[This por­tion of Steiner’s Lecture Universitas?” was pub­lished to YouTube as the first of three parts, with it unclear if they were con­tigu­ous, so they are also pre­sent­ed here individually.]

George Steiner: The exponential—there is no oth­er word. The explo­sion of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy has trans­formed not only our uni­ver­si­ties but after Descartes and Leibniz the very sta­tus of knowl­edge and of truth. The exact and applied sci­ences with their inbuilt axiom of progress. Isn’t it fan­tas­tic? We will know some­thing tomor­row which we did not know today. Think of that for a moment. Even a mediocre sci­ence équipe will know some­thing next Monday which they did not know today. The esca­la­tor of sci­ence is always mov­ing upward. They have cre­at­ed new uni­ver­si­ties with­in the uni­ver­si­ty. Their budget—I don’t need to say that to rec­tors and deans, but their bud­get is a hundred-fold what was the bud­get of the human­i­ties. In a rank­ing American Ivy League uni­ver­si­ty, the cost of con­trol­ling the tem­per­a­ture of the high-energy lab­o­ra­to­ry is now greater than the cost of the entire uni­ver­si­ty bud­get ten years ago. In ten short years. In sci­ence fac­ul­ties, salaries and pres­tige are far in excess of those cur­rent in non-scientific depart­ments. I love to point out Berkeley in California has a fac­ul­ty park­ing space. And one part of it is reserved for Nobel lau­re­ates. [audi­ence laughs] Part of the park­ing space. They have that many at Berkeley. Just think of it.


Biogenetics seeks access to the mech­a­nism of life itself. Advances in med­i­cine are vir­tu­al­ly incon­mesurable. And yet. And yet—mais—that lit­tle French word, mais.” Or the German word aber.” Aber.

And yet, our wars are as bar­bar­ic as ever, famine and enslave­ment, forced migra­tion, abound. Forty mil­lion chil­dren are now near the hunger line. Forty mil­lion chil­dren. Economics nei­ther fore­saw, nor is help­ing us in the present cri­sis of late cap­i­tal­ism. The men­tal stress, the sad­ness in the psy­che, the crim­i­nal­i­ty which char­ac­ter­ize so much of our urban and famil­ial exis­tence; the hys­ter­i­cal flight into nar­cotics, and hyp­no­sis of the mass media have proved resis­tant to sci­en­tif­ic tri­umphs and their cre­do of enlight­ened ratio­nal­i­ty. In the great­est age sci­ence has ever known, there is more mis­ery on our streets, there is more men­tal col­lapse, than ever before.

There is a stub­born enig­ma here. A par­tial answer may lie in the gap of under­stand­ing which now sep­a­rates sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge and meth­ods from gen­er­al and pub­lic grasp. You at Tilburg are try­ing to han­dle this deep gap. Not only, as Galileo pro­claimed, does nature speak math­e­mat­ics, but the evo­lu­tion of that lan­guage has exclud­ed com­mon sense com­pre­hen­sion. You and I still speak of sun­set and sun­rise in a Ptolemaic use of lan­guage, cen­turies after Copernicus and Newton. It’s of course total non­sense. But we still use it continually. 

We dwell amid archa­ic fic­tions of sol­id objects. This table, we are told, is a vor­tex of elec­trons in quan­tum motion. But the caus­es may lie deep­er. Science has since Euclid prid­ed itself on its ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal absten­tions, on its neu­tral­i­ty in respect of social and polit­i­cal con­flicts. It has cul­ti­vat­ed what Kant calls, won­der­ful­ly, dis­in­ter­est­ed­ness.” Noli me tan­gere, I’m doing sci­ence. Don’t inter­fere with polit­i­cal or social con­cerns. Noli me tangere.

Its involve­ment in war­fare or Stalinist mad­ness have been con­tentious and self-destructive. Heidegger, God help us, put it with majes­tic inso­lence. I quote, Science does not think.” Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht. You had to be Heidegger to be able to say that. [audi­ence laughs] But it is a very deep piece of…idiocy. It’s a piece of idio­cy but it’s very deep. This is one of the hard­est things to han­dle: deep idiocies.

Do the human­i­ties think? The proud phrase lit­er­ae human­iores, the humane let­ters. Menschlichkeit. L’humanité, human­i­tas. Their condition—forgive me, and I don’t want to cause any offense. But their con­di­tion is not resplen­dent. A fair num­ber of under­grad­u­ates in self-entitled uni­ver­si­ties, which are actu­al­ly voca­tion­al or trade schools pro­mot­ed to a fake rank, verge on sub-literacy. I’m sorry.

[The sec­ond por­tion of this lec­ture can be found here.]


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