Category Archives: Science

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic on this date in 1600 (born 1548).

From Words with Power:

We have glanced at the way in which ideological language supports the anxieties of social authority, and of how other types of verbal authority nonetheless establish themselves, for example in science.  In the collisions of Galileo and Bruno with the religious functionaries of their time, we recognize that a scientist has a commitment to his science as well as to his society, and that in certain crises he has an obligation to remain loyal to his science, even if silenced or martyred.  This may be a simple moral issue of holding on to facts and evidence in the face of reactionary illusion, but it may be something subtler than that.  In Galileo’s day the evidence for a heliocentric solar system was not yet conclusive: the geocentric theory seemed still reasonable, and Galileo was really making what is called a leap of faith.  This term is used in religious writing, but not every leap of faith is a religious one.  As for Bruno, his leaps are so vast and various that even specialists on him find him hard to keep up with.  But then Isaac Newton presents an almost equally disconcerting picture when the whole of his output and range of interests is considered.

The authority of science, in other words, expands into a wider and compelling authority of social and intellectual freedom.  This will always be relevant as long as the scientist remains a human being whose work has a personal context as well as a scientific one, involved with the ideology even when he challenges certain accepted forms of it.  In our day, highly technological society may conscript some scientists into working for its interests, whereupon others will realize that the basis of their commitment to science is a conviction that science exists for the benefit of humanity, not for the promotion of tyranny and terror. (CW 26, 47-8)

Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s “Science and Beauty,” first published in the Washington Post in 1979

Today is Isaac Asimov‘s birthday (1920-1992).

Frye in “Introduction to Design for Learning“:

Mathematics is often said to be the language of science, but it is a secondary language: all elementary understanding is verbal, and most of the understanding of it at any level continues to be so.  The verbal understanding of science, at least on the elementary level, is quite as much imaginative, quite as dependent on metaphor and analogy, as it is descriptive.  Here is a passage from The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, by Isaac Asimov, which illustrates how metaphorical a writer must become when he has to explain science to scientific illiterates: “Cosmic rays bombarding atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere knock out neutrons when they shatter the atoms; some of these neutrons bounce out of the atmosphere into space; they then decay into protons, and the charged protons are trapped by magnetic lines of force of the earth.”  This functional use of metaphor is one of the many reasons why no programme of study in English, however utilitarian its aims, can ever lose contact with English as literature.  (CW 7, 134)

Frye and Science


In Notebook 27 Frye writes:

I’m giving up the “science” bit in AC: it’s impossible to explain to this generation of critics what I mean.  I never did have the analogy of the physical sciences in mind: the model was always social science, man studying himself.  What I thought of was a merging of criticism with semiotics and linguistics.  When critics keep saying that there can’t be a science of criticism, what they’re really saying is “I can’t and won’t write this kind of criticism,” and I can’t say they’re wrong because I can’t & won’t write it myself.  People will write it some day, and I thought it might be a good thing to alert the critics of the 50’s to the ultimate end of what they were actually doing.  But if it’s just a prophecy with no present practical use, the hell with it. (CW 5, 85)

As Michael Dolzani says, Frye’s scientific heroes were of the visionary kind––Whitehead, Jeans, Alexander, Bohm.  I’ve always wondered whether Frye was familiar with the paradigm theory in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions––a theory that would seem to have attracted him.  He owned a copy of the book, but I think there’s no evidence that he ever read it, though he seems to have discussed it in an interview with Gilbert Reid.  Frye had more than a casual interest in science fiction and in the views of new‑age scientists––what he called “the Tao of physics people” (Ken Wilber, Fritjof Capra, et al.).

Frye was familiar with several popular accounts of science.  He read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, Isaac Asimov’s The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science and The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom, and he read as well several of Carl Sagan’s books (Bocca’s Brain, The Cosmic Connection, and The Dragons of Eden).

Frye’s library contains annotated editions of a wide variety of other books on science, including Edwin Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Stewart Copinger Easton’s Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal Science, David Hay’s Exploring Inner Space: Scientists and Religious Experience, his colleague John Irving’s Science and Values, Gordon N. Patterson, Message from Infinity: A Space-age Correlation of Science and Religion, and Rudy Rucker’s, Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite.

Books that Frye owned but did not annotate include Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science: A Critical Survey Written for the Cultured Non-mathematician, Karl Pearson’s The Grammar of Science, Oliver R. Reiser’s The Integration of Human Knowledge: A Study of the Formal Foundations and the Social Implications of Unified Science and Unified Symbolism for World Understanding in Science, and C.H. Waddington’s The Scientific Attitude.

At school I was taught that substances keeping form & volume were solids, those keeping volume but not form liquids, & those keeping neither gas.  Even then I could see that there ought to be a fourth class keeping form but not volume.  And there is a tradition, though admittedly a very speculative one, which says that there is a fourth class of this kind, & the one that includes all organisms or living beings.  Also, that just as solids, liquids & gases have a symbolic connexion with, respectively, earth, water & air, so organisms, especially warm-blooded animals, are units of imprisoned fire.  (CW 13, 208)

The Void Between the Stars


Blake’s Song of Los

Response to Sára Tóth,  Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham

These responses appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like fairy rings on the front lawn:  you wake up in the morning, and there they are.  Most gratifying, particularly when one’s respondents are as stimulating as Sára Tóth, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham.  I begin to see the uses of this blog thing:  it has a rhythm of its own, quite different from academic criticism.

Joe, I thank you for reminding us of that passage from Creation and Recreation, as it is probably Frye’s most extended treatment of the concept of spiritual otherness.  Both Joe and Sára point to the dialectical nature of Frye’s later thought, and that puts its finger on something central. The Late Notebooks show that Words with Power was going to be organized according to a “dialectic of Word and Spirit.”  I keep wondering why that dropped largely out of the final book—especially as it is still there implicitly.  Is Sára right that there are signs of occasional vacillation on Frye’s part?

She is definitely correct about Frye’s vacillation on the subject of kerygma.  Another thing I like about the blog is that I feel free to introduce occasional anecdotes that are, I hope, instructive, yet which would be out of place in a more formal setting.  In the later Eighties, some time after the appearance of The Great Code, I managed to work up my nerve to question Frye about what seemed an either-or distinction in that book between literature and kerygmatic rhetoric.  I asked him whether literature couldn’t at times take on a kerygmatic quality.  Frye was tactful, but wouldn’t back down.  He used as example the refrain from the Bard’s Song in Blake’s Milton:  “Mark my words! They are of your eternal salvation!”  Notwithstanding, Frye told me, since that assertion appears in a work of literature, we take it hypothetically.  This is why The Great Code insists that the Bible is not a work of art.  I was somewhat troubled by this, for personal as well as intellectual reasons.  Certain works of literature, even certain passages, have changed me, have changed my life.  For that matter, certain passages of Frye have changed my life:  I have had the “This is for me” response Frye speaks of as characteristic of kerygma; the passages have become “myths to live by.”  So I read Chapter Four of Words with Power with delighted surprise.  Frye just about never admitted that he changed his mind—but he did.  I am much more satisfied with the treatment in the later book, in which literature can sometimes take on kerygmatic qualities and, presumably, kerygmatic works such as the Bible can exhibit literary qualities.  The latter would take Frye full circle to Fearful Symmetry, which says in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a work of art, not just a code of art.  To be sure, Frye is speaking there from Blake’s perspective, but there is no indication that he does not share it.

As for the question of criticism as science, I am betting that that is fuel for at least three dozen blog entries–starting with this one.  I concede that Frye did talk sometimes as if he felt that criticism could be organized on an empirical basis, like science.  He was clearly irritated when he said in “Expanding Eyes” that “The order of words is there, all right, and there is no use writing it off as a private hallucination of my own.”  Harold Bloom had just got done comparing him to Proclus and Iamblichus—private hallucinators, in Frye’s book.  But he did seem to retain as late as 1975 a faith that we could achieve some consensus by showing repeated patterns “in the text.”  However, criticism for at least a decade before that had been insisting on exactly the opposite:  what seems to be “in the text” is a product of ideology or interpretive communities operating upon authors, readers, and critics alike.  This is why talk of a “scientific” criticism seems so dated now.

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Comment Re: Sokal Hoax


One of our readers, Alan, in response to Michael Sinding’s post, makes this observation about the Sokal hoax:

Thanks for the link to Berube – he is now on my Google Reader list – though his comparison of the Sokal hoax to Pons-Fleischmann is fatuous, so I distrust him automatically; Pons-Fleischmann set off a firestorm of skepticism (I remember, I was there) in the scientific community, which is neither so gullible, nor so in love with false scientific legitimation, as the cultural studies community. Sokal went beyond his original hoax and produced further devastating critiques of many in the ‘theory’ community (never Derrida, though, if I recall).

Frye the Scientist


This might be of particular interest to Clayton Chrusch, Adam Bradley, and Trevor Losh-Johnson, among others.

Frye on Form and Volume

At school I was taught that substances keeping form & volume were solids, those keeping volume but not form liquids, & those keeping neither gas.  Even then I could see that there ought to be a fourth class keeping form but not volume.  And there is a tradition, though admittedly a very speculative one, which says that there is a fourth class of this kind, & the one that includes all organisms or living beings.  Also, that just as solids, liquids & gases have a symbolic connexion with, respectively, earth, water & air, so organisms, especially warm-blooded animals, are units of imprisoned fire. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 208)

Frye on Geometry and Beauty

When I entered University in the old Pass Course I was neither wise nor experienced, being seventeen; but my cultural tastes were formed.  I had always done well in English, liked history and languages, thought I could do philosophy, hated science, and loathed mathematics with an adolescent’s fanaticism.  However, I had to take math, so I sulkily bought a formidable treatise on “Analytic Geometry,” by someone named De Lury, whom I had never heard of nor wanted to hear of, and proceeded to read the only part of it which it was possible to read, the Preface.  At the end of the Preface I came across some such remark as this: “The student should get a sharp pencil & a decent set of instruments, because without clear and accurate diagrams a great deal of the beauty of the subject will be lost.”  I stared at that sentence for a long time, and then thought, “By golly, that could be true.”  I never got further with mathematics, and never got the point of the subject, but from that day I have never doubted that there was a point to get, and that for those who know it mathematics is one of the major disciplines of beauty. (Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW 25, 14)

[Daniel Bertrand De Lury, a special lecturer in mathematics at the University of Toronto.  Analytic Geometry seems not to be in the data base of any Canadian or U.S. library, although De Lury published several volumes on mathematics through the University of Toronto Press for the Ontario Research Foundation.]  

Prophetic Genius: Frye the Astronomer

In one of his notebooks he records this fantasy: “In my childhood I dreamed of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto.”  [Pictured above]  Frye calls this a “curious form of e.s.p. that he possesses,” and with good reason, as Pluto wasn’t actually discovered and so named until a decade later.  (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 68)