In "Signs of the Times", Thomas Carlyle describes the trend in contemporary thought to consider only what can be materially apprehended. His primary critiques concern the acts of misapplying (or overapplying) mechanistic explanations to inappropriate subjects, and refusing to acknowledge at all those phenomena that do not seem to have a mechanical explanation (e.g. religious sentiment, poetry, and conscious experience in general).
Carlyle observes: "The truth is, men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the visible; or, to speak it in other words: This is not a Religious age" (77). His problem, though, seems less in the fact that it is no longer a religious age, and more in the fact that, being a scientific age, there seems to be a lot that science can't (or won't) address. What about "the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder; of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all which have a truly vital and infinite character; as well as a science which practically addresses the finite, modified developments of these." (72, emphasis original) Carlyle is petitioning science for an explanation of the divine. Interestingly, he believes such a science has existed before-- what he calls a science of "dynamics", which he contrasts with the more recent science of "mechanics."
So, on the one hand, Carlyle's is a classic critique of science: take the mystery out of how the universe works, and it loses its magic. Science is also arrogant, because it claims to be able to single-handedly provide explanations for the intricate workings of the universe. Carlyle describes today's doctor, who "walks through the land of wonders, unwondering" (69) — who assumes that the world can be deconstructed into what "merely" exists physically, not recognizing the significance of the whole. But on the other hand, Carlyle seems to be suggesting that the problem with contemporary science is more its narrow understanding of what subjects are worthy of scientific inquiry than the limits of science itself.
In the past hundred or so years, certain sciences have cropped up to account for previously shrifted subjects of human curiosity, for example, psychology. Evolutionary psychology, the cognitive sciences, and others, try to provide viable explanations for the "infinite": human emotions, the ecstasy of the arts and religion, and consciousness. However, it was only until mechanical or physical explanations were provided for them that such pursuits could be considered "scientific". When Carlyle decribes what he calls "the intellectual bias of our times" ("that, except the external, there are no true sciences; that to the inward world (if there be any) our only conceivable road is through the outward; that, in short, what cannot be investigated and understood mechanically, cannot be investigated and understood at all" (70), one wonders if today's scientific efforts have answered his pleas for a science of dynamics. Can his "science" of dynamics be considered a science at all? Which is Carlyle condemning more in "Signs of the Times": the narrow scope of early nineteenth-century sciences or the supposed smug unwonderingness of science itself?
Last modified 4 April 2002