Social Science and Humanism

"Social Science and Humanism," The State of the Social Sciences, ed. Leonard D. White, University of Chicago Press, 1956.  Reprinted in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism.


Humanism is today understood in contradistinction to science, on the one hand, and to the civic art, on the other.  It is thus suggested to us that the social sciences are shaped by science, the civic art, and humanism, or that the social sciences dwell in the region where science, the civic art, and humanism meet and perhaps toward which they converge.  Let us consider how this meeting might be understood.

Of the three elements mentioned, only science and humanism can be said to be at home in academic life.  Science and humanism are not always on friendly terms.  We all know the scientist who despises or ignores humanism, and the humanist who despises or ignores science.  To understand this conflict, tension, or distinction between science and humanism, we do well to turn for a moment to the seventeenth century, to the age in which modern science constituted itself.  At that time Pascal contrasted the spirit of geometry (i.e., the scientific spirit) with the spirit of finesse.  We may circumscribe the meaning of the French term by referring to terms such as these: subtlety, refinement, tact, delicacy, perceptivity.  The scientific spirit is characterized by detachment and by the forcefulness which stems from simplicity or simplification.  The spirit of finesse is characterized by attachment or love and by breadth.  The principles to which the scientific spirit defers are alien to common sense.  The principles with which the spirit of finesse has to do are within common sense, yet they are barely visible; they are felt rather than seen.  they are not available in such a way that we could make them the premises of our reasoning.  The spirit of finesse is active, not in reasoning, but rather in grasping in one view unanalyzed wholes in their distinctive characters.  What is meant today by the contrast between science and humanism represents a more or less profound modification of Pascal’s contrast between the spirit of geometry and the spirit of finesse.  In both cases the contrast implies that, in regard to the understanding of human things, the spirit of science has severe limitations–limitations which are overcome by a decidedly nonscientific approach.

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