A dialectic “History of Science”

Dear people, after our short discussion about this poem, I wondered how it would fit in Auden’s conception of knowledge in general. I will probably try to figure that out in my essay. Some points here might actually be your idea’s (well thats what the tutorial is for, right ..?!?). Here I hope to evoke some further discussion about it (this is what the blog is for, right?!) to benefit from you again (hehehe). Wiel, would you actually mind if we publish parts of our essay here?  Slowly it is hard to seperate essay ideas from blog ideas …

Auden as seeking a synthetic and moral epistemology

Science is quite obviously following a dialectic path in “The History of Science”. By ‘dialectic’ I touch on a kind of epistemology, a way of knowing the world, which is both entertained and enquired in/ by Auden’s poetry. As I will argue here, The History of Science” plays a rather peculiar role in Auden’s epistemology if compared with the other poems on science.

The three dialectical steps from thesis, to antithesis and finally to a synthesis reconciling thesis and antithesis are core to Hegelian thinking, which I will not elaborate on as such. In Auden’s poetry they are visible in the stages of firstly looking for something, not finding it and thereby revealing something else instead. In the context of history writing, which “History of Science” obviously touches upon, Hegel established this dialectical circle as the fundamental idea of historical change as such. Before Hegel history was not conceived as a dynamic process and philosophers busy with the world of ideas, entirely ignored it.

An classic example to explain this is the rise of individual consciousness in Old Greece:

1)      Thesis: The Old Greek Athens was a society harmoniously unifying the individual and society.

2)      Antithesis:           Questioning its underlying conventions (Sokrates questions: What is justice? Etc.) shatters the harmony between society and individual.

3)      Synthesis:            The thought of the individual consciousness historically was born in Old Greece by conceptually disentangling society and the individual in social practice.

(see: Peter Singer on Hegel, video)

This is roughly how Hegel sees history moving forward. He especially applied it on the world of ideas. The synthesis equals the thesis in the following circle(s). In much of his poetry, Auden entertains this kind of epistemology (way of knowing). He does in “History of Science” as well. To illustrate this in his works just remember how Auden ironically reveals the epistemological pitfalls of “Archeology” and “Modern Physics” (“Reading a Childs Guide to …”) and dismisses them as sources of comprehensible, correct and morally useful knowledge. After the first deconstructive moves he gains a synthetic lecture such as “goodness is timeless” or “being altogether wise”. Beginning with a disappointment and ending with a moral loosely related to the beginning, these poems are both constructed in dialectical steps and depicting processes which actually are dialectic. Concerning science Auden apparantelly seeks for a kind of knowledge, which is not only rational but also comprehensible and morally helpful. Maybe it is not such a surprise after all that Auden does not succeed in finding such a complete form of knowledge. However, this negative knowledge is not the result of a single poem but crucial as an antithesis in a never ending dialectical circle, which I reckon could be traced through his entire work. It strives for a reconciling all kind of knowledge on a certain moral level. As Auden illustrates himself “Bestiaries are Out”. Bestiaries as a form of natural philosophy reconciling descriptively correct and morally useful knowledge of nature have been irrevocably disproven by “Research” itself. Even though Auden seems to dismiss their moralizing attempt as “absurd” (“Bestiaries are Out”), those bestiaries left a residue which Auden would be eager to fill.

Auden as dialectically reflecting on scientific disciplines

Of course, Auden is aware of history writing as such and is therefore as much a dialectic thinker as everybody else is nowadays. However, not to give up the red thread of dialectic thinking in Auden, you need to distinguish between craftily constructing the poem and truthfully telling the story of something. I claim “The History of Science” is a dialectic poem in the latter way and rather not (maybe indirectly) on the level of construction.  Science itself is proceeding dialectically in this text; it is not a mere stage in a dialectical circle constructed by the poet. To put it simpler, here science is rather the agent of its own history than it is the object of some universal pattern, which drives the history of science.

Let me first explain the level of construction. Obviously, this poem is about science in general, not about some discipline in particular. Interestingly, here Auden does not actively apply his dialectic epistemology as much as he does in those poems which do focus on a discipline, where the dialectic stages are apparent:


1)      Thesis:          social and scientific certainties of archeological work (“We do know that Man …”, “… is visually patent”, “we’re pretty sure that …”,)

2)      Antithesis:   epistemological contingencies of archeology and historical assumptions (“cannot conceit” when they “shrugged their shoulders”, myths as “Tall stories”, )

3)      Synthesis:    Certainty of knowledge has no place in history, therefore only placelessness in history is a a real certainty: “Goodness is timeless”

“After Reading A Childs Guide to Modern Physics”

1)      Thesis:          “If all a top physicist knows/ About the Truth be true (…)”

2)      Antithesis:  … then love could not be felt, faces would be intangible and we had no habitable places.

3)      Synthesis:    The physical knowledge should be examined towards its purpose. It should serve a moral and political wisdom.

The leap to a moral kind of knowledge conducted in “Archeology” and “Modern Physics” lacks (as well as it does in those peculiar dialogues with animals, as Tuur has shown it with “talking to mice”). The poet does not undermine Science by exceeding its pitfalls in the synthesis.  The crafty archeologists are depicted as Whiggish historians (i.e. writing history as linear and seeing the past as mere preparation for the superior present) and physicians are hopelessly lost in abstraction. In contrast, science in “The History of Science” is actually undermining a narrative convention, namely the history of the three brothers.

Methodological remark

Of course, there are just not enough texts to make a significant point about Audens conception of science in comparison to disciplines. However, the dialectic epistemology is consistent enough in Auden’s work to call it typically Auden. Since he deliberately changed this style during his life, deviations – especially those touching upon the same topics – are significant.

History of Science as not depicted dialectically, but as dialectic by nature

Also on the content level of the poem, in “The History of Science”  Auden is less witty towards science as a topic than he is in “Archeology” or “Reading a Childs … ”. This is because he actually assigns the role of the fourth brother to science. I could not find any line, which would hint towards a certain kind of ambiguity undermining the self-driven history of science. The fourth brother equals science itself or particular scientists, who manage to change history (or at least he makes a difference by erring “his way to riches”). This paths obviously resembles my understanding of dialectic history as presented in the beginning:


So never reached the goal intended

(His map, of course, was out) but blundered

On a wonderful instead,


In line with the common imago of the ‘crazy professor’ he exceeds scientific conventions as epistemological blind spots or saturated markets of scientific business. Being “advised ‘Go South a while’, / (he) Smiled “Thank you!” and turned North”. This forth brother appears as oral history (“all written reference” of his existence is “censored”), which is the narrative reason for Auden to formally break with the narrative of the three brothers. This brother, being science or a successful part of science, unifies all strengths of the obligatory characters looking for the “flaxen-haired Princess”.  He is as kind as the third brother is by being grateful for the advice. In the end he actually succeeds in his own dialectical quest for scientific success/ or true knowledge. It is a modest success, which will evoke a new dialectical circle, but at least he finally discovers “A treasure not of gold but silver”.


Peter Singer on Hegel and Marx: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYX9UP55ISc&feature=related

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