The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination (1978)

In 1967, Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) — historian of science, mathematician, biologist, poet, editor, biographer, and host of the BBC series The Ascent of Man — delivered six lectures at Yale University on “The Mind as an Instrument of Understanding,” “The Evolution and Power of Symbolic Language,” “Knowledge as Algorithm and as Metaphor,” “The Laws of Nature and the Nature of Laws,” Error, Progress, and the Concept of Time,” and “Law and Individual Responsibility.”


These Silliman Lectures were later published by Yale under the title “The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination.”




It’s a difficult but lovely and provocative book.


And Bronowski was apparently a lovely and impressive man. The author of the book’s Foreward begins with a story about Bronowski. He writes that a friend of his was once a Jewish refugee from Germany enrolled in a British country school during World War II. His schoolmates teased him for being Jewish and bookish. One evening, many of the students attended a public lecture in a nearby town. After that, the boy was treated with a new respect. The lecturer who in one hour had made being Jewish and intellectual acceptable, even admirable, was Bronowski.


What I find intriguing about these lectures is Bronowski’s view of the scientific enterprise as a series of acts of imagination. That’s not the popular view of science, of course.


No, when we think of the scientist, we think of words like “experiment,” “data,” “facts,” “objective,” “quantitative,” and “knowledge.” It would seem that scientists and poets have little to nothing in common.


Not so, according to Bronowski. Here’s a quote (109-110):


[I]n Science and Human Values, … I said that every act of imagination is the discovery of likenesses between two things which were thought unlike. And the example I gave was Newton’s thinking of the likeness between the thrown apple and the moon sailing majestically in the sky. A most improbable likeness, but one which turned out to be (if you will forgive the phrase) enormously fruitful. All acts of imagination are of that kind. They take the closed system, they inspect it, they manipulate it, and then they find something which had not been put into the system so far. They open the system up, they introduce new likenesses, whether it is Shakespeare saying, “My Mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne” or it is Newton saying that the moon in essence is exactly like a thrown apple. All those who imagine take parts of the universe which have not been connected hitherto and enlarge the total connectivity of the universe by showing them to be connected.



So, roughly speaking, we have not discovered the way that the universe works, we have imagined the way it works.


You cannot rightly say, “I have discovered that the world is flat.” No, you imagine that it is flat, and then you set about trying to prove yourself right or wrong. And that’s the important point that Bronowski makes.


In order to keep opening up the system — that is, in order not to continue believing in error that the Earth is at the center of the universe; or that the four elements of all matter are fire, water, air, and earth; or that the Earth is only 9,000 years years old — you have to feel free to use your imagination, challenge orthodoxy, and then attempt with absolute integrity to prove that the received wisdom is wrong and that you are right. If you cannot work with absolute integrity, or as Bronowski says, if you cannot give “due honor to the people who take the steps, the steps that turn out to be wrong as well as the steps that turn out to be right” (133), then your society will stagnate, fail to cope with changing conditions, and ultimately pass away.


Here’s Bronowski on knowledge and imagination in The Ascent of Man:


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