On the meaning of "Art" and "Science":

A Conversation concerning the different Categorization (and meaning) of the Arts and Sciences

 -in Holland and England

From: Ton Kruse <>
To: "Trevor Batten" <trevor@tebatt.net>
Subject: Re: Two Cultures
Date: Sun, 22 Mar 2020 14:46:40 +0100

Hi Trevor,
To avoid getting into Babylonian confusion, we must look at our successive
understandings of the words: science, philosophy, and empirical sciences.

As an English speaking, you probably have a subtle different understanding
of these words than I have as a Dutch speaking. I say this because I often
get the impression that you pick up on something different than what I
intended when using these terms. Myself, on the other hand, have probably a
subtle different understanding of what you intend when you use terms like:
model, science, technology and knowledge. It might be wise to have these
terms defined better first, and take into account the different cultural and
personal understandings of words (and what they refer and relate to) in our
different mother tongues. Our experiences with different people also colour
our successive understandings (and thus: appreciation) of their fields of

I will try to summarize the Dutch language use of wetenschappen (sciences),
geesteswetenschappen (humanities), empirische wetenschappen (natural
sciences), wijsbegeerte (philosophy), kunst (art), alfawetenschappen
(humanities) and betawetenschappen (natural sciences).

For me, as a Dutch speaker, the sciences (wetenschappen) comprise all
sciences. That is, both the humanities ánd the natural sciences.

The humanities are in Dutch named either de alfawetenschappen or de
geesteswetenschappen. This is because these fields of study evolved directly
from the seven liberal arts of the medieval universities. The title one gets
here after graduation in these studies still is: Bachelor of Arts (BA) or
Master of Arts (MA).

The Dutch word for art, kunst, comes etymological from the old Dutch word
cunnan, which means knowledge and knowing (how) both. In Dutch you still
find the subjects: Aardrijkskunde (geology) and Natuurkunde (physics). There
you can see that kunde, or kunst, originally meant the knowledge of a
particular field of study. Both what becomes and is known of that field, and
how that field of study is done. In the English word art, this meaning is
also etymologically traceable, but it is a little harder to do and perhaps
less obvious. One has to go back further to the Latin (via the Old French).
The English appears to stress the meaning of skill more (knowing how).

On the other hand: since at least the last century, art - in the sense of
visual art, music or literature - has been seen in the Netherlands more
often as a skill or craft then as an art (in the sense of knowledge and
knowing). Here, often you'll find that people, be it: scholars, governers,
or policy makers, are talking of kunstnijverheid in regard of the arts. Over
here, the art academy (art school) is no longer part of a university, but is
separated as a HBO - a school for Higher Professional (Beroeps) Education.
In contrast to the academic studies, in a HBO study one learns a
profession – a profession in the sense of a skill or a craft, by which one
may earn a living through practicing that skill or craft. So the principle
meaning of profession, which is: a public declaration of dedication, is lost
in the Dutch HBO studies. Where, strangely, the art academy is arranged
under. Here a profession is just that what one earns a living by (however
whole heartedly some may do their jobs).

For academic studies however, a profession is still understood closer to its
principle meaning: A field of study that one publicly dedicates oneself to.
For instance: academic medical professionals were until recently (and some
still do so) expected to take an oath (the oath of Hippocrates) when
starting their professional life. Nurses (that are educated on HBO, or lower
levels) don't have to take an oath. Their work is seen as a job. However, a
little further back in history, you'll see that nurses were usually nuns or
monks. That is why, in my youth, in the Netherlands we still called nurses:
zusters or broeders (sisters or brothers).

When we return to the subject of the sciences, we notice that the alpha is
the A of the Greek alphabet, and the beta is the B. This refers to the
historical evolution of the betawetenschappen from the original 'Arts' (de
alfa- of geesteswetenschappen, the humanities). Betawetenschappen are the
natural sciences. But maths is also considered a beta science. This might be
because mathematics are used to calculate and describe the natural forces.
For instance, I know someone who studied practical mathematics, and now
works for an engineering company. But I know there are also fundamental
mathematics, and that this is pure, abstract theory. So, I can see why you
say that math has an origin in religious and philosophical practices. For
Dutch speakers those would be studied in the alpha sciences, but in fact
mathematics are always arranged under the beta sciences.

By empirische wetenschappen, empirical sciences, we also mean the natural
sciences. The sciences where models can be tested, and where the outcomes
are considered true, if the tests can be repeated by anyone, anywhere, with
having the same results.

In the geesteswetenschappen, which are alfawetenschappen (the Arts), the
'models' that are construed are of course also based on what is seen
(empiri). But here what is seen are not natural phenomena, but rather the
products (works) of the human mind. Cultural products. The models of the
alpha sciences can't be tested in the same manner as the natural sciences
would. This is because they are about how people think, and how they
understand what is there.

Wijsbegeerte, literally the longing or want for wisdom, is in English:
philosophy. It is the field of study of thought. This is in Dutch language
use a geesteswetenschap, a science of the mind. Also an alfawetenschap. So,
it is commonly seen as a science in Dutch language use.

I think that for you, science is perhaps something else from philosophy. You
wouldn't perhaps consider a field of study as theology to be a science. Due
to globalization we speak in the Netherlands of the 'verengelsing' of our
sciences and our language. The process of loosing sight on the sciences as
both alfa- and beta-sciences is happening here too. More and more, only the
natural, or empirical sciences are seen as sciences, and the humanities are
loosing their status as a field of study for gaining scientific knowledge.
This is where the sense of inferiority regarding the humanities comes from,
and why some scholars are trying to make them work (look) more like the
empirical sciences.

To finish this letter, there is the issue of our successive understandings
of the terms ‘insight’ and ‘knowledge’. For me an insight is a manner in
which knowledge presents itself. So, knowing, for me, can have different
origins, and different ways of presenting itself, and it can be obtained in
different ways.

Best wishes, Ton


From: Trevor <trevor at tebatt.net>
To: Ton Kruse
Subject: Re: Art and Science
Date: Mon, 23 Mar 2020 16:10:45 +0800

Hi Ton,
It's exactly because the terms seems to be confusing (to me at least) that I believe one should look seriously to see what precisely they mean. Thank you for your explanation.

I'm not even sure how congruent the terms "Arts" and "Humanities" are. I sometimes use both terms (in an attempt to reflect the Dutch division into "Alpha" and "Beta") -but I don't think normal English speakers would use both English terms together. 

The English tend to say "Arts" and the Americans (I believe) tend to say "Humanities"....
So, the question (in my mind) is: If such a division exists in most countries -do they all divide university subjects up into the same category -or are some "Arts" subjects in one country considered "Science" subjects in another country (or university)......
...and perhaps we need to have our own terminology for the division:
Because I sometimes divide the world up into "Symbolists" (those who believe their "facts" or symbols) and "Mystics" (those who question how the facts and symbols got their meaning)
-I wonder if the "hard" sciences are "Platonic"
 (i.e. Do the scientists believe that their science reflects a Platonic reality).....
Yes, I agree entirely that if one starts defining terms -then one might need to use multiple definitions for these words -and then look to see which definitions are the most acceptable in which contexts.......
The idea of definitions is to clarify what exactly we are talking about -and not intended to "bully" one meaning through above another.....

In fact, it was because I noticed that I personally was using different sets of definitions for the same thing -depending on the context of the conversation -that I realized it might be important to catalogue  the different terms and try to see which ones were most appropriate -and when.....

I suppose this is partly because the way my own computer programs were developed was largely on the basis of a (loose) analysis of something -followed by a (simplified) attempt to synthesize the result of the analysis......
So, I see both analysis and synthesis as important research tools.

Maybe this is why my approach is so difficult to understand for others -because it goes outside "normal" habits.....

Indeed, I think it is most interesting that we both have different mother tongues -and that this fact should also be included -and not rejected as part of the research. Indeed, it would be even better to have other native language speakers involved too.
Although, perhaps later so the thing doesn't get too complex -too quickly... :)

...and I although we need to understand each other precisely -perhaps even more important is that we understand ourselves more precisely.

In my experience, in non-formal thinking -it is quite easy to contradict oneself or have conflicting ideas without realizing it. By putting ones thoughts into some concrete form (even a painting) these contradictions can become more visible in our  consciousness.
However, I don't think that such contradictions should always be removed when discovered. just studied and understood -because  often they give important insights into more interesting things......

Indeed, of course -ones (arbitrary?) "experiences" are an impotent part of ones "being" -and so also need to be taken into account. This is why a Phenomenological approach is important....
In fact, I wonder if one could map the concepts of Alpha- and Beta- science into the concepts of "Phenomenological Methodologies" and "Platonic methodologies".....
Would that work?
Or perhaps both the link between the two -and the differences -are embedded more in variations in the use of "language"

Your proposed set of definitions would be very useful -but perhaps we should try to document the work so it can be meaningful to others. We could publish such a list on both our websites (for example). Or whatever you suggest.

Unfortunately, I'm not so embedded in the English or American systems as perhaps you are in the Dutch system.... So I have to look up such terms (when I transfer to the new computer)...

I see you have started already -so I'll need some time to catch up.....

But you have already touched upon the interesting question of the difference between a "weten" and a "kunde".... I'm also curious as to how "logies" fit in.... (Technology, Sonology, etc....)

Because English is a compendium and not a true language (in my view) -these logical distinctions are not so easily reflected in the English language.....

Again, I think you are doing good work -because (as Artists) we really do need  to untangle the various implications of the term "Art"..... :)

I have heard of the Dutch historical "problem" of the fight between "Vormgever' and "Designer" -so such distinctions are  not only logical -but also political (as well as "linguistic").
So one needs some way to deal with these diverse manifestations of, presumably, a single principle....

I guess, the subtle distinctions in "Design/Vormgever" and "Art/Kunst" illustrates another problem with global communications: Namely the way a local term may loose its original meaning and (at least shift towards) taking in a foreign meaning -so that the current meaning becomes very confusing to everybody.....
Certainly, English and American terminology has this problem......

Then of course there are "technical terms" -where professionals might use a common term in a way that only their profession uses it (so that some terms may have different meanings in different professions as well as by the general public).....

Yes, in English -I guess there were once distinctions made between Profession, Calling, Occupation and Job (and possibly even more levels -one could look them up in a thesaurus)...

Once language gets corrupted, reasoned discussion becomes almost impossible.....
In English, Nurse was the general term -but "Sister" was a grade. A Ward Sister was a nurse in charge of a room full of patients..... A Matron was the head Nurse....
Apparently an ex-colleague wrote her Doctoraal thesis on how male Surgeons monopolized the healing process -which was largely done before by female herbalists.....

In fact, it seems that the term "medicine" is sometimes still taken literately -and that the "medical" profession will not accept treatments that do not involve taking "medicine" (of some sort)....

Mathematics is another really tricky concept -is it part of Logic -or is Logic part of Mathematics?
I have heard (in the US?) that Atomic Physics departments raise their own mathematics teachers -because other  mathematicians just can't wrap their minds around the material......
Do you know the Dutch mathematician Brouwer? A fellow Frisian -I inderstand.....
He denied the Platonic nature of mathematics..... A sensible chap, I believe... :)

Russel (who co-authored Principia Mathematica) was a philosopher -so perhaps maths is actually philosophy.... (or is philosophy part of mathematics?)
How does Philosophy relate to Logic? ;)

My own investigations regarding terminology in Media Art can be found at: On the Stairs: Between Old and New Media

Would you believe, I once met an (American) woman who was teaching "Rhetoric" in the Dutch Institute for Social Studies in the Hague....
Where does "Rhetoric" currently fit in -within the (Dutch) academic system -although once it was a key subject everywhere?
When I asked her what it involved -she replied "Teaching people to Think"....
Which is the opposite of the way most people think of Rhetoric

Do you now begin to see how, shadowing and fluid things become when one looks closely?

Probably all "science" comes from mystical practices.....
Chemistry came from Alchemy..... and check out the Pythagoreans in Mathematics...
That's the bit they don't teach you in school generally.....
About how the sciences became secularized..... and professionalized

In Britain -when the (scientific) Royal Institute was founded -there were two  "professional" scientists in England -the Head of Ordinance (guns and explosives) at the Tower of London -and the new President of the Royal Institute.

The Royal Institute  still gives great science lectures for a public audience....  Some used to be sent out over Christmas by the BBC....
Actually, even today the official maps of Britain, with the maximum detail -are called Ordinance Survey Maps.... :)

I'll have to think about "immaterial models".... :)
Please remind me.

I think in English (at least as I use it) an "Insight" usually means "as knowledge presents  itself -but somewhat  as a surprise..... Such that, one might have a sudden insight into the nature of the universe......
After a period of time the insight presumably gets integrated into ones "understanding" of things.....

You really have done great work.... :)

...and I'm a little ashamed that it may take some time for me to work through it all properly......

 So, at least you get a well deserved rest......

Many Thanks!



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