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Envisioning a New Humanism for the Bridging of Cultures
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-06-06 10:57:49
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Envisioning a New Humanism for the Bridging of Cultures
Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

As an opening statement to the Ovi proposed conversation on the nature of Art and the Envisioning of a new Humanism, I’d like to return to an issue already broached previously: the debate on the two cultures as initiated by C.P. Snow in the mid 1950s with his book The Two Cultures. For indeed to speak of the arts and the humanities is to speak of culture, high or low as one wishes to interpret a particular culture.

 It was pointed out there that indeed the debate is an ongoing one: it is the debate between scientism/logical positivism vs. the humanities/liberal arts. It was suggested that a bridge between those two cultures remains to be imagined and Da Vinci’s “bridge to everywhere” as constructed in Norway was proposed as the perfect archetype to support a possible theoretical synthesis of those two estranged cultures (open link http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/9613).

Surely it has not escaped notice that this ongoing tension between the two cultures is also present in the very pages of our magazine. Whenever a serious discussion on culture has been proposed  there have been presented two opposite views: one merely scientific, economic, political purporting to be the more modern and dominant view; the other, pushing back, the humanistic, artistic, philosophical, often characterized as obscurantist and retrograde. At times the reciprocal contempt one for the other shows through with intemperate and even ad hominem statements.

Therefore, to clear the underbrush, I’d like to trace for the readers the very origins of this cultural problem which if truth be told is older than C.P. Snows book on The Two Cultures. It goes back to an idea which was prevalent in the 19th century: to a smug certainty on the part of positivists and scientists who thought themselves as being on the edge of progress, the idea  that science and progress were synonymous. An idea this which can be traced all the way back to the 18th century Enlightenment. Two cultural heroes who pushed back forcefully on this pernicious idea suggesting a return to considerations of culture, beauty, art and all that might re-humanize us as human beings and save us from a vulgar materiality by a modernity parading as inevitable progress, were also two cultural geniuses of that century: Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin.

There is little doubt that by the middle of the 19th century an unfortunate divorce had taken place between philosophers, especially aestheticians in the tradition of Hegel and later Croce, and scientists in general. In my opinion this dichotomy can even be seen in the context of the larger Marxian Tolstonian conundrum of High and Low Culture, culture for the masses and culture for the elites. A cultural duality this that would have been inconceivable to a Da Vinci. The physicist Hermann von Helmholtz put it this way during a lecture in Heidelberg in 1862: “Hegel’s system of nature seemed, at least to natural philosophers, absolutely crazy…Hegel…launched out with particular vehemence and acrimony against the natural philosophers, and especially against Isaac Newton. The philosophers accused the scientific men of narrowness; the scientific men retorted that the philosophers were insane.”

Be that as it may, the Aesthetic movement within the Romantic movement of the 19th century held firmly that a mechanistic science and a positivist philosophy was incapable of seeing anything clearly and truthfully. This was a recognition that science’s understanding of nature is incomplete and that we become more aware of our essential nature through the arts; that having found our essential nature we may then proceed to envision the kind of world that best suits it, and that we are much more likely to find an underlying, fundamental noumenal reality in the great productions of art, art being by its very nature symbolical and pointing to unseen realities. In a way one can conceive of this movement of mid-19th century as a rebellion against the Enlightenment’s idea of inevitable progress which claims that what arrives at the end of a process is always the best of all possible worlds. This determinism can even be detected in Hegel process philosophy and was so detected by the father of existentialism Soren Kierkegaard.

Perhaps a good example to illustrate those tensions is a speech that the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley gave at the founding of the University of Birmingham which opened with a curriculum which excluded the classics, and the reply to that speech by Matthew Arnold, considered one of the founders of the aesthetic movement. In that speech Huxley raises a question that continues to animate discussions on higher education, and the question is this: Should a young man prepare for his career by studying natural science or “two dead languages”? The languages he was referring to were Greek and Latin and the answer he was seeking is quite obvious. He added that Greek and Latin might be proper if one intended to review books, but the rest of the world was the domain of science. In that speech Huxley characterizes Matthew Arnold as a “Levite of culture” carrying a remote irrelevant past into an age overtaken by scientific advances. The biased insinuation against to the Judeo Christian ethos in general is unmistakable.

Arnold’s reply was not long in coming. He simply asks how is human nature to be understood? Can it be understood by merely digging scientifically into its remote biological past? He quotes Darwin statement that our ancestors must have been a hairy quadruped, with pointed ears and a tail, “arboreal in nature,” what later comes to be called “the naked Ape.” Arnold continues: assume it to be so, and yet there is something in that quadruped that “inclined him to Greek.” There must have been, because Greek is what he actually became. Consider, Arnold goes on, what we achieve when we look inside ourselves and know that we are not complete, that the unexamined life is not worth living, when we are driven to perfect ourselves in works of art and in the words of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Indeed the whole point of classical study, like the whole point of the Aesthetic movement of mid 19th century was not to prepare for the life of a book reviewer but to prepare for the life a rational human being endowed with a spirit and an intellect. The whole point of culture, Arnold continues, is “to make a rational being ever more rational” and to achieve “sweetness and light.” What is one to make of this “sweetness and light” in the age of atomic and thermonuclear weaponry, vicious stock transactions, jihad movements, and the NFL? Well, we have seen some of the answers proclaimed in our magazine by those who have a diametrical opposite view from that of Arnold; those who wish to debunk history and tradition and a classical education as such, to reduce religion to the useful and the economic, and wish to muzzle those who defend them and lament their disappearance in modern education.

Three other champions of the aesthetic movement were John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde  and the essayist and art critic Charles Baudelaire who suggested that the birth of America was the death of art and that technology would “Americanize us all.” At first blush that may seem a knee-jerk  anti-American statement so in vogue nowadays, but properly understood, it is only a defense of the liberal arts and the humanities. After all Arnold had been in America as a guest of the White House and he admired the fact that America had largely solved the social problem, at least so he saw it and believed, but he did not find the solution of the social problem interesting enough because even America had not yet solved “the human problem.” He kept insisting that what makes any nation interesting is its capacity to inspire awe which is accomplished chiefly through the creation of beauty, not mere accumulation of wealth and power.

Croce could not have said it any better. Indeed the aesthetes of the 19th century were not simply proclaiming the indisputable value of art but of its creative power. They insisted that our characters are shaped by our practices and perceptions, and that as these became more mechanical and tied to vulgarizing features of the modern world we are thereby transformed in something less than what we were meant to be. The antidote to vulgarity and inanity is and remains art, the humanities, the liberal arts which allow us to create what science cannot predict in advance and discover the values and meaning of life.    

The question What exactly is Art arises here. The ultimate dilemma in attempting to define Art is this: if everything has the potential to be theorized as art then a definition of the essence of art becomes elusive and perhaps even impossible; if everything is art, then nothing is art. I have dealt with this dilemma in the concluding essay of the book on aesthetic theories just out in Ovi. On the other hand, one may also claim that, like life, art is continually changing and therefore it is impossible to define it once and for all, or that while it changes it does not get any better or any worse for that matter. But if that is the case what are the criteria and who are the judges by which public funds are to be allocated to competing artists? Is it all a matter of political influence and power?

Indeed, like life art seems to remain an enigma feeding on a mystery, a mirror of sort which helps us to take a look at our own face on the way to self-knowledge. That is what fascinates us by its sheer presence from the very beginning of human kind's cultural identity and civilization, in fact it seems to be a sine qua non, like language and religion, of any kind of definition of civilization and what makes us human. When art is dead we will be well on our way to our own extinction.  


Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting -


Symposium for the Exploration of the Nature of Art within Modernity and the Envisioning of a New Humanism


Dr. E. L. Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida.

Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science.

Dr. Lawrence Nannery. Has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.


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