Loren Eiseley and the Critique of Science

Mary Ellen Pitts

In Toward a Dialogue of Understandings, Mary Ellen Pitts examines scientist Loren Eiseley's unique impact as a thinker and writers.


Widely admired for their poetic prose and combination of literary and scientific interests, Eiseley's texts also incorporate an epistemological quest for a dialogue of the analytical scientific method and the intuitive, synthesizing insights of literature. Epistemologically, Eiseley anticipates the work of Thomas S. Kuhn and Gerald Holton, who posit, respectively, the role of the paradigm shift and of the thematic and emotional involvement of the scientist in the history of science. Eiseley's questioning of the objectivity of science, his recognition of the role of intuitive knowledge in science, and his questioning of the possibility of exact representation anticipate the epistemological questioning and reexamination that have emerged in postmodern philosophy and in literary theory.


An anthropologist whose sense of poetic appreciation was evident from his youthful desire "to be a nature writer," Eiseley was clearly knowledgeable about the role of language and rhetoric in shaping understanding. In his texts, he equates scientific symbols with literary symbols and the creative act in science with that of art. He also defamiliarizes attitudes toward science that we have inherited from the nineteenth century, especially the notion of "nature." He maintains that, through institutionalized science, nature has become externalized, particularized, mechanized, separated from the human, and fragmented - reduced to conflict without consideration of cooperation, confined to reductionist and positivist study. The results for humankind as part of the biota - Eiseley's concern as a writer - are far-reaching.


From his early analysis of Baconian observation, Eiseley emphasizes Bacon's "uses of life" - not just human, but all life. In the seminal Darwin's Century, he painstakingly traces the emergence of evolutionary thinking. Eiseley emphasizes the contributions of a "more gracious, humane tradition" that is traceable to the eighteenth-century parson-naturalists and to such literary observers as Thoreau and Hudson; he finds two separate "streams" of thought that "have at times mingled, influenced and affected each other but...have remained in some degree apart in method and in outlook."


Of both streams Eiseley was the inheritor. The second, "the more gracious, humane tradition," moved him away from purely scholarly writing and toward the literary essay. This stream compelled him to reexamine, for the nonspecialist, the excesses of experimentalism and to seek an epistemology that incorporates Baconian observation and experiment with humane insight. Eiseley argues that although we cannot, and should not, separate ourselves from experimentalism, we can nevertheless reexamine the basic assumptions of this method. his reexamination of science and of the linguistic and rhetorical constructs that underlie the way we understand science and the world is the focus of this book.


0934223378 (AUP)
Lehigh University Press - Towards a Dialogue of Understandings