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The aesthetics of research, a note.

Words that express aesthetic values, such as "beautiful," "ingenious," "simple," "graceful," and "elegant," appear increasingly in the writings of scholars, including economists. Although aesthetic criteria are hardly clear, for some, these qualities are expressed by the dictum "less is more."(1) Jaroslav Pelikan, at the other end of the spectrum, holds that any research project by which "'What?' can lead to 'How?' can then lead to 'Why?' is ineluctably aesthetic in its nature and scope."(2) Such a broad definition of aesthetics would encompass the processes of artistic creation and appreciation that spring from the scholar's ideology and vision. It is the scholar's grasp of the central issues of the period, especially in social inquiry, that determines the selection of research areas; the design, identification, and framing of the questions to be broached; the right blending and flow of the constituent parts of the project; and, ultimately, the research results.

Whether a narrow or broad approach is adopted, scientific activity has the great potential of offering aesthetic joy.(3) At the heart of scientific activity is the discovery of universal laws of nature that bring order and unity to a diverse, uncertain world, and purpose, direction, and meaning. Thus, Coledridge's definition of what is beauty - "unity in variety" - is appropriate. Some researchers even contend that scientific curiosities alone have the capacity to lift us onto the highest perch of human development. For example, Isidor Isaac Rabi, the physics Nobelist, appears to argue in a sense (though unconvincingly in my view) that art is the antithesis of science as if thinking and feeling, and truth and beauty, can be easily separated or even distinguished.

The arts are certainly central to life, yet they are not the kind of thing that will inspire men to push onto new heights. Suppose we were to become a nation of poets and were taught in school, as the Japanese are taught, that every good citizen should write a poem. Some would be very good and people would read and enjoy them. But what would anybody talk about? Only everyday things - love, sorrow, life, and death. If men want to go beyond these everyday things to a grand theme, they will find it only in science... I mean, after Shakespeare and others, how many more persons can say the same things? They can say it in different ways, they can say it in beautiful ways and in other contexts, and I hope they will never stop. But just the same, where do we find the really new thing, the moving thing, the thing that will show the glory of God and the originality of nature, the profundity - and where do we find the imagination that delves into the mysteries of life, into the existence of matter? That imagination, I would say, will be found only in science.(4)

A number of scientists have addressed the important relationship between

aesthetics and intuition. Dirac's reaction to Schrodinger's decision to delay publishing his wave equation because it conflicted with the data (which cost Schrodinger priority to what is now known as the Klein-Gordon equation) is noteworthy: "I think there is a moral to this story, namely that having beauty in one's equations is more important than to have them fit the experiment.... It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress. If there is not complete agreement between the results of one's work and experiment, one should not allow oneself to be too discouraged, because the discrepancy may be due to minor features that are not properly taken into account and that will get cleared up with further developments of the theory."(5)

Communicating one's research contents and findings is likewise an art that embraces aesthetic dimensions, however tortured and lonely the process of composition may be. Words can be as enchanting, as captivating, as uplifting, and as sensuous to the listener or reader as musical notes because the paths of language and music are very much connected. Both are steeped in affect, and can inspire human emotions. Flaubert rolled on the floor for hours until he found just the happy turn of phrase he was groping for, or that Ernest Hemingway is said to have revised the last page of A Farewell to Arms sixty times.(6) The objective then is to wield the writer's tools in a way that grabs the reader and makes for zesty reading. This involves clarity, precision, and the economical use of words.(7) Before Bill Moyers assumed the position of commentator on "NBC Nightly News," he approached John Chancellor, who had served in that capacity for several years, for some advice. Chancellor advised Moyers to start reading the first chapter of Genesis. "A minute and a half (the time allotted for a commentary) gets you to the afternoon of the third day; if you cannot say what you need to by the afternoon of the third day, then you are not a commentator."(8)

Equally important is the realization that no paper will ever be perfect. Take the illustrative case of Lord Acton. He planned to write a masterpiece on the history of liberty that he titled "The Madonna of the Future." The work was never completed, however, because each time Lord Acton encountered new materials related to the subject, he felt compelled to redraft his findings. This anecdote underscores the importance of creating a balance between one's writing and reading. The two compete with one another. Similarly, a balance between a critical attitude toward one's own work and a sense of self-confidence must be developed, lest the research project reach oblivion rather than what Henry James called (upon publishing his first piece - a book review) "the incredibility of print." For those who ask where to find interesting research .projects, besides the practical advice offered by the economists in this volume, Isaac Bashevis Singer has a delightful, metaphysical answer: "There are powers who take care of you. If you are a doctor, you get sick people; if you are a lawyer, you get cases; if you are a writer, the Almighty sends you stories, sometimes too many."(9)

Finally, when the principle of "publish or perish!" makes a game of the citations and peer approval that are supposed to certify to the scientist's standing in the scholarly world, the game takes on an aesthetic dimension for scholars.


1. Originally, aesthetics referred to the domain of human sensation rather than the intellect. Immanuel Kant noted that, in our perceptual experience, there is a difference between the conceptual-logical and the sensuous. "Concepts, thoughts without factual content, are empty senses; intuitions without concepts, are blind.... The senses cannot think. The understanding cannot see. By their union only can knowledge be produced." The Critique of Pure Reason (London: The Macmillan Co., 1927), 41.

2. Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Aesthetics of Scholarly Research," in Sesquicentennial Lecture, Tulane University (September 21, 1984), 7. Leonard B. Meyer, in his Music, The Arts and Ideas (University of Chicago Press, 1967), 58, holds that of the cultural beliefs that determine aesthetic criteria, the belief in causation is the most significant because it suggests that creation is a "purposeful act of human will."

3. Many scholars have concluded that besides self-discipline and analytic rigor, aesthetic values are crucial in significant scientific research. See Judith Wechsler (ed.), On Aesthetics in Science (MIT Press, 1978). However, the 1986 Nobelist, James Buchanan, argues that aesthetic criteria should play little role in the social sciences. See Michael Szenberg (ed.), Eminent Economists: Their Life Philosophies (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 102. For other contrarian views, see David Lindley, The End of Physics (New York: Basic Books, 1993).

4. I. I. Rabi, "The Interaction of Science and Technology," in A. W. Warner, Dean Morse, and Alfred S. Eichner (eds.), The Impact of Science on Technology (Columbia University Press, 1965), 20.

5. Paul A.M. Dirac, "The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Nature," Scientific American (May 1963), 47. John Dewey notes that James Clerk Maxwell, the discoverer of the electromagnetic field, once introduced a symbol to make an equation symmetrical and thus aesthetically more attractive and only later sought and found a meaning for it. See his "Art as Experience," in Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (eds.), Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 637.

6. Mark Twain once remarked that in writing the gap between the perfect adjective and the next-best adjective to be used is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

7. When reminiscing in January 1997 at the American Economic Association New Orleans meetings about Walter Heller's tenure as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Kennedy administration, Roger Porter, a former White House official, attributed Heller's increasingly decisive influence over President Kennedy to the persuasiveness of Heller's writing and the clarity of his exposition.

8. The Wall Street Journal (March 13, 1995), A12.

9. Herbert Mitgang, Words Still Count With Me (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 228.

Michael Szenberg is a Professor of Economics and Director, Center for Applied Research, Lubin School of Business, Pace University.
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Author:Szenberg, Michael
Publication:American Economist
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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