The following column appeared in the Manitoba Free Press, October 10, 1931, p 11. It appears to have caught the interested attention of W.O. Mitchell1 and Marshall McLuhan2 who were then both underclassmen at the University of Manitoba.
Science and Literature
Prof. Rupert C Lodge
Dept of Philosophy and Psychology
University of Manitoba
I notice that a most interesting controversy is being carried on in your columns and, like the Irishman who asked whether this was a private fight or whether he might join in, I wonder whether a student of philosophy might express his opinion. The fundamental point at issue appears to be whether science and literature are, or are not, essentially parallel functions of the human mind. Both parties of the controversy regard science as a body of ascertained truth, such that each new generation starting where the last generation left off makes impersonal additions to this body of “fact”. [Reader] TBR, who believes in the parallelism of literature and science, argues that each generation of writers should similarly start where the previous generation left off and should make creative additions to “literature” and should not waste time on such “literary curiosities” as Chaucer and Shakespeare, who are apparently studied at some length at the University of Manitoba. On the other it is claimed that “literature” is not a “body of fact” to which simple additions can be made but is a unique creation of the human spirit distinct from science and that Chaucer and Shakespeare, unlike an Aristotle or Newton, have an especial kind of significance which makes the study them permanently valuable.
To a student of philosophy, the premises apparently accepted by both parties to the controversy seem unreliable. Science is essentially inquiry and discovery, continued and refined by successive generations of scientists. The content of a scientific textbook does not consist of a body of “facts” or “ascertained truths”, but represents, rather, a cross-section through a particular stage of scientific inquiry, with a history reaching back into the past and an outlook directed toward the future, and entirely dependent upon the efforts of particular human personalities. Science thus represents an adventure of the spirit quite as much as poetry and has quite as much power to thrill the imagination and liberate the mind from instinctive and local prejudices. This has, indeed, always been one of the chief reasons for studying science and it is in this respect similar to literature in its influences. The history of science in many universities constitutes a definite part of the curriculum and it is felt that if the student is to be more than a technician, he will study the history of science in order to acquire background and culture.
Literature seems to occupy a parallel position. A particular epic or drama is not something altogether out of time, but it is the product of its age and can be understood only in its historical relations, and as a cross-section through a particular stage of literary technique. Here, too, it is possible, by narrow insistence on creative writing, to turn out students who are technicians. It is also possible, by a judicious use of the great literature of the past, to broaden and deepen a student’s powers so that, with the background and culture thus acquired, he may be given the chance to create, not merely technical writing, but “literature”. In some universities there is a distinct department of “rhetoric” or “journalism”, which aims at developing technicians and may be entirely separate from the department of “English”, which devotes itself to emphasizing the cultural influences of literature. In most universities, as in the University of Manitoba, a certain compromise is effected in both scientific and literary departments.
As to the actual controversy, TBR is surely right in supposing that science and literature are parallel, and in deducing the possibility of training in the technique of writing without much reference to the great writers of ages which past. But both in science and in literature the study of history is of cultural value, and it is hardly fair to criticize departments either of science or of literature for not turning out large numbers of technicians in their particular fields, unless that is the avowed aim of the departments In question. The primary function of our university departments is, surely, to enlighten and liberate the minds of our students so that, whatever their professions or interests in after-life, they may be able to bring an educated and cultured outlook to bear upon their problems.
- See W.O. Mitchell on Rupert Lodge. ↩
- Lodge’s quip about “the Irishman who asked whether this was a private fight or whether he might join in” appears, 40 (!) years later, in Take Today (212): ‘Is this a private fight, or may anyone join in? – An Irishman’ . McLuhan is known to have used the quip in lectures around the same time. He recalled Lodge in his Speaking of Winnipeg interview in 1970 and this may have brought the quip back to mind. ↩