Jacob Bronowski (1908 – 1974) lived for nearly 70 years before I was born. This genius was a Polish-born mathematician, historian of science, playwright, poet, and inventor. Bronowski is primarily responsible for the 1973 12-part exploration of creativity, ingenuity, vision, integration, science, and progress, The Ascent of Man, and the accompanying book. It was very careful, rational, and aspirational. He seems like a great man, a real scientist, and one of humanity’s greatest losses. He did say and write many important things, and I will now present you with the fifty or sixty Jacob Bronowski quotes that are a valued part of The Wisdom Archive, which is yours to search for free. Enjoy.
Religion as it existed up to and in the nineteenth century is dead. Nineteenth-century rationalism killed it…
There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility.
Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.
We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex [instinct]. Knowledge is our destiny. Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.
Man masters nature not by force, but by understanding.
The monastery was, for Erasmus, an iron door closed against knowledge.
These are the moments when the powerful mind or the forceful character feels the ferment of the times, when his thoughts quicken, and when he can inject into the uncertainties of others the creative ideas which will strengthen them with purpose. At such a moment the man who can direct others, in thought or in action, can remake the world.The last Commandment
The last Commandment is: Thou Shalt Not Question.
Jacob Bronowski quotes are available for free on Values of the Wise
The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art.
In effect, what Luther said in 1517 was that we may appeal to a demonstrable work of God, the Bible, to override any established authority. The Scientific Revolution begins when Nicolaus Copernicus implied the bolder proposition that there is another work of God to which we may appeal even beyond this: the great work of nature. No absolute statement is allowed to be out of reach of the test, that its consequence must conform to the facts of nature. The habit of testing and correcting the concept by its consequences in experience has been the spring within the movement of our civilization ever since.
Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.
Tolerance among scientists cannot be based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of justice and of due honor. These are values which to the layman seem most remote from any abstract study. Justice, honor, the respect of man for man: What, he asks, have these human values to do with science? …Those who think that science is ethically neutral confuse the findings of science, which are, with the activity of science, which is not.
The painter’s portrait and the physicist’s explanation are both rooted in reality, but they have been changed by the painter or the physicist into something more subtly imagined than the photographic appearance of things.
There is today almost no scientific theory which was held when, say, the Industrial Revolution began about 1760. Most often today’s theories flatly contradict those of 1760; many contradict those of 1900. In cosmology, in quantum mechanics, in genetics, in the social sciences, who now holds the beliefs that seemed firm sixty years ago? Yet the society of scientists has survived these changes without a revolution, and honors the men whose beliefs it no longer shares. No one has recanted abjectly at a trial before his colleagues. The whole structure of science has been changed and no one has been either disgraced or deposed. Through all the changes of science, the society of scientists is flexible and single-minded together, and evolves and rights itself. In the language of science, it is a stable society.
The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed. We cannot conceive a future society without science.
A fact is discovered, a theory is invented; is any theory ever deep enough for it to be truly called a creation? Most scientists would answer: no! Science, they would say, engages only part of the mind – the rational intellect – but creation must engage the whole mind. Science demands none of that ground swell of emotion, none of the rich bottom of personality, which fills out the work of art… Creation consists in finding unity, finding likenesses, finding pattern….
Don’t give up yet; many more Jacob Bronowski quotes are still below…
Nature herself is chaos; she is full of infinite variety without order. But if you see her with inner vision, a creative mind (whether a poetic mind like Charles Baudelaire’s or a scientific mind like Isaac Newton’s), there comes a moment when many different aspects suddenly crystallize in a single unity. You have found a key; you have found a clue; you have found the path which organizes the material. You have found what Coleridge called “unity in variety.” That is the moment of creation.
To imagine is the characteristic act, not of the poet’s mind, or the painter’s, or the scientist’s, but of the mind of man.
[T]he human reason discovers new relations between things not by deduction, but by that unpredictable blend of speculation and insight… induction, which—like other forms of imagination—cannot be formalized.
In every age there is a turning point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world. It is frozen in the statues of Easter Island that put a stop to time—and in the medieval clocks of Europe that once also seemed to say the last word about the heavens forever. Each culture tries to fix its visionary moment, when it was transformed by a new conception either of nature or of man. But in retrospect, what commands our attention as much are the continuities—the thoughts that run or recur from one civilization to another.
The progress of science is the discovery at each step of a new order which gives unity to what had long seemed unlike. Faraday did this when he closed the link between electricity and magnetism. Clerk Maxwell did it when he linked both with light. Einstein linked time with space, mass with energy, and the path of light past the sun with the flight of a bullet; and spent his dying years in trying to add to these likenesses another, which would find a single imaginative order between the equations between Clerk Maxwell and his own geometry of gravitation When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought: beauty he said, is “unity in variety.” Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.
The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation … The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.
Man is not the most majestic of the creatures; long before the mammals even, the dinosaurs were far more splendid. But he has what no other animal possesses: a jigsaw of faculties, which alone, over three thousand million years of life, made him creative. Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.
One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the twentieth century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable.
The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out, there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. Jacob Bronowski quotes When the future looks back on the 1930’s, it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it – the ascent of man against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty.
It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.
We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world… Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.
I am absolutely inspired by these incredible Jacob Bronowski quotes.
We are all afraid – for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilization, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do. The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.
What we really mean by free will… is the visualizing of alternatives and making a choice between them. …the central problem of human consciousness depends on this ability to imagine.
The language of ideas creates a different universe: a universe which has multiplied the monkey’s vocabulary of forty words to the million words in the English dictionary.
No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power.
… Let no one tell you that this quotation is only a particular statement. It derives its general appeal to us all from its high specificity, and that is the miracle of this kind of remark; it is a statement which says something about the human situation and not just about a robin or a cage [the William Blake statement that A Robin Red Breast in a Cage/ Puts all Heaven in a Rage.]
…all our prejudices about the external world tend to be built into the language of science. Then, when somebody shows that the whole thing was nonsense, that we put our prejudices into it, we are always taken aback. I mean, in 1900 if you had said to somebody, “Could my watch run faster if I were standing at the equator then at the North Pole?” everybody would have said, “But that is rubbish! Only children think that kind of thing.” When in 1905 Einstein wrote a paper in which he said just that, everybody said, “But that is marvelous. What a child’s vision he has.” Which is true.
Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide in a fit of depression. Why? Because he could not persuade his colleagues that atoms were real. It may not seem to you something to take your life over, but it was to him. The irony, of course, was that had he only held his hand for another year or two, all his colleagues would have been persuaded.
There is almost no scientific theory which was held to be fundamental in 1867 which is thought to be true in that form today. We have lived through a century of the most amazing firework display of new discoveries. Not discoveries of a superficial nature, but ones which have radically altered our whole picture of nature.
When Newton saw the moon as a ball that had been thrown around Earth, he was initiating a gigantic metaphor. And when it finished up, it was in a calculable form, it was an algorithm (a formula with which you can calculate). And that is the path from metaphor to algorithm – from the Blake phrase to the Newton formula – that every scientific theory has to follow because it is a human section of the totality of experience which excludes some of the connections which are there.
When we look at what the eye does, we become aware that it interprets the world from the outset by a process of inference. Perception itself is a mechanism in which sensations are instantly interpreted by an inferential process.
Tarski showed that any scientific language fails because as soon as you introduce the phrase,” so and so is true,” then the introduction of the words “is true” creates a self-reference in the language which gives rise to paradoxes. And you cannot do without those words, you cannot do without “is true.” It is of the nature of knowledge, it is of the nature of the cognitive construction of human language that these contradictions occur in it.
These are fifty of the best Jacob Bronowski quotes on record.
Science is an attempt to represent the known world as a closed system with a perfect formalism. Scientific discovery is a constant maverick process of breaking out at the ends of the system and opening it up again and then hastily closing it after you have done your particular piece of work. You would like yours, of course. , To be the last discovery but alas – or should I say, happily – it is not so.
All acts of imagination are of that kind. They take the closed system, they inspect it, then 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 enlarged the total connectivity of the universe by showing them to be connected.
We ask ourselves, “Why does one chess player play better than another?” The answer is not that the one who plays better makes fewer mistakes, because in a fundamental way the one who plays better makes more mistakes, by which I mean more imaginative mistakes. He sees more ridiculous alternatives. … The mark of a great player is exactly that he thinks of something which by all known norms of the game is an error. His choice does not conform to the way in which, if you want to put it the most brutally, a machine would play the game.
The discovery is made with tears and sweat…by people who are constantly getting the wrong answer. And is not possible to eliminate it because that is the nature of looking for imaginative likenesses. You are always looking for a likeness and nine out of ten of the likenesses you are looking for are not there. So, of course, more bad science is produced than good and more bad works of art are produced than good ones. The difference is only that most scientists take care not to exhibit their bad work. Jacob Bronowski quotes are wonderful, aren’t they?
Progress is the exploration of our own error. Evolution is a consolidation of what have always begun as errors. And errors are of two kinds: errors that turn out to be true and errors that turn out to be false (which are most of them). But they both have the same character of being an imaginative speculation.
In spite of all their attempts to look and behave like computers, scientists are maverick personalities. It is not possible constantly to face the world with the idea that the explanation which you have just been told is sure to be wrong unless you are a very questioning, a very challenging kind of person.
This is how the world goes, you are going to have to make it different, you are going to have to stop listening to your parents. If you go on being your parents, the world will never be a better place.
You do not invent a new system by being satisfied with what other people have told you about how the world works.
You are reading Jacob Bronowski quotes
Now this is absolutely crucial: scientists never discussed ends, they only discuss means – the steps by which you get from today’s knowledge to tomorrow’s knowledge. It is wonderful when a man produces a grand theory and one has a new direction to work toward, a new end. But the means have got to be absolutely honest.
It is basic to the concept of truth as practiced in science that it is an absolute command in every detail. There is no distinction between good means and good ends. You are only allowed to employ perfectly honest means. This is what puts you in a position of special trust. And this is a deeply ethical principle.
You cannot take the simplest statement in science without having to believe a lot of people. I know an awful lot of biologists and there are many subjects about which I would not believe a word they said. But when they start talking about how DNA is put together, then I know they are telling the truth.
There are the personal values – respect, sensitivity, tolerance – without which science could not be carried on. They are the “is” values, the values of the man working by himself. And then there are the communal values, the “ought” values – honesty, integrity, dignity, authenticity – which bind the scientific community together.
We are living at the moment in history when the scientific ethic comes through everything. The notion is that you can believe it, it is in the paper, it is not a piece of propaganda by one religious sect or another, it has been said by a scientist in a serious publication. If, on the other hand, this kind of thing had been put out by some sectarian agency, we would not have believed it.
Democracy is a way of organizing the State which has shown its success exactly as science has, because it is constantly able to transform itself. It can only do that by the same means as science, by absolute honesty and integrity.
I hope you enjoyed reading these wonderful Jacob Bronowski quotes!
Here is an external source for some interesting information about the man, and in this context, the atheist. You might even find a few Bronowski quotes there as well.