Thursday, February 6, 2014

Bronowski, Michelangelo, Moore, and Einstein

I'm watching Jacob Bronowski's documentary series The Ascent of Man. You'll find in the following transcript a better account of how sculpture takes form than you'll get from any intelligent-design theorist. The notion that there's an independent design that the sculptor forces upon the stone is simply wrong. But to dwell on that would be to miss what Bronowski emphasizes, an interesting analogy of science to sculpture. On reflection, I saw the similarity of his remarks to some by Einstein, which I quote below. Hopefully someone out there will find the connection interesting.

BRONOWSKI: A popular cliche in philosophy says that science is pure analysis or reductionism, like taking the rainbow to pieces, and art is pure synthesis — putting the rainbow together. This is not so. All imagination begins by analysing nature. Michelangelo said that.

When that which is divine in us doth try
    To shape a face, both brain and hand unite
    To give, from a mere model frail and slight,
    Life to the stone by Art's free energy.
BRONOWSKI: The material asserts itself through the hand and thereby prefigures the shape of the work for the brain. The sculptor, as much as the mason, feels for the form within nature.
The best of artists hath no thought to show
    Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell
    Doth not include: to break the marble spell
    Is all the hand that serves the brain can do.
[TOM: See Sonnets XIV and XV here.]

BRONOWSKI: By the time Michelangelo carved the head of Brutus, other men quarried the marble for him. But Michelangelo had begun as a quarryman in Carrara and he still felt that the hammer in their hands, and in his, was groping in the stone for a shape that was already there. The quarrymen work in Carrara now for the modern sculptors who come here — Marino Marini, Lipschitz and Henry Moore. Their descriptions of their work are not as poetic as Michelangelo's, but they carry the same feeling.

HENRY MOORE: To begin with, as a young sculptor, I couldn't afford expensive stone. And I got my stone by going round the stone yards, and finding what they would call a random block. Then I had to think in the same way that Michelangelo might have done, so that one had to wait until an idea came that fitted the shape of the stone. And that was seeing the idea in that block.

BRONOWSKI: Of course, it can't be literally true that what the sculptor imagines and carves out is already there, hidden in the block. And yet the metaphor tells the truth about the relation of discovery that exists between man and nature. In one sense, everything that we discover is already there. A sculptured figure and the law of nature are both concealed in the raw material. And in another sense, what a man discovers is discovered by him. It would not take exactly the same form in the hands of someone else. Neither the sculptured figure nor the law of nature would come out in identical copies when produced by two different minds in two different ages. Discovery is a double relation of analysis and synthesis together. As an analysis it probes for what is there. But then, as a synthesis, it puts the parts together in a form in which the creative mind transcends the bare limits, the bare skeleton that nature provides.

BRONOWSKI: Sculpture is a sensuous art. The Eskimos make small sculptures that are not even meant to be seen, only handled. So it must seem strange that I choose as my model for science sculpture and architecture. And yet it's right. We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation. The hand is more important than the eye. We are not one of those contemplative civilisations of the Far East or the Middle Ages that believed that the world has only to be seen and thought about and who practised no science. We are active, and indeed we know in the evolution of man, that it is the hand that drives the subsequent evolution of the brain. We find tools made by man before he became man. Benjamin Franklin called man the "tool-making animal." And that's right. And the most exciting thing about that is that even in prehistory, man already made tools that have an edge finer than they need have.

[TOM: I've cleaned up this transcript.]

EINSTEIN: The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is — insofar as it is thinkable at all — primitive and muddled. However, no sooner has the epistemologist, who is seeking a clear system, fought his way through to such a system, than he is inclined to interpret the thought-content of science in the sense of his system and to reject whatever does not fit into his system. The scientist, however, cannot afford to carry his striving for epistemological systematic that far. He accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system. He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as the free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from what is empirically given); as positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sensory experiences. He may even appear as Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research. [Wikiquote]

BOUNDED SCIENCE: There can be no scientific explanation of science.


  1. Tom

    How do you propose that we should evaluate Jacob Brownoski's contribution to our understanding of . . . .well what? The real practice of science? The scientific project in general? The role of "science" in "society"? His humanism? What s it that we should value from his work?

    1. I've struggled with this, and must resort, sadly, to "all of the above, and more." What is remarkable about the documentary is not just the content, but also Bronowski himself. I believe that what we see is genuinely the man. In any case, the persona is a fabulous model.