The weighty history and meaning behind the word ‘science’

The meaning of science has evolved over time but the goals remain the same. shutterstock

The meaning of science has evolved over the past two centuries. So too has the recognition that the soft sciences are just as critical to humanity as the traditional hard sciences.

In fields as different as genomics or human geography, the raisons d’être of hard and soft sciences and many of their applied allies, like engineering or accountancy, are the development of new knowledge through research. This is taken further by advancing that knowledge, and sharing it through publication and teaching. It is as complicated and yet as simple: the South African Journal of Science publishes work based on, or leading to, these foundations.

The journal is about quality knowledge-producing research, not about disciplines. After all, the National Research Foundation has just made top-rating awards to scholars in widely diverse disciplines.

Recent recipients include academics from wide-ranging disciplines: epidemiology, policy studies, medicine, history and computational and applied mathematics. This is precisely what the science in the South African Journal of Science is all about, just as it is what the Academy of Science South Africa is about.

It is the diversity of different disciplines that enshrines the strength of the contemporary university (and the journal) – a strength sometimes obscured by rankings which favour the natural sciences.

While protecting the value of the essential, it is clear that there is an equally inescapable need for greater and growing mutual respect of the different ways in which knowledge is produced, and research findings reported, so that co-operation becomes more, rather than less, possible.

To make the most of science, it is now more important than ever to celebrate the contributions that it makes, across the spectrum of disciplines, whether individually or collectively.

It is in this way that science contributes significantly to the well-being of ourselves, the environment on which we depend, and the richness of our world: genetics, agriculture, meteorology, music, literature, and so on.

How might we possibly live without the benefits that they, and their fellow disciplines, all offer? What can be said about the meaning of the word “science”?

Core meaning has remained consistent

We need a clearer understanding of the etymology of the word science. What must also be considered are the implications that those meanings have had for the ways in which science has been practised and understood, at least in the Western world.

Science is one of hundreds of thousands of words in English that has an extraordinarily long etymological history. Its popular meaning has changed, century by century, and sometimes even more rapidly than that.

Yet even among those words there are core meanings that have remained consistent. In English, science came from Old French, meaning knowledge, learning, application, and a corpus of human knowledge.

It originally came from the Latin word scientia which meant knowledge, a knowing, expertness, or experience. By the late 14th century, science meant, in English, collective knowledge.

But it has consistently carried the meaning of being a socially embedded activity: people seeking, systematising and sharing knowledge.

Earlier ferocious debates echo down the centuries

There are fierce debates about what makes up the proper ways of defining and constituting the undertaking of research and designating real knowledge.

These debates have their origins in the earliest Western universities whose intellectual context was that of the values and belief systems of the Catholic Church – and in the impact that the secularisation of universities had in later centuries.

Disciplines as we know them today arose in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although they have changed, with new disciplines being added and some shrinking or disappearing, the debates continue about which disciplines are better than others.

Muller captures the essence of this debate as played out in the 1960s amid the furore generated by papers by politician Lord CP Snow (a Cambridge-trained chemist and novelist) and FR Leavis, a Cambridge literary scholar.

Snow presented a Rede Lecture at Cambridge, called provocatively “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. It was at the secularised guardians of elite “traditional” culture that Snow aimed his provocation.

Snow characterised scientific culture as optimistic and forward looking, though regarded as shallow and philistine by the cultivated literary culture of the literary elite, who Snow considered ignorant snobs. He derided the mutual incomprehension of the two cultures: The degree of incomprehension on both sides is the kind of joke which has gone sour and lamented the sheer loss to us all.

The fault he laid squarely at the door of the literary intellectuals, calling them “natural Luddites” who lacked the culture to grasp the second law of thermodynamics, a piece of general cultural knowledge he likened to knowing something about Shakespeare.

And then went on to say that industrialisation was the only hope for the poor and the Third World, and that the best the developed world could do was to produce as many engineers as it could and export them to where they were needed in the developing world.

Despite his oversimplifications, Snow had hit a nerve. The most extreme response came from Leavis, doyen of the literary elite.

In a lecture at Cambridge, Leavis heaped derision on Snow’s “embarrassing vulgarity of style”, his ignorance, and ineptness as a novelist. But Leavis’ attack drew an avalanche of responses, which called it “bemused drivelling” of “unexampled ferocity”.

The debates may no longer be ferocious. But their sounds echo faintly through academia – more so in some countries than in others.


This piece was first published in the September/October 2015 issue of the South African Journal of Science.

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