Jacob Bronowski

1999-09-26

It's unfortunate that the writings of Jacob Bronowski are not better-known. Sure, he wrote The Ascent of Man and made a television program of the same name, but it's his other works that I find fascinating (or did when I read them back in my teenage years). Just last night I started re-reading one of his books (The Visionary Eye) in preparation for writing an essay about him, and I found something immediately that I connected with strongly. The short essay in question was his introduction to a later release of his early book The Poet's Defence. He mentions that the role of the critic exists in the arts but not in science. Now, he doesn't think much of critics, and in that early work he tried to discover a philosophy of poetry through a reading of what some great poets (Pope, Blake, Housman, etc.) had written on the nature of poetry -- pointedly not through a reading of estheticians and literary critics. And Bronowski says it is valuable to do the same with science -- not depend on the armchair philosophers to come to a philosophy of science, but to see what scientists really do and what excellent scientists think about their vocation. Of course such a project must be reflective (separating the wheat from the chaff in the sometimes muddled thinking of practictioners), but it is empirical in a way that so much philosophy is not. I like Bronowski because he was a modern renaissance man (a writer of mathematical theorems and of poems, a researcher into biology and into ethics, a scientist and an artist). I like him too for his humanism. He was focused on facts (and essential facts at that), unlike our modern academics. His outlook was scientific but not materialistic. I hope to bring out some of these elements in the essay that I plan to write about him.


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