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The 17th-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher was said to possess universal understanding. He didn’t, but he may have been the last man to come close
In May 2002, the 400th birthday of the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher was celebrated with an academic conference at the NYU Institute of Humanities, in New York City. Convened under the unlikely slogan, “Was Athanasius Kircher just about the coolest guy ever, or what?” the conference, attended by some 250 people, was covered in a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the headline, “Athanasius Kircher, Dude of Wonders.” More than 300 years after his death, a man who had spent most of his life as a professor at the Jesuit college in Rome, the Collegio Romano, and who had labored in such esoteric precincts as Jewish mysticism and developing universal languages, had become an unlikely postmodern cultural hero.
Kircher (pronounced Keersh´er) was born in Geisa, a small German town, in 1602. His father was a lay lecturer in theology at a Benedictine seminary, and Athanasius was educated at a Jesuit school; he came to the Society of Jesus as a novice in 1618, the year marking the beginning of the Thirty Years War that brought violence, death, and destruction to much of Europe. Traveling across the terrain of warring Catholic and Protestant armies in the black robe of a Jesuit novice, young Kircher was assaulted and nearly lynched by Protestant soldiers. He survived to pursue studies in the natural sciences and classical languages, eventually leaving the war zone of the German lands for Avignon, in France, and finally settling in Rome, where he became a teacher, scholar, and author of 30-plus books on subjects ranging from astronomy to cryptology to music.
Whether in science or letters, Kircher was particularly keen to fathom the mysteries of his day. He invented musical instruments and descended into the crater of Mount Vesuvius, an exploration scientifically summed up in his Mundus Subterraneus (The Subterranean World) in 1665. He was a professor who (long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone) believed that he had found the secrets of interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphics, and who accordingly deciphered the glyphs inscribed on obelisks that were on display in Rome; he thus explained the mysteries of ancient Egypt in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (The Egyptian Oedipus), which was published in three volumes between 1652 and 1655. (The book was named for Oedipus, because, in Greek mythology, he had answered the riddles of the Sphynx.) In fact, we now know that Kircher could not really read hieroglyphics, but he thought he could, and his prestige was so great that his contemporaries gave him the benefit of the doubt, supposing that if anyone was genius enough to solve the linguistic riddle of the Egyptian sphynx, it would have to be Kircher. Kircher was deeply fascinated by languages. He mastered them, spent a great deal of time considering the history of the Tower of Babel, devised a machine for the translation of multiple languages, and sought to create a universal language for all nations. Such an ideal language would offer the perfect medium for comprehending universal knowledge, and Kircher’s linguistic quest reflected his deep conviction of global intellectual unity and consistency. Kircher also established a museum in Rome to house his own collection of natural wonders and ingenious inventions, and he published his own expert, and mostly convincing, explications of magnetism, optics, Chinese monuments, and musical harmony, to cite a sampling from his range.
Unlike many famous Jesuits of his time—Matteo Ricci in China, Antonio Vieira in Brazil, or Jacques Marquette in North America—Kircher did not travel widely but spent most of his life at the Collegio Romano, and his papers remain largely in Rome. But as with most cool dudes, he does have a connection to California, where Stanford University is the home of the Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project, dedicated to putting online Kircher’s entire correspondence with 17th-century Jesuits—an international network of colleagues whose intellectual curiosity and willingness to correspond with Kircher and send him materials nourished the professor’s erudition.
Kircher’s 17th-century museum was partly re-created in Rome in honor of the Kircher quadricentennial. According to historian Eugenio Lo Sardo, “In three years of research for the Rome exhibition recreating his museum, we did not find a single representation of the crucifix . . . the museum was filled with machines, wooden obelisks, infant skeletons, animals, Roman burial vases and heads, mosaics, coins, and so forth.” The collection began to be dispersed after Kircher’s death in 1680, lost more of its treasures and curiosities after the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773, and, still more, after papal Rome was joined to the Italian state in 1870. Some of Kircher’s antiquities are today included in Italian national museum collections.
There has been an appreciative tribute to the Kircher museum at the unusual site of the Museum of Jurassic Technology on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. There the eccentric spirit of California encounters the peculiar spirit of baroque science in appreciation of Kircher’s sunflower clock, which told the time as the flower turned to face the sun, or Kircher’s speculative sketch for the completion of the Tower of Babel—a structure, he hoped to demonstrate, that could not have reached the moon without upsetting the astronomical position of the earth.
In January 2007 the New Yorker reported the first meeting in Manhattan of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and, according to the New Yorker, “Kircher’s popularity is also growing among the general public, at least with a certain type of self-consciously twee New York hipster (the event sold out a month in advance), for whom YouTube is a modern-day Museum Kircherianum.” The meeting was attended by 400 people, and culminated in the hipster presentation of a model of a two-foot walrus penis bone, offered in the spirit of Kircher’s museum, which featured such unusual specimens of natural history.
What has made Kircher so alluring an intellectual figure at the beginning of the 21st century, whether in Rome or New York or California? Perhaps it is the fact that knowledge, in our time, moves centrifugally, with subspecialty succeeding specialty, and understanding receding from us faster than we can hope to chase it down. Today, science, at the most serious level, is scarcely accessible to a layman, or indeed to anyone outside the particular discipline; and it would be similarly difficult to find a particle physicist who could write a publishable poem or understand econometrics or DNA sequencing. And so a man like Kircher, whose range of intellectual accomplishment and influence encompasses magnetism, music, engineering, Kabbalah, languages, and sunflower clocks takes on an antique and heroic shine for us, and we turn him into something odd and therefore cool: Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, in the title of a 2004 book edited by Stanford’s Paula Findlen.
But how much did he know? Unquestionably, Kircher was a brilliant polymath. Though he was, in fact, a man of the Baroque era, we might nowadays think of him as a Renaissance man, and in Kircher’s case the term would be almost literally apt, inasmuch as his lifetime followed almost immediately upon the age of the Renaissance. Just how much he knew, however, is a matter in dispute. As noted earlier, it would turn out that his interpretations of hieroglyphics were just wrong, and even some of his contemporaries followed his intellectual feats with less than complete conviction. “I wish I could hold back the force of my laughter when I think about the Kircherian squaring of the circle,” wrote one French observer in the 1640s about Kircher’s mathematical claims. Yet, even if Kircher manifestly did not “know everything,” there is also no doubt that in the 17th century it was possible for an intellectually ambitious scholar, such as Kircher, to achieve a more approximate pretension to universal knowledge than would be plausible in any of the centuries since.
To trace that gap between the sciences and humanities that has developed over the past three centuries, rendering the comprehensively erudite person extinct, we have to step back 150 years or so from Kircher’s time, to that of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the most supremely multitalented man of the Italian Renaissance, who was not only the artist of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, but also an anatomist, a military engineer, and the designer of aerodynamic flying machines. Michelangelo (1475–1564) was scarcely less varied in his Renaissance genius, adding architecture and poetry to painting and sculpture. In both cases, art of the human form was inseparable from the science of human anatomy, and therefore art and science, to some practical extent, were strongly linked.
Closer to Kircher, both in historical epoch and in intellectual temperament, was the celebrated 16th-century philosopher and astronomer Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), who, it happens, was burned at the stake as a heretic in Rome, two years before Kircher was born in Germany. Bruno was a Renaissance humanist who studied the Greek and Roman classics, a natural scientist who sought in the study of nature the key to the secrets of the universe, and an astronomer convinced of the truth of the Copernican heliocentric solar system. Copernicus had published his revolutionary astronomical findings without great acclaim or great scandal in 1543, the year of his own death, and Bruno was one of the handful of philosophical humanists who embraced the Copernican scientific vision in the later 16th century and found himself up against the Roman Inquisition.
Bruno had his own reasons for wanting to know everything: He believed that knowing everything about nature would make it possible to practice a kind of natural magic. He particularly cherished the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, as he understood it (and misunderstood it) to represent an original and universal religion that anticipated Christianity. Bruno’s Egyptian obsessions brought him ultimately to the stake, along with a range of other heretical convictions, some of them astronomical and scientific. Bruno’s tragic fate offers us a reminder that the ambition to know everything was sometimes perilous, even fatal; and the Jesuit Kircher would always have to be on his guard that his erudition did not compromise his orthodoxy.
What Bruno and Kircher had most in common was an intellectual temperament that is entirely remote from modern ideas about the pursuit of knowledge. They both believed that it was worth pursuing every disparate field precisely because the fields were not disparate, but branches of knowledge intimately connected to one another—that hieroglyphics and astronomy, volcanic eruptions and musical harmonies all drew from, and contributed to understanding the providentially interrelated mysteries of the universe. God’s design of and presence in the universe was the guarantee that all the diverse details would ultimately cohere, that Egyptian hieroglyphics and Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism would, if properly understood, confirm Christian truth. Kircher titled one discussion of fossils: “How God, with the cooperation of Nature, produces such prodigious images.” Fossils, whose enormous geological age would later produce crises of faith for more modern paleontologists, were piously interpreted by Kircher as wondrous signs from God.
Kircher established himself in Rome at the Collegio Romano in 1633, a fateful year in the history of the city, the history of science, and the history of Roman Catholicism. It was the year of the Roman Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo for teaching the heliocentric conception of the solar system. Galileo was required to recant his conviction that the earth moves around the sun. Had he not recanted, the most famous scientist in Europe—himself a Renaissance polymath, as writer, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and physicist—might have suffered the fate of Bruno.
Kircher was certainly aware of the cautionary Roman examples of Bruno’s execution and Galileo’s condemnation. The cultural vigilance of the Roman Inquisition in the age of the Catholic Counter-Reformation created intellectual constraints for any scholar, and greater danger for a polymath. Scholars have tended to suppose that Kircher, with all his scientific erudition, may also have privately acknowledged some validity in Copernicanism, but he was a Jesuit—living, writing, and teaching in Rome. He would have had to consider the proposition, articulated by St. Ignatius, that “the white which I see is black if the hierarchical Church so decides.” It was a principle by no means conducive to knowing everything, and Kircher, who faced institutional Jesuit censorship in his writings, was always careful about Copernicanism. His scientific calculation of the impossibility of building the Tower of Babel—a tower that would reach the heavens—rested on the Aristotelian premise of a motionless earth. Indeed, it is possible that Kircher’s fascination with the Tower of Babel was in itself an acknowledgment of the intellectual presumption of the kind of men who offended God by claiming to know everything—and were punished by the destruction of their project and the fragmentation of their universal language. A man might become a polymath, after all, but true omniscience appertained to God alone.
In the 1660s, himself in his sixties, Kircher became very sick and feared he was dying. In his sickness he had a dream—”a deep and most delightful dream that lasted the entire night.” He dreamed that he had been elected pope, and that the whole Roman Catholic world was celebrating his election. Paula Findlen has written:
Kircher’s dream was a fantasy of a society in his own image, a universal celebration of knowledge and faith in the heart of the Eternal City . . . Kircher’s fantasy in his sixties serves to remind us that his ambitions transcended his specific intellectual interests. He had a vision of how knowledge might transform the world. At the heart of Kircher’s quest for omniscience lay a strong conviction that the world would be a better place if knowledge perpetuated the true faith.
Was this perhaps also a fantasy of emancipation, of submitting his titanic intellect to no higher earthly authority than himself as pope?
In counter-reformation Rome, the capital of Roman Catholicism, Kircher’s knowledge became a part of Rome’s spectacular adornment. Even as Egyptian obelisks were erected to punctuate the great piazzas of the cityscape, Kircher piously interpreted the pagan glyphs so as make them religiously acceptable in Rome. (In the 2,000 pages of the Egyptian Oedipus he suggested that hieroglyphics preserved biblical wisdom from before Noah’s flood.) And his museum was one of the sights of the city: “No foreign visitor who has not seen the Roman College museum can claim that he has truly been in Rome.” Who said it? Kircher said it himself, but there was no lack of eminent visitors to prove his point.
In the early 18th century Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German philosopher and mathematician, considered Kircher’s interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and tersely concluded: “He understands nothing.” Kircher had died in 1680, and the Enlightenment was about to establish a radically different conception of what it meant to know everything—and understand nothing. The polymathic hero of the Enlightenment was Voltaire: philosopher, poet, playwright, novelist, global historian, social critic, and an advocate of science. In the 1730s, just 50 years after Kircher’s death, Voltaire posed the question of who was the greatest man who ever lived, and he answered with a name that Kircher may never have known: Isaac Newton.
For Voltaire in the 18th century, the scientific revolution in physics and mathematics, as expressed in the invention of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, turned the mysteries of the universe into mathematical problems. In the 1730s and 1740s, Voltaire and the woman he loved, the marquise Emilie du Châtelet, dedicated themselves, in what may well be history’s greatest polymathic romance, to the translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica from Latin into French, so that the scientific revolution might be established as the basis of modern knowledge for the enlightened public. Madame du Châtelet was a more brilliant mathematician than Voltaire, but he was the foremost figure of French letters, and within their relationship they sought to bridge the gap between sciences and letters, a gap that was all the more striking in the post-Newtonian modern world that Kircher did not live to see. “One writes verses in his corner, the other triangles in hers,” noted a contemporary observer about the romance of Voltaire and the marquise, but the comment misunderstood the intellectual synthesis that they were seeking together.
Voltaire’s work exists in 100 volumes, more massive than Kircher’s oeuvre; Voltaire’s correspondence takes up another 100 volumes, again more extensive than Kircher’s epistolary legacy; and Voltaire furthermore transformed the concept of what it meant to “know everything.” If the Newtonian revolution seemed to open up new vistas for the advancement of scientific knowledge, Voltaire was correspondingly deprecating about the possibilities for philosophical knowledge, and especially dubious about theological erudition. Voltaire composed a Philosophical Dictionary, reevaluating philosophical concepts alphabetically, from Atheism to Virtue, and radically demolishing conventional, traditional, and religious wisdom in each case. Under the letter T, Voltaire wrote about a hypothetical theologian in the age of Enlightenment: “The more truly learned he became, the more he doubted all he knew.” Mathematical uncertainty in some arenas was balanced by philosophical skepticism in others—a recognition (now commonplace, but then new) of the limits of human knowledge.
Voltaire was well aware of Kircher’s erudition, and in a work on “The Elements of the Philosophy of Newton,” discussed whether Newton might have taken from Kircher the idea that sound was analogous to light. Elsewhere, writing about China, Voltaire cited Kircher as “one of our most intrepid antiquarians,” and in one of his letters, dated 1764, requested a copy of Kircher’s book about Egypt (presumably the Egyptian Oedipus). Voltaire then remarked, as if to laugh at himself for wanting even to consult such a work, “I have become horribly pedantic.” Though Voltaire clearly found use for Kircher’s works and ideas, less than 100 years after Kircher’s death the great polymath could already be dismissed as a pedantic antiquarian.
Universal knowledge in the 18th century was, in any event, conceived as a collective encyclopedic project, not a feat of individual intellect. Perhaps the most important intellectual monument of the French Enlightenment was the multivolume encyclopedia edited by Diderot and d’Alembert and published in the 1750s and 1760s. In England the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was completed in 1771. Since no individual could plausibly write an entire encyclopedia, the mark of the enlightened polymath was his capacity to contribute entries across a variety of fields without any pretense to universal knowledge. In the early 19th century, new articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica were contributed in tremendous variety by Thomas Young, who wrote about “Languages,” “Tides,” “Carpentry,” “Steam Engine,” “Weights and Measures”—and, in Kircher’s traces, “Egypt.” Young was a medical doctor by profession, who made particular contributions to ophthalmology, but also, in physics and optics, challenged Newton by arguing that light was more likely composed of waves than of particles. Finally, a genius with languages, Young was fascinated by hieroglyphics, and studied the Rosetta Stone.
Two years after Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything appeared, Andrew Robinson published a biography of Thomas Young titled The Last Man Who Knew Everything (Pi, 2006). Young, however, lived in a world in which the notion of knowing everything had been recast. The supposed unity of the fields of knowledge was no longer taken for granted, though the emerging gap between science and letters could still be bridged by dedicated post-Newtonian polymaths like Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, Thomas Jefferson, and Goethe.
As a student at Cambridge University in the 1790s, Young, according to Robinson, was noticeably different from his fellow students:
In his manners he had something of the stiffness of the Quakers remaining [Young had left the Quaker faith in which he was raised]; and though he never said or did a rude thing, he never made use of any of the forms of politeness. Not that he avoided them through affectation; his behavior was natural without timidity, and easy without boldness. He rarely associated with the young men of the college, who called him, with a mixture of derision and respect, Phenomenon Young.
One century after Kircher’s death, the phenomenon of the polymath could already look something like the unfashionable modern nerd.
One century later still, on the Victorian stage, the figure of the presumptive polymath would become the lovable object of comic derision, as in 1879 when Gilbert and Sullivan, in the Pirates of Penzance, presented their model of a modern major-general.
I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted too with matters
I understand equations, both the simple and
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot
With many cheerful facts about the square of
The towering geniuses of the nineteenth century—Marx and Darwin come immediately to mind—had an enormous influence on a great variety of disciplines, though they themselves did not aspire to be polymaths. Freud, in the later 19th century and early 20th century, was similarly tremendous in his multidisciplinary influence, offering radically new understandings of almost every aspect of psyche, family, society, and culture, including the religion of ancient Egypt and the art of Renaissance men like Leonardo and Michelangelo. Yet, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, for all their varied intellectual interests and ultimately far-ranging intellectual influences, were never engaged, like Kircher, in a project of mastering all knowledge. Rather, the individual Victorian genius offered big ideas with universal implications.
A more convincing Victorian polymath of the old style, with fields of expertise on opposite banks of the growing chasm between science and letters, needed two names to define his range: Charles Dodgson for teaching mathematics and mathematical logic at Oxford, and Lewis Carroll for writing Alice in Wonderland in 1865 and Through the Looking-Glass in 1871. Add to that the growing recognition today that Dodgson-Carroll was one of the most interesting (and disturbing) Victorian artists working with the new technology of photography. This unusual triple expertise (joined to the fact that Dodgson-Carroll was also an Anglican clergyman) dramatizes the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of polymathy in an increasingly centrifugal intellectual universe. The passion for logical puzzles, the peculiar literary genius of Wonderland and other works, the powerful photographs of little girls, all contributed to make the polymath an odd thing: a Victorian eccentric.
What would it mean to be a polymath in our own times? The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died tragically young at the age of 60 in 2002, the year of Kircher’s quadricentennial, was often called a Renaissance man, and was even described in a review as “a member of the endangered species known as the ruby-throated polymath.” Certainly, Gould was the most dazzling polymath whom I have personally ever known. His triple professorship at Harvard was in biology, geology, and the history of science—but he found his principal academic identity as a paleontologist and evolutionary theorist. A brilliant writer, he became a celebrity with books and essays that were intended to bring scientific issues to a broad public. Both scientist and historian of science, he was additionally a celebrated baseball writer and an active musical performer in the chorus of the Boston Cecilia Society, during the years when its landmark cycle of Handel oratorios helped to make Boston one of the world centers for early music.
Gould could move with intellectual aplomb among his fields of expertise, even exploring the relations among those fields with the very old-fashioned conviction that meaningful connections could and should be made. In one book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (Harmony, 1996), he first offered an extensive statistical analysis of why no one has batted over .400 since Ted Williams in 1941, and then brought a related statistical analysis to bear upon issues in the evolution of plankton. In the 1,400-page academic tome that he published in the year of his death, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard, 2002), Gould analyzed the intellectual history of evolutionary theory since Darwin, in order to articulate his own conception of evolution. He concluded with reference to Tolstoy’s philosophy of history in War and Peace, the better to emphasize the crucial Gouldian point of evolutionary contingency, which postulates that evolution, like history, developed unpredictably in response to “a thicket of apparently inconsequential and independent details,” rather than following any sort of overarching, predetermined, or providential plan. In Wonderful Life (Norton, 1989) Gould indicated some of the possible alternative paths of contingent evolution, and, typically, made reference to both Alexander Pope and Mark Twain, while proposing that the emergence of Homo sapiens was not necessarily the preordained outcome of evolutionary history.
Gould was a great bibliophile, who collected rare books of relevance to the history of science, and that is why he happened to own a copy of Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus. So, in 1999, when Gould published an article in Natural History on the history of geology, he took up the Mundus Subterraneus in order to quote Kircher’s earlier “catastrophic” perspective on geology, and translated his account of climbing Mount Vesuvius in order to enter the crater:
In the middle of the night, I climbed the mountain with great difficulty, moving upward along steep and rugged paths, toward the crater, which, horrible to say, I saw before me, lit entirely by fire and flowing pitch, and enveloped by noxious fumes of sulphur . . . Oh, the immensity of divine power and God’s wisdom! How incomprehensible are thy ways! If, in thy power, such fearful portents of nature now punish the duplicity and maliciousness of men, how shall it be on that last day when the earth, subjected to thy divine anger, is dissolved by heat into its elements.
For Gould, Kircher’s catastrophism was not an instance of unscientific piety, but rather a valid alternative to the modern gradualist conception of geological development, and, in Gould’s case, scientifically useful for framing his own view of irregularities in the geological record as evidence of “punctuated equilibria” in the uneven course of evolution.
Gould wrote one last essay about Kircher (published posthumously in Findlen’s volume), in which the most celebrated paleontologist of the 20th century argued that the 17th-century Jesuit’s appreciation of fossils was more subtle and more modern than has generally been supposed. Gould concluded on a note of admiration, denouncing “the harmful mythology that has depicted this great Jesuit scholar as a reactionary theological dogmatist, actively retarding or even subverting the progress of science.”
For Kircher in the 17th century, still at the beginning of the scientific revolution, it was possible to believe that all of science and letters might lie within the intellectual capacity of a single genius, and, perhaps even more significant, to believe that all fields of knowledge were ultimately related within God’s providential ordering of the universe. Kircher never had to learn calculus, which Leibniz and Newton were then only just beginning to formulate. For Gould in the 20th century, the century of nuclear physics, it would have been unthinkable to imagine anything like Kircher’s aspiration to universal knowledge, and, even in Gould’s own field of evolutionary biology, the pace of development was such that his death in 2002 preceded by only a year the complete sequencing of the human genome with its dramatic implications for the future of the field.
Kircher’s perspective on fossils—considering “how God, with the cooperation of Nature, produces such prodigious images”—would have seemed alien to the 20th-century paleontologist, and Gould’s view of evolution particularly rejected providential explanations, notably, the notion that the evolution of Homo sapiens was the intended culmination of natural history. Yet, Kircher’s polymathy, with his relish for the prodigious and manifold wonders of creation, was not altogether unlike the gusto with which Gould addressed the wondrous biological variety of natural history (Wonderful Life!) and the most diverse fields of human knowledge: from baseball statistics to Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. And while he would surely have rejected Kircher’s Renaissance conviction that all the branches of knowledge were interrelated as aspects of the divine purpose, Gould did believe that seemingly remote fields could offer one another oddly illuminating insights: One of his most famous articles on evolution, coauthored with Richard Lewontin in 1979, made use of the architectural spandrels of San Marco in Venice as a way of thinking about structural aspects of biological evolution. Likewise, issues of statistical probability made it possible for Gould to think in a comparative and analogous fashion about evolution and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. These were glancing comparisons, striking analogies, far from Kircher’s unified conception of knowledge, but perhaps every polymath enjoys a particular thrill at discovering the points of intersection among the far-flung realms of human knowledge.
Gould, writing about Kircher, noted with particular sympathy the great Jesuit’s underlying humility: “In spending so much time reading the Mundus Subterraneus and other works by Kircher, I have developed enormous respect, not so much for the power of his insights and assertions, but for the quality of his doubts, and for his willingness to grope and struggle with material that he understood only poorly by his own admission.” It must be the case for all celebrated polymaths, in every century, that they themselves know, as surely as they know anything, that they, like us, do not know everything.
Now professor of history at New York University, Larry Wolff taught European history at Boston College from 1986 to 2006, and has written numerous articles for Boston College Magazine, on subjects ranging from travelers and libraries to Caravaggio and Munch. His books include Venice and the Slavs (2001), and the edited volume The Anthropology of the Enlightenment (forthcoming).
Holding the center
A task force tries to build 21st-century connections among the disciplines
The French philosopher René Descartes once recalled that as a university student, he learned, among other worthwhile things, that “fiction enlivens the mind, famous deeds of history ennoble it . . . [and] mathematics has very subtle processes” that satisfy the intellect and edify all of the liberal arts.
Descartes wrote as an intellectual product of the 17th century as well as of Jesuit education, which was designed with the understanding that knowledge is interrelated and that human beings could be fluent, if not influential, in many fields of inquiry. It was a time when a René Descartes could spearhead a school of philosophy (rationalism) and spawn a branch of mathematics (analytical geometry).
Roughly two centuries later, at Oxford, Cardinal John Henry Newman was still describing pedagogic reality when he spoke of the modern university as “a place of concourse” where people share all kinds of knowledge. Today, many would say the communities of conversation that Newman prized have given way to islands of inquiry, and the scholarly disciplines through which Descartes moved freely have become “a multitude of academic tribes and territories,” in the words of education scholar Burton R. Clark—largely a result of something most people are thankful for: the burgeoning of scientific disciplines.
In the coming decades, empirical-based knowledge will continue to grow within an array of disciplines and subdisciplines, notes Boston College provost Cutberto Garza, who cites the proliferation of medical technologies as a prime example.
As a pediatrician and longtime consultant on childhood nutrition, Garza welcomes new medical understandings, no matter how many subdisciplines they engender. As the chief academic officer at the kind of university that educated Descartes and inspired Newman, however, Garza is not about to give up on the notion that a college is more than a landscape of independent disciplinary fiefdoms. On a humanistic note, Garza suggests, “I can learn more about what it means to grow old from reading Shakespeare than from the most knowledgeable texts on geriatrics.” But Garza has practical concerns as well: Complex problems such as climate change and global health can only be solved through complex solutions, which requires that researchers leave their monodisciplinary “silos” to develop multifaceted responses, he says.
Fraternizing helps, which is why Garza recently put together a “First Thursday” affair of faculty from across the departmental divide that meets monthly in Connolly House for drinks and colloquy. Between 60 and 80 professors have turned out for each of the first few gatherings. Far more ambitiously, the University plans to launch a think tank that would “promote and support the multidisciplinary idea” among faculty as well as students, says Garza, who has convened a nine-person steering committee for what will become the Institute for Liberal Arts. Making Boston College “the leader in liberal arts education among American universities” is one of seven goals outlined in the University’s strategic plan approved last year, and the institute’s aim is to bolster liberal arts scholarship by providing rewards (such as research grants and publication venues) for interdisciplinary teaching and research.
For example, says Vice Provost for Faculties Patricia DeLeeuw, who chairs the steering committee, a “City and Urban Culture” course might be taught by English, history, and political science faculty, linking students with museums, social agencies, and other institutions off-campus. Though tested and designed by the institute, courses like this will be offered through existing departments and programs, says DeLeeuw, who expects the institute to call for research and teaching proposals during the 2007–08 academic year.
The issue of liberal arts education is a concern beyond Boston College. Harvard University, for one prominent example, has been struggling for years to broaden and integrate its undergraduate curriculum so as to help students “understand how everything that we teach in the arts and sciences relates to their lives and to the world they will confront.” In February, a faculty panel called for a core curriculum that would replace distribution requirements dating to the 1970s and emphasize subjects such as “Empirical Reasoning” and (controversially among some secular-minded people) “Culture and Belief” rather than academic disciplines.
In an effort of this kind, a core curriculum shared by all students is considered an important tool. Boston College’s current core curriculum, last revised in the early 1990s, is descended from the Ratio Studiorum or “plan of studies,” published by the Jesuits in 1599 and which was not so much a core curriculum as it was the curriculum for all students at Jesuit colleges and universities. Organized around what Descartes fondly recalled as “all the great books . . . of earlier times” along with the fine arts and exact sciences, the Ratio reigned for centuries, and its influence continued to be felt at Boston College until about 1970, when the curriculum steeped in philosophy and theology was whittled down to two years of requirements intended to produce a graduate conversant with literature, history, geography, rhetoric, Latin, math, and natural science, according to Thomas O’Connor, the University’s historian.
That earlier core allowed students to choose between such disciplines as fine arts and mathematics, accentuating over time a cultural gap between what one student referred to as “the literary flakes and the science nerds,” recalls Richard Cobb-Stevens, a philosophy professor and director of the University Core Development Committee. The 11-member committee is the guardian of Boston College’s core curriculum, a breadth of offerings with shared characteristics, including discussion of perennial questions, culturally diverse perspectives, and attention to the values absorbed by students through their course work. Founded in 1991, shortly after the introduction of the refashioned core, the committee considers new courses, meets regularly with representatives of departments, and holds open meetings with students twice a year. Cobb-Stevens says the committee operates by unwritten “common sense” guidelines, which include being on the lookout for electives masquerading as core courses—for example, a philosophy course that focuses on just one philosopher, neglecting the “historical view of knowledge” required of core courses.
As is the new planning committee, Cobb-Stevens and his colleagues are looking to generate interdisciplinary courses as a way of helping students relate one subject to another. But he adds that faculty (especially in natural sciences) are scarcely lining up to teach cross-cutting courses such as one that would examine the history of scientific insight. The reason, he says, has to do with pressures inevitably weighing on scientists and others as specialists at a major research university, pressures wrapped in a discipline-ruled system that delivers rewards for research in highly specific areas. And a course on scientific insight—”New Scientific Visions”—is in fact taught out of a program managed by the philosophy department.
For similarly compelling reasons, full-time faculty aren’t always queuing for teaching assignments in the Arts & Sciences Honors Program, which is grounded in the great books and great works of art and music, says program director Mark O’Connor. Professor Avner Ash, who teaches full-time in the mathematics department and took on an honors course in modernism this year, points out that most of his fellow mathematicians wouldn’t feel competent to teach a class that includes readings in 20th-century philosophy and literature (subjects Ash says he has always pursued as an avocation), but he also says a math professor may find it easier than a scientist to scoop out time for such a teaching venture. “We don’t have labs, which are like full-time jobs” in themselves.
The planned Institute for Liberal Arts is not intended to replace any liberal arts programs or core requirement, but it will be “the place where faculty and students come together to think about the liberal arts,” says DeLeeuw. She and others behind the initiative see it partly as a way of preparing students for citizenship in an irreversibly complex world, helping them—with courses like the one on urban culture past and present—to “not only describe the complexities of life but also to make informed choices.”
Some believe that the structures of human knowledge that began sundering amid the scientific revolution are coalescing once again, as ever-more specialized research becomes embedded, paradoxically, in multidisciplinary contexts. “I think that will be the dominant story of the 21st century” in higher education, predicts BC sociology professor Juliet Schor, a member of Garza’s liberal arts planning committee. Others, like Cynthia Young of African and African diaspora studies (another committee member), see multidisciplinary rhetoric far outstripping academic reality. Both Schor and Young, however, have noticed the same yearnings among their students for a more engaged education that draws the intellectual links—and connects to their lives and roles as citizens. Says Young, “I think students are really hungering for a sense of how what they’re doing on campus feeds into the real world, and we need to provide space” for them to make those connections.
William Bole is coauthor, with Robert Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World (2007).
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