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The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between…

by Stephen Jay Gould

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568832,460 (3.67)11
"In his final book and his first full-length original title since Full House in 1996, the eminent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould offers a surprising and nuanced study of the complex relationship between our two great ways of knowing: science and the humanities, twin realms of knowledge that have been divided against each other for far too long."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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» See also 11 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
argues that humanities cannot be absorbed into science, each has own value
  ritaer | Jul 5, 2021 |
There's a sentence about two-thirds of the way through this book that I think sums up its structure pretty well: "In keeping with my practice throughout this book," Gould writes, "I will forgo any further abstract or theoretical discussion in favor of particular examples, not widely known, that strike me as especially apropos or poignant in illustrating the general thesis under discussion." Unfortunately, this turns out not to be a particularly good approach. However poignant Gould may personally find his "examples," I mainly found them interesting only as tidbits of historical trivia, and throughout most of the book, the "general thesis" he's getting at is vague and murky at best. Mostly, it seems to be, "Hey, science and the humanities should totally be friends!" Which is a pleasant enough sentiment, but not really a statement that requires an entire book-length work to make. He does sometimes get around to discussing ideas and making actual points, particularly in the final sections. Specifically, he goes on at some length about his belief that fields such as the social sciences are never going to be explicable in purely reductionist terms from a knowledge of basic physics. Which is something he might or might not be right about -- my own feeling is that at our current level of knowledge it's impossible to say for sure -- but I don't find his analysis terribly compelling.

Also, while most of Gould's writing is very clear and eloquent, I found his prose here both somewhat overwritten and fairly dry, sometimes even bordering on the pretentious. I don't know how much of this is due to a conscious but misguided attempt to write in a style more common in the humanities than the sciences, and how much of it is due to the unfortunate fact that he died before getting the opportunity to edit and revise the text. But I do know that it contributed to the sense of disappointment I felt about the whole thing.

Ultimately, while some of it is interesting, I have to say that if you're going to skip reading just one of Stephen Jay Gould's books, this should be it. ( )
3 vote bragan | Jan 10, 2011 |
I was surprised to find this book very academic in tone and language - it's a bit of a struggle to get through. Gould starts out by detailing various scientists and their works from the 17th and 18th centuries, when many were active in the humanities as well as science. including John Woodward, Newton, Erasmus and others, to exemplify the tug of war between those who were determined to stick with the Ancients (Greeks and the Bible) and the participants in what we now call the Scientific Revolution. He is especially concerned with the Church, Catholic and otherwise, and censorship of ideas, but also the general attitude of closed-mindedness and scandal toward the ideas that emerged about evolution, the age of the earth, fossils, etc. He continues this over a number of centuries, including fairly recent examples of how artists' observations were more useful and more accurate than the expectations of scientists.

But then his tone and direction change, and he reveals the work as a rebuttal of E.O. Wilson's idea of 'Consilience', which, in Wilson's usage, seeks to unite science and the humanities by the assumption that the humanities will be explainable by basic science, i.e. physics. Gould equates this with reductionism, the doctrine that all complex problems and organizations can be understood from the component scientific parts, which works moderately well until synergies produce surprising results.

Gould further attempts to refute Wilson by comparison to the work of the man who originally coined the word consilience, William Whewell, almost 200 years ago. In Whewell's terminology, the word refers to that flash of insight (jumping together) that can happen by the process of inductive reasoning, and definitely does not apply to ethics or morality, etc.
It's a complicated and often repetitive argument, weakened (I think) by Whewell's bias as an Episcopal clergyman at Oxford. We who read his protestations now might conclude that he had some bias in his declaration.

Ultimately, Gould pleads for the independence of ethics and morals, rather than their derived reduction from physics and biology. So this is the conflict between science and the humanities that Gould analyzes, shows us by example, insists is not a real conflict because they cannot cover the same ground.

It feels a little too insistent to me. But the discussion did bring to mind several much lighter books, science fiction in which the human psychology is so well understood that it can be physically manipulated (was that in the Dune series? or Asimov?). And it also brought to mind many recent experiments involving MRI evidence that are beginning to show us how we think, where we think, and maybe why we think some of the things we do. I would hate to think Wilson was correct in the most grandiose sense, but we may be at the cusp of a new understanding, at the cellular level, of just those ethics and morality Gould feels cannot be scientifically explained.

I warn the reader that Gould can write incredibly long and complex sentences, occasionally lengthened by parenthetical remarks of a sometimes personal nature. However, if you are interested in the history and philosophy of science, it might be to your liking. ( )
2 vote ffortsa | Dec 31, 2010 |
Like most of Gould's single-subject books, not all that interesting. There's interesting concepts introduced and illustrated...then the same concepts are further developed...then further...then...zzzzz. I'm glad I read it but I doubt I'll read it again. The basic concept is that the humanities and science aren't opponents, or even all that different - or rather, they are different, but the same techniques that help with one will help with the other. Good writing is useful in science, and popular does not equal bad; logic and reductionism can help with humanities (though not necessarily with the big questions - those don't reduce very well). The title reference is to a fable about the hedgehog having one very good trick and the fox having many - though even having read the whole thing, I'm not quite certain which one he equates with which discipline. And the magister's pox is an attempt at censoring a book, wiping out all references to non-Christians - which didn't work so well in this book full of quotes from the ancients. Cute, but a weak foundation for this complex logic. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Jun 4, 2009 |
This was my first reading of Gould. It is not an easy reading. The author died before the book could be made more readable. I had to force myself to complete the book. His main point is that Science and Humanities use different methods and techniques of inquiry, but each could benefit from the cooperation with the other. It is wrong to pretend that humanities use science's empirical methods.
The first part of the book explores the divide between the two disciplines, when it started and why, and if there is really a divide between them.
The last part of the book is all written in the form of a critique of his collegue Wilson. He digs out the origin of the term consilience, that he says Wilson uses improperly. He discusses of reductionism. He describes how reductionism is not applicaple to humanities, and not even to science. Emergent proprierties and contingency are in the way of reductionistic approaches.

The end left me with something missing. He never really address how humanities and science can cooperate. He just says they have to cooperate, each one with its own methods.
He also claims that ethics cannot be studied with empirical methods, since ethics is far too removed from empirical things both in term of distance from empirical things and in terms of historic distance. When ethics arose as part of evolution it probably had a sense, but today the society evolved too far to find and evolutional meaning to ethics. This reasoning didn't really convinced me.

I also found his style of writing a little bit too arrogant and complacent.

Overall the book is interesting to read, and some issues are interesting to read, but I wasn't taken by his approach to the main issue of the book. ( )
  zacchia | Nov 3, 2008 |
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"In his final book and his first full-length original title since Full House in 1996, the eminent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould offers a surprising and nuanced study of the complex relationship between our two great ways of knowing: science and the humanities, twin realms of knowledge that have been divided against each other for far too long."--BOOK JACKET.

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