Towards an ecology of art and science (2005)

Towards an ecology of art and science[1]



Murdo Macdonald



I read: ‘philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of ‘Reality’ than Plato got.’ What a strange situation. How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further! Was it because Plato was so extremely clever? [2]




This paper finds its starting point in research carried out in the psychology department of the University of Edinburgh in the 1980s. It stems directly from a paper I published in 1989 in the art journal Alba, under the title ‘A Pattern of Thought’.[3] What I was concerned with then were the ways of thinking which characterise different arts and sciences. How are these ways of thinking shared, or not? Can the assumptions of different areas be inter-translated, or are they incommensurable? If they are incommensurable, is this a difficulty, or an opportunity for wider insight? I was concerned with the possibilities and subtleties of knowledge transfer, not just in a social setting, but within an individual. How does one area of thinking inform another? And how can one area of thinking inform another? These are questions that can be asked both in a room full of people of diverse views, and with respect to the unique combination of cognitive styles characteristic to one person. I revisit this work in the context of an interdisciplinary project which began in 2002. This project, a collaboration between researchers at the universities of Dundee and Aberdeen[4] seeks to illuminate creativity and learning, and has a strong undercurrent of interest in the relationships between arts and sciences. My primary acknowledgement must be to members of that research group, in particular the artist and anthropologist Wendy Gunn, the anthropologist Tim Ingold, and the artist Arthur Watson.[5]


What I did in my 1989 paper was to propose a comprehensive model that linked and differentiated arts and sciences, shed light on significant activities of childhood (drawing, building, narrating, playing) and at the same time suggested relationships between the cultural style descriptions empirical, rational, classical and romantic. What I want to do here is to take that earlier thinking and to situate it with respect to the current project, particularly in the light of an invited paper given by James Leach at Dundee Contemporary Arts under the auspices of our own project and the Visual Research Centre.[6] It was entitled ‘Disciplinary specialisation and collaborative endeavour: some challenges presented by sci-art projects’. That paper was characterised by a rejection of easy assumptions about the relationship between arts and sciences, and it led me to look again at my own work.


The necessity of generalism

The specific questions I addressed in my 1989 paper can be summarised as follows: What do we mean by art? What do we mean by science? And, crucially, how are these two areas of activity related? In addressing these large issues I noted Polya’s reminder that general questions can be more easy to solve:

The more ambitious plan may have more chance of success. This sounds paradoxical, yet when passing from one problem to another, we may often observe that the new problem is easier to handle than the original problem. More questions may be easier to answer than one question. The more comprehensive theorem may be easier to prove, the more general problem may be easier to solve.[7]


Quite so. Another comment which had bearing on the task came from the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. He wrote of ‘the pattern which connects the items of learning’ and of how breaking that pattern was to ‘necessarily destroy all quality’.[8] Polya’s ‘more general problem’ provided me with an ethos, a context for thinking, Bateson’s ‘pattern which connects’ provided me with a motto. As a kind of caveat I noted these lines from the poet Borges:


To reach it, a ladder has to be set up. There is no stair.

What can we be looking for in the attic

but the accumulation of disorder?[9]



Three related questions

The relationship between art and science is, on closer examination a number of often conflated issues. These concern (at the very least), first of all the relationship of arts as practised (painting, music, literature, etc) to sciences; secondly, the links between humanities (i.e. arts as institutionally described in faculties of arts) and sciences; and, thirdly, aesthetic aspects of science.


Art and science as overlapping insights: C. H. Waddington

An explorer of the first issue, that is to say the relationship of arts as practised to sciences, was the geneticist C. H. Waddington who concluded his 1969 discourse on modernist art, Behind Appearance, with the words:


We have been led, by a consideration of one apparent discontinuity in human experience, that between painting and natural science, to recognize that there is a continuity between them after all, and that this continuity extends out into wider fields …. the conclusion we have come to is that man is an Argus with innumerable eyes, all yielding their overlapping insights to his one being, that struggles to accept them in all their variety and richness.[10]


Waddington was a pioneering, mid-20th-century biologist with a passionate interest in contemporary art. Perhaps it was his breadth of vision that led him to give little credence to philosophers of science who characterise scientific method in a rigid manner:


The mistake made by both sets of philosophers – those who asked for verification and those who would settle for falsification – is that they demand 100 per cent certainty; and that is something we can never have in the real world. All science can do is to show that some things are very likely, others unlikely. Its picture of the world is more like a portrait drawn by a painter than a precise theorem in logic.[11]

Waddington’s message is that however analytical science may be, by virtue of its contact with the real world, it demands a form of expression which may reflect some of the ambiguous characteristics of art. This is a useful antidote to the scientism which undermines so much of our current discourse on method. The real world. Now what is that? For Waddington it seems to hover as a kind of mid-term between art and science, to which each somehow refers.


Humanities and sciences: C. P. Snow, George Davie, Patrick Geddes

Most discussion of the relationships between arts and sciences has centred on the second issue, that is to say the links and schisms between the humanities and the sciences. Perhaps the most widely known discussion is that of C.P. Snow, indeed in the wake of Snow’s eponymous article of 1956, it has been known as the ‘two cultures’ debate.[12] Snow’s view of the past is of a period dominated by the literary culture of the traditional arts faculties. For Snow in the future science will come into its own ‘certain that history is on its side’. Understandably, such views led Aldous Huxley to describe Snow’s writing as ‘bland scientism’.[13] But one must concede that Snow is at least implicitly aware of the problem of scientism, indeed one could argue that it is this that leads him to seek a rapprochement between science and literary culture in the first place. The problem with his view is that by seeing science as having ‘history on its side’ – implying that it is somehow a more ‘advanced’ type of knowledge than literature – he brings his scientism to the fore and makes any such rapprochement difficult. Thus for Snow literature is important, but not as important as science. He has a ‘one and a half cultures’ problem, so to speak.


A more considered view of the relationship between humanities and sciences is to be found in the work of the philosopher and historian of ideas George Davie (1961, 1986).[14] Davie takes his cue from the St Andrews classicist John Burnet, quoting him as follows:


the most important side of any department of knowledge is the side on which it comes into contact with every other department. To insist on this is the true function of humanism.[15]


Davie’s approach is informed by historical understanding. In The Democratic Intellect (1961) he explores the dynamics of Scottish nineteenth-century education in terms of the encroachment of specialisation on the generalist tradition of Scottish education. Davie notes that in nineteenth-century Scotland it was taken for granted that one area of thought or expertise benefited from the illumination of another and, of course, vice versa. With respect to this I have commented elsewhere that:


any aspect of knowledge, culture, society, or whatever, benefited from the illumination of other aspects. The task of education was to facilitate such processes.[16] This social approach to knowledge, which takes for granted the role of the wider community in the process of establishing and maintaining bodies of knowledge, also implies that different and perhaps incommensurable disciplines should be juxtaposed for mutual illumination, rather than … kept in water tight compartments.[17]


The notion of incommensurable disciplines being juxtaposed in order to illuminate the blindspots in one another is fundamental to Davie’s philosophy. It challenges the assumption that evaluation critera can be easily transferred across disciplines.


My comment about water tight compartments derives from an essay by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid was a friend of George Davie, and wrote about his work, but this quotation is to be found in his assessment of another generalist thinker, Patrick Geddes, and it is worth quoting at more length:


[Geddes’s] constant effort was ‘to help people to think for themselves, and to think round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits.’ He knew that watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.[18]


Mention of Geddes allows me to make a further point. One finds in Geddes’s work, not least in his comprehensive Notation of Life, a high value assigned to arts as practised, alongside humanities, social science and natural sciences.[19] Thus one can argue that Patrick Geddes unites the perspectives of Snow, Davie and Waddington, or at least provides a context.


Aesthetics and physics: Paul Dirac

Like good art, good science in prone to conceptual elegance. Consider the following: ‘It is tempting to go one step further and speculate that the entire universe evolved from literally nothing.’[20] This is a minimalism worthy of the painting of a Zen master. But these words were written by physicists. Thus the third question, aesthetic aspects of science, is an interesting one not least because by noting what scientists say one can dispose of the notion that the aesthetic is the province of art alone, or that it is somehow art’s contribution to science. The point is made succinctly by the physicist Paul Dirac when he writes that ‘it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.’[21] Here Dirac is reflecting on Schrodinger’s wave equation, one of the cornerstones of quantum physics. Elsewhere he notes, with respect to Einstein that ‘his entire procedure was to search for a beautiful theory’[22] expanding this as follows:


He was guided only by the requirement that his theory should have the beauty and the elegance which one would expect to be provided by any fundamental description of nature. He was working entirely from these ideas of what nature ought to be like and not from the requirement to account for certain experimental results.[23]


Similar points have been made by other writers, for example:


It should, however, be pointed out that, mathematically, Einstein’s theory is extremely simple and beautiful. The competing theories are not. If beauty and simplicity are in some way a measure of validity, we may continue with confidence in assuming Einstein was right.[24]



A model, then a library

To get some sort of grip on these questions of art, science and the aesthetic, I developed a model. This consisted of a three-dimensional surface capable of expressing a sufficient number of links and separations between disciplines or ways of thinking.[25] For convenience of mapping I used a cube. Its dimensions were characterised by the following complementarities: (i) the idea of interpretation – one or many – which I characterised by the terms ‘analysis’ and ‘ambiguity’ respectively; (this reflects the usual science – art distinction); (ii) the idea of relation – internal or external – which I characterised as ‘form’ and ‘likeness’; (broadly reflecting the difference between activities like, for example, mathematics and music on the one hand and biology and portraiture on the other); (iii) the idea of direction – one or many – which I termed as ‘development’ and ‘extension’; (broadly reflecting the contrast between time-dependent sciences like psychology and sciences like physics where time can even be reversed in a space-like way, and between time-dependent arts like literature and space dependent ones like painting). This model is a crude but useful classification device. It organizes a significant body of information, but more than that it generates new thinking about the interactions and continuities between different or not so different cognitive domains. My first publication of it was in an architecture research journal and on the basis of the model I was consulted by an architectural partnership on a competition entry for the proposed new library at Alexandria.[26] I would like to think that my efforts resonate with Schopenhauer when he notes:


As the biggest library if it is in disorder is not so useful as a small but well arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value to you than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself; because only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge.[27]


This notion of ‘comparing every truth with every other truth’ interested me. But I would resist the notion of ‘complete possession’. What I intended the model to reflect was something like the generative interactions that Herman Hesse explores in The Glass Bead Game. Hesse writes of ‘every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort towards reconciliation between science and art or science and religion’ and then refers to ‘the dream of capturing the universe of the intellect in concentric systems, and pairing the living beauty of thought and art with the magical expressiveness of the exact sciences.’[28]


But, remembering Borges, I bore in mind this equivocal caveat from Michael Moorcock:


[He] let his mind drift about in time, encompassing past, present and future and forming it into a whole – a pattern. He was suspicious of pattern, disliking shape, for he did not trust it. To him, life was chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable. It was a trick, an illusion, of the mind, to be able to see a pattern to it.[29]


I had got that far, more or less, in the 1980s. What struck me when working on our current Learning is Understanding in Practice project was how material that I was encountering in that context seemed to gloss aspects of the model. For example, thanks to my anthropologist colleagues I became aware of the classification of modes of production stemming from the voice as distinct from those stemming from the hand.[30] The point of this distinction is that it does not necessarily correspond to the final medium of expression. For example literature stems from the voice, not from the hand, even if it is hand-written. I saw that these notions were closely linked to the one of the complementarities I had used in my model, namely ‘development’ versus ‘extension’, but expressed the intended distinction far better than my previous formulation.


An ecology of art and science

What I think I am beginning to look at here is what one might call a cultural ecology or, to use a more current phrase, an ecological anthropology, of art and science. Just as Polya and Bateson gave me lines of approaching my initial questions, a way of approaching this notion of a wider ecology of thinking comes from Novalis: ‘What is nature? An encyclopaedic, systematic index or plan of our spirit.’ Thus: not mind interpreting nature, but mind and nature, to employ another of Bateson’s concise and effective expressions.[31]





Bateson, G., (1973) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, London: Paladin.

Bateson, G., (1979) Mind and Nature, London: Wildwood House.

Boardman, P., (1978) The Worlds of Patrick Geddes, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Borges, J. L., (1972) trans. A Reid (1977) The Gold of the Tigers New York: E P Dutton.

D’Avoine Fitton Horne & Papa, competition entry for Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 1988-1989, in P. Patel, A. Taylor & P. Hull (1989) Bibliotheca Alexandrina: UNESCO: The British Entrants, London: RIBA.

Davie, G. E., (1961) The Democratic Intellect, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davie, G. E., (1986) The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, Edinburgh: Polygon

Dirac, P. A. M., (1963) ‘The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature’

Scientific American, 208:45-53

Dirac, P. A. M., (1979) ‘The test of time’ in The Unesco Courier, 75, June, pp.17-23. reproduced as ‘The Test of Einstein’ in S Brown, J Flauvel and R Finnegan eds. (1981) Conceptions of Inquiry, London: Methuen, pp. 88-93.

Gardner, P., (1963) Schopenhauer, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Guth, A. H. & Steinhardt, P. J., (1984) ‘The Inflationary Universe’ Scientific American, 250:98-102.

Hesse, H., (1943), trans. R. & C. Winston (1970) The Glass Bead Game, London: Johnathan Cape.

Huxley, A., (1963) Literature and Science, New York: Harper & Row.

Kaufmann, W. J., (1977) Relativity and Cosmology, 2e, New York: Harper and Row.

MacDiarmid, H., (1966) The Company I’ve Kept, London: Hutchison.

Macdonald, M., (1985) ‘A Basis for Library Design’ Edinburgh Architecture Research, (Dept. of Architecture, Univ. of Edinburgh), 12, 1985, 104-113.

Macdonald, M., (1985) ‘A Model of the Relationships between Art and Science’, Edinburgh Review, 71, 1985, 81-90.

Macdonald M. J. S. (1986) Birth Order, Art and Science: A Study of Ways of Thinking, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Macdonald, M., (1987) ‘Types of Thinking’, Common Sense, 1, May 1987, 22-25.

Macdonald, M., (1989) ‘A Pattern of Thought’, Alba, Spring, 15-17.

Macdonald, M., (2000), ‘Patrick Geddes and Scottish Generalism’ in V. Welter & J. Lawson, eds., The City after Patrick Geddes, Berne: Peter Lang.

Macdonald, M., (ed.), Edinburgh Review, ‘Democracy and Curriculum’ Issue, No 90, 1993.

Moorcock, M., (1965) Stormbringer, London: Herbert Jenkins.

Polya, G., (1957) How To Solve It, 2e, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Snow, C. P., (1956) ‘The Two Cultures’, The New Statesman and Nation, 6 October.

Snow, C. P., (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Rede Lecture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tedlock, B. & Tedlock, D. (1985) ‘Text and Textile: Language and Technology in the Arts of the Quiché Maya’, J. of Anthropological Research, Vol. 41, No. 2, 121-146.

Waddington, C. H. (1969) Behind Appearance, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Waddington, C. H. (1977) Tools for Thought, London: Cape.

Wittgenstein, L., trans. A. C. Miles (1979) Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, Retford: Byrnmill.





Aknowledgment is due to all those involved currently in the AHRB Learning is understanding in practice project based at the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen. Since this paper looks again at my PhD work, I must also acknowledge my teachers at the University of Edinburgh, in particular the psychologists Halla Beloff and Tom Bower, and the philosopher George Davie.


[1] ‘Towards an Ecology of Art and Science’ in M. Macdonald and J. Leach Two Papers about Art and Science, Creativity and Practice Research Papers, Visual Research Centre, University Dundee, 2005, 2-10. My title makes reference to Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind.

[2] Wittgenstein, 1979.

[3] This work was developed from my PhD thesis (University of Edinburgh, 1986).

[4] Learning is undersanding in practice: exploring the relations between perception, creativity and skill. Funded over three years by AHRB, this is a joint venture of the School of Fine Art of the University of Dundee, and the Department of Anthropology of the University of Aberdeen.

[5] Further stimulating interchange of ideas (in both words and images) has come from PhD students associated with the project, Sandra McNeil, Ray Lucas and Paul Harrison, and from the project research assistant Suzanne Holland.

[6] 18 February 2004.

[7] Polya, 1957, p.121.

[8] Bateson, 1979, p. 8.

[9] From ‘Inventory’ by Jorge Luis Borges, in Borges, trans. A. Reid, 1977.

[10] Waddington, 1969, p. 243.

[11] Waddington, 1977, p. 121.

[12] Snow, 1956; see also Snow, 1959.

[13] Huxley, 1963, p. 1.

[14] Although Davie’s view may be more considered than that of Snow, Snow was quick to praise Davie’s Democratic Intellect on its publication in 1961. Robbins was also influenced.

[15] Quoted by Davie, 1986, p.15.

[16] For further consideration of this point see Macdonald (ed.), 1993.

[17] Macdonald, in Welter & Lawson, eds., 2000.

[18] MacDiarmid, 1963, 83.

[19] See, for example, the appendix to Boardman, 1978.

[20] Guth and Steinhardt, 1984.

[21] Dirac, 1963, p. 47.

[22] Dirac, 1981, p. 92.

[23] Dirac, 1981, p. 92.

[24] Kaufmann, 1977.

[25] My work is detailed in (i) A Basis for Library Design. Edinburgh Architecture Research. Vol. 12, 104-13 (1985); (ii) A Model of the Relationships between Art and Science. Edinburgh Review. Issue 71, 81-9 (1985); (iii) Birth Order, Art and Science: A Study of Ways of Thinking. PhD Thesis, Univ. of Edinburgh (1986); (iv) Types of Thinking. Common Sense. No. 1, 22-5 (1987); (v) ‘A Pattern of Thought’, Alba, Spring 1989, 15-17.

[26] D’Avoine Fitton Horne & Papa, competition entry for Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 1988-1989. in P. Patel, A. Taylor & P. Hull, 1989. The model was also used as the basis of an architectural project by Julian Cowie. With respect to the Alexandria library, things have now come full circle, through my colleague on the current project, Dr Wendy Gunn. Gunn’s doctoral thesis, ‘The social and environmental impact of incorporating computer aided design technologies into an architectural design process’ (University of Manchester, 2002) includes a detailed case study of how CAD technologies were incorporated into an architectural design and construction process: namely, the winning entry by the Norwegian practice Snohetta for the Alexandria Library Project in Egypt.

[27] Schopenhauer, trans. Gardner, 1963.

[28] Hesse, trans. Winston, 1970, p.19.

[29] Moorcock, 1965.

[30] Tedlock & Tedlock, 1985.

[31] Bateson, 1979.