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« Tuna 1 / 2016

Unchanging and Changing Things

The current essay deals with the question of changing and unchanging things with regard to humanities and sciences, drawing some parallels with the situation in Early Modern academia. In Medieval and Early Modern thinking it was to a certain extent possible to translate knowledge form one area of knowledge into another, whereas this has become increasingly difficult in today’s academia.

This change seems to stem foremost from the understanding of the idea of ‘certain knowledge’, which nowadays is predominantly mathematical in character, whereas in Medieval and Early Modern thinking there also existed other certainties besides mathematical certainties that permitted different kinds of points of contact between sciences. Ancient writers already noted that what we call knowledge has to be unchanging, and that mathematical knowledge is apparently of this kind. We are, however, surrounded by things that are constantly changing, and thus because of their inconstant nature, we can only have opinions of them. It is only to the extent that these things participate in unchanging that we may also gain some knowledge about them. In Medieval and Early Modern thinking, besides mathematics, also the physical principles of Aristotle and Christian theological ideas lent additional coherence to all sciences, at least to the effect that the ultimate goals (telos, finis) of all sciences were alike. Often in Early Modern disputations the finis or ultimate goal of some particular science is discussed. In most general terms, this was understood as giving glory to God, or being ars bene vivendi, i.e. the art of good living. Early Modern academia was structured similarly, beginning with first principles (philosophy), followed by knowledge about health and sickness in the human body (medicine), next was knowledge of how to manage society (jurisprudence) and the ultimate goal was how to attain salvation (theology).

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the teleological idea lost its importance and fewer certainties remained in the sciences (Aristotelian categories had disappeared, the idea of natural religion was thoroughly criticised). Especially in arts, the idea of l’art pour l’art developed, meaning that there is no other positively definable purpose in artistic activity. The criterion of usefulness to society became prevalent during the 18th century, but as the usefulness of arts and humanities to society is difficult to quantify (and quantification is the basis for certain knowledge) then a noticeable uneasiness developed regarding the purpose of arts and humanities. Ultimately, the situation took shape where there are separate fields that deal with things about which we could have some knowledge (sciences), and with things about which

we could have no certain knowledge, only more or less probable opinions (arts and humanities). In parallel with this development, the fragmentation of chrestomathic literature also took place, where even within the humanities, different fields often use completely different base texts for the education of students. The effect of this is that having a meaningful conversation with a representative of another field is often complicated, as the lack of a common basis results in different vocabularies and different definitions of concepts.

At the same time, we see that outside academia, the (so called) product of arts and humanities continues to enjoy importance for society. This indicates the existence of a real and important object of study. It is, however, challenging to study this object in a meaningful way, as no certainty seemingly exists regarding these things. The same difficulty, however, seems to make the study of changing things vital, as change is certainly one constant in human society.