In mediaeval times it wasn’t the thing to draw clear lines around what we now call academic “disciplines”: science, theology, “the arts”, and all the rest. All knowledge was called “science”; and “the queen of the sciences”, so Thomas Aquinas observed in the 13th century, was theology.
This all-embracing, “catholic” approach is attractive, but had obvious disadvantages. Most obviously, it is hard to make rapid progress in what we now call science if the scientists (or “natural philosophers” as they were called before the 1830s) feel compelled as they go along to reconcile their findings with their cogitations on God’s purpose, or with particular religious texts. Such confusion continued into the 19th century, at least four centuries after the “Middle Ages” are generally deemed to have ended. Natural philosophers at ancient universities were expected to be ordained and they struggled mightily to reconcile new ideas on the Earth Sciences, and then on biological evolution, with the accounts in Genesis of how the world and all its creatures came to be.
On the whole, though, things were largely sorted in the Renaissance, from the 15th century onwards. Astronomy began to be defined as astronomy and theology as theology and agriculture as agriculture and so on. A montage on the ceiling of the Uffizi gallery in Florence shows the divisions beautifully. From then on, at least in theory, scholars were free to pursue their own predilections without trying to square their own ideas, which were difficult enough, with those of everyone else. As the wranglings of the 19th century showed, the separation was far from complete and different disciplines sometimes remained entangled for centuries after. But the intent was there.
The Renaissance was surely necessary. The various disciplines had to be prised apart so that each could be advanced without encumbrance. But things have gone far too far. Nothing affects our lives more than science, yet many scientists have only the crudest grasp of moral thinking or of political reality, and simply assume that all scientific knowledge and the technologies it leads to must be OK; and most politicians know no science – what it can do and what it can’t – and are all too easily lured into wide-eyed technophilia. And so on.
It is time to put everything back together again, to create a coherent and indeed “holistic” world picture, and this is what the CRFFC intends to do. Alongside the practicalities of farming and cooking and the science and economics that shape them, we will explore all the lines of thought that set the tone – the Zeitgeist: conventionally called “the humanities”.