galilean modernity can no longer offer anything but the terrifying spectacle unfolding right before our eyes: the progressive dismantling of what gives life its meaning, in each of the domains in which it is expressed.”24

The hypermodern turn towards technoscientific irrationalism has led to a near total fixation on power in the absence of truth and has summoned almost every corruption that comes with it—ushering in new modes of human domination, all-the-while continually threatening the end of our collective existence via thermonuclear meltdown. “Extreme Science,” for Virilio “runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science”25 and “the possible extermination of all critical awareness.”26 Hence, such “science” constitutes an explicitly barbaric attack on culture. As Henry notes: “[…] culture originally and in itself has nothing to do with science and does not result from it in any way.27

For Henry, Culture “[…] refers to the self-transformation of life, the movement by which it continually changes itself in order to arrive at higher forms of realization and completeness […].”28 He notes that: “The Galilean decision to exclude subjectivity from its field of investigation does not only happen on the intellectual plane: in it, life turns against itself.”29 Thus, “It is not just a question of a crisis of culture but of its destruction.”30 Finally, “[…] here we are faced with something that has never really been seen before: the explosion of science and the destruction of the human being. Henry concludes: “This is the new barbarism, and this time it is not certain that it can be overcome.”31

The extreme overreaches, rampant corruption, and moral bankruptcy of the scientific establishment practically suggest humanitarian grounds for reopening the Trial of Galileo: “Arrogant to the point of insanity, BIG SCIENCE has become powerless to check the excess of its success. This is not so much because of any lack of knowledge as because of the outrageousness, the sheer hubris of a headlong rush without the slightest concern for covering the rear; its incredible ethical and philosophical deficit.”32 For Michel Serres: “Science will become wise when it holds back from doing everything it can do.”33 Russell asserts: “Knowledge is power, but it is power for evil just as much as for good.” 34

When C.P. Snow asserted that scientists had “the future in their bones” he was certainly prescient, but it’s unlikely he meant genetic material for harvesting and exploitation towards what Virilio calls a potential “cellular Hiroshima.”35 In a world where even the Nobel Peace Prize is named for the inventor of DYNAMITE, failure to rein in the scientific community could result in a Darwin Award for the entire species—to be bestowed just prior to the final detonation of that bomb called “Science.”

José Ortega y Gasset counsels: “Science needs from time to time, as a necessary regulator of its own advance, a labour of reconstitution […].”36 Vico, Virilio, Marcuse, Habermas, Aronowitz, et al. have all, at times, considered the need for social, political and/or ethical resistance and reformulation. Such possibilities have been explored via Hegelian-Marxism, phenomenology, liberation theology, fundamentalist religion and multiple environmentalist movements. Going forward, crucial goals should include a renewal of consciousness, decentralizing ethics, and a transformation of the public imaginary concerning science. Moral, ethical and spiritual renewal should be accompanied by the rejection of crass reductionism, positivism and cultural barbarism. The post-academic digital humanities offer new possibilities for raising awareness, coupled with the prospect of a Virilian “university of disaster” culminating in the development of a logical anti-science, and, hopefully, a new “Great Refusal.”

In an epoch where “Science” has come to mean “Power without Truth,” opposing “Science” now literally means “speaking Truth to Power.” As Galileo is said to have whispered at his trial: “And yet, it moves,” Virilio states: “Today we need to retort to the people conducting the progressivist Inquisition:

And now, it EXPLODES!‘”37


* Originally submitted to the symposium on the “Two Cultures in the 2020’s” link here:

1. Michaux, Henry. Passages. Gallimard (Paris, 1951), (quoted in Virilio, Paul. The University of Disaster. Polity Press (Cambridge, 2010), p. 37.

2. Virilio, Paul. The Original Accident. Polity Press (Cambridge, 2008) p. 10; The Information Bomb. Verso (London, 2005).

3. “Virilio appears to be thinking of accident as a quality that adheres in substance.” Hamilton, Ross. Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History. University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2007), p. 3.

4. Orlando, Guy. The Two Cultures Controversy. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2011).

5. Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Canto (Cambridge, 1993). p 22.

6. Ibid. at 10.

7. Snow, C.P. A Second Look, p. 71 (in Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures).

8. Scruton, Roger. Modern Culture. Continuum (London, 2005), p. 1.

9. Leavis, F.R. Luddites? Or, There is Only One Culture (1966), (in The Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 108.

10. Ibid. at 108.

11. Ibid. at 109.

12. Wilson, Edward, O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage (New York, 1999), p. 230.

13. Brockman, John. The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. Touchtone (New York, 1996), p. 17.

14. Ibid. at 17.

15. Ibid. at 18.

16. Henry, Michel. Barbarism. Continuum (London, 2012), p. 2.

17. Virilio, Paul. The University of Disaster. Polity Press (Cambridge, 2010), p. 34.

18. Virilio, Paul. Politics of the Very Worst. Semiotext(e) (New York, 1999), p. 92.

19. Virilio. The Original Accident, p. 10.

20. Russell, Bertrand. The Impact of Science on Society. Routledge (New York, 2003), pp. 1-2.

21. Ibid. at 2.

22. Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge (New York, 2002), p. 150.

23. Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of the European Sciences. Northwestern (Evanston, 1970), p. 5.

24. Henry. Barbarism. p. xiv.

25. Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Verso (London, 2005), p. 3.

26. Virilio, The University of Disaster, p. 21.

27. Henry, Barbarism, p. 6.

28. Ibid. at 5.

29. Ibid. at 29.

30. Ibid. at 2.

31. Ibid. at 3.

32. Virilio, The University of Disaster, pp. 118-120.

33. Serres, Michel. The Troubadour of Knowledge. Michigan (Ann Arbor, 1997), p. 122.

34. Russell, The Impact of Science on Society, p. 110.

35. Virilio, The Original Accident, p. 11.

36. Ortega y Gasset, José. The Revolt of the Masses. Norton (New York, 1993),p.113.

37. Virilio, University of Disaster, p. 38.

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