Scientists are growing more and more chary of using any forms of speech
at all. Words like idea, matter, existence,
and their derivatives have become suspect. Old truths have to be
abandoned, general terms of everyday use which we thought to be the keys
to understanding will now no longer fit the lock. Evolution, yes, but
be very careful with it, for the concept is slightly rusty. Elements...
their immutability no longer exists. Causation... on the whole there is
little one can do with the concept; it breaks at the slightest usage.
Natural laws... certainly, but better not talk too much of absolute validity.
Objectivity... it is still our duty as well as our ideal, but its perfect
realization is not possible, at least not for the social sciences and
the humanities [Huizinga: In the Shadow of To-morrow.]
This difficulty which confronts the scientists and has compelled their
flight into formulae is the result of a failure to understand or accept
the analogical nature of language. Men of science spend much time and
effort in the attempt to disentangle words from their metaphorical and
traditional associations; the attempt is bound to prove vain since it
runs counter to the law of humanity.
The confusion and difficulty are increased by the modern worlds
preoccupation with the concept of progress. This concept now rapidly
becoming as precarious as those others quoted by Huizinga imposes
upon the human mind two (in the hypnotic sense) suggestions.
The first is that any invention or creative act will necessarily tend
to supersede an act of earlier date. This may be true of mechanical inventions
and scientific formulae: we may say, for example, that the power-loom
has superseded the hand-loom, or that Einsteinian physics has superseded
Newtonian physics, and mean something by saying so. But there is no sense
whatever in which we can say that Hamlet has superseded
the Agamemnon, or that
you who were with me in the ships at Mylae
en la sua voluntade è nostra pace
tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.
The later in date leaves the earlier achievement unconquered and unchanged;
that which was at the summit remains at the summit until the end of time.
The second suggestion is that, once an invention has been brought into
being and made public by a creative act, the whole level of human understanding
is raised to the level of that inventiveness. This is not true, even within
its own sphere of application. The fact that every schoolboy can now use
logarithms does not lift him to the intellectual level of the brain that
first imagined the method of logarithmic calculation.
But the absurdity of the suggestion becomes glaringly obvious when we
consider the arts. If a ruthless education in Shakespeares language
could produce a nation of Shakespeares, every Englishman would at this
moment be a dramatic genius. Actually, all that such an education can
possibly do is to improve a little the general apparatus of linguistic
machinery and so make the way smooth for the appearance of the still rare,
still incalculable genius. Genius is, in fact, not subject to the law
of progress, and it is beginning to be extremely doubtful whether progress
is a law at all.
For these reasons, we need not allow ourselves to be abashed by any suggestion
that the old metaphors are out of date and ought to be superseded. We
have only to remember that they are, and always were, metaphors, and that
they are still living metaphors so long as we use them to
interpret direct experience. Metaphors become dead only when the metaphor
is substituted for the experience, and the argument carried on in a sphere
of abstraction without being at every point related to life.
Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)
The Mind of the Maker (1941)
Chapter III Idea, Energy, Power pp. 43ff