I have been asking this question to both people who are artist and scientists by trade, and also those that simply 'dabble' but are not professionals. The interesting thing is that I haven't been able to find any real distinctions between these two disciplines, which makes me wonder why we feel the need to teach and practice art & science in completely different ways when it could very well be just two different perspectives of the same thing.

Looking at this recent article from Atlantic talking about Leonardo da Vinci's greatest work and there was one quote that really caught my attention:

That’s a typical Vasari cliché, and it’s misleading. The Mona Lisa’s smile came not from some divine intervention. Instead, it was the product of years of painstaking and studied human effort involving applied science as well as artistic skill. Using his technical and anatomical knowledge, Leonardo generated the optical impressions that made possible this brilliant display of virtuosity. In doing so, he showed how the most-profound examples of creativity come from embracing both the arts and the sciences.

I think this might be more of a philosophical question than something that I could shed light on by asking artists or scientists. But in fact I have tried to find examples of people who seem to engage in a higher level of creativity, and most of the time you find that it is difficult to describe their work as simple art or science.

Can anyone point to any philosophical argument as to why there is a need for this distinction between art and science, and where it started from?

  • First, because they serve different purposes, science's purpose is to model reality (however construed), while art's is not. Second, and as a result, creativity in science is much more constrained than in art, although the similarities are well-known, see Scientific Discovery. Third, even if the similarity was more complete creativity is only one aspect of science and art, their standards, validation procedures, etc., are very different.
    – Conifold
    Oct 15, 2017 at 23:37
  • @Conifold There are forms of art that is about capturing reality, and areas of science that is dealing with what we can't yet comprehend. One could also say that many important discoveries in science came about not through a systematic process, but involve elements of luck and thinking outside the box; conversely, many movements in art resulted in the painstaking devotion of an artist to the practice and refinement of techniques. Oct 16, 2017 at 1:42
  • Rather, art is a way of seeing science. Somebody may see the universe as art.
    – Firepatch
    Oct 16, 2017 at 2:14
  • 2
    You could broadly say that science and art are both aspects of human coping with reality, so it is not surprising that one can find the same elements in them, and also in crafts, engineering, religion, sports, etc. But how helpful is it to lump all of that together under some broad and vague descriptions? There are elements of everything in everything, but they occur in different proportions, and if we want to conceptualize we have to discriminate.
    – Conifold
    Oct 16, 2017 at 19:31
  • @Conifold I understand the point that you are making, so I am curious about drawing the distinction between art and science rather than say engineering and craft. I recall that the theosophical society was an attempt to re-align the common ground between science, religion and philosophy because the separation seemed to cloud the core principles and ideals that were common to all three disciplines. The question is not really about why we draw the line in the sand between art & science, but rather why we draw it there. Oct 17, 2017 at 0:48

5 Answers 5


A rather simple answer is that art and science follow different goals and norms: what counts as good art is not what counts as good science. Typically, science will focus on objectivity, systematicity and reproducibility, which means that scientists should ideally be interchangeable when it comes to evaluating theories, confronting theories to experience etc. For these reasons, rationality and non-ambiguity are pursued. To the contrary, artists can explicitly seek non-reproducibility, for example in performances or ephemeral art (though they do not always do), and value personal expression and subjectivity in evaluation rather than interchangeability. A piece of art needs not be rationally justified and can be ambiguous. The values explicitly endorsed by scientists are epistemic (they seek knowledge of the external world, they want to be able to predict natural phenomena) whereas artists endorse aesthetic values. Another difference is that the main products of scientific activity are theories, which are abstract entities that we can understand (considering technologies to be a by-product--although this is debatable) while the main products of artistic activity are concrete entities (either objects or performances) that we can perceive.

  • So what does it mean when we try to combine both the goals and norms of art & science? And what happens when we try to create art in a scientific manner and conduct science in an artistic fashion? What makes people like Leonard da Vinci stand out in both fields? Is it not an indication that we should try to break down the boundaries and encourage people to think in a way that is not restricted/bound to art or science? Oct 16, 2017 at 1:39
  • @MichaelLai you can use scientific methods and knowledge to influence art. da Vinci did this to improve on the anatomical correctness of his life paintings for example. You can also use artistic processes to help in scientific discovery, for example, undirected experimentation or ideas about harmony and symmetry. da Vinci stands out because he was uncommonly accomplished at both artistic and scientific endeavours.
    – Alex
    Oct 16, 2017 at 10:51
  • @MichaelLai theorisation and art are so distinct that I can't see how to merge them: they produce different things. Theories can inspire art perhaps, or the converse, as Alex says, but they are distinct activities I see more possibilities of interaction between art and technology because technology also produces concrete objects, so a product of technology could at the same time be a product of art. Oct 16, 2017 at 12:09

Da Vinci drew the Vitruvian Man in his note books:

Vitruvian Man

Its accompanied by notes on the Roman architect Vitruvius who "described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture"; its interesting that da Vinci was working at the beginning of renaissance in Italy, that is the re-awakening of Greek philosophy; and here, one can speculate da Vinci shows humanity in harmony with science; one might even call it a prophecy.

The vision darkens during the early 20C when Francis Bacon painted

Francis Bacon

after the industrial carnage of WWII and the holocaust; the dream had turned into a nightmare.

Art is a reflection on our place, as human beings in the scheme of things; as is science, nevertheless the subjects are as distinct as the fingers on one hand; an artist may make take science as a subject, and a scientist may liken his work to art as art is more immediately accessible; yet knowing Maxwells equations that describes how electromagnetic radiation radiates does not tell us how light, colour, line, shape and mass affects sensibility; the latter is our common human inheritence; it is with sensibility that artists work with and not sense - which does not mean that they lack sense.


Modern science is defined by reproducibility. It is not enough to work, it must work consistently. Art, almost by definition, is the individual work of genius. Art that is too closely based on a prior model is dismissed as hackneyed, cliched and unoriginal.

It serves both a scientist and an artist to be exceptional technicians. But that's where the resemblance ends.

You might find Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions relevant for the way in which it distinguishes between the normal practice of science, and the occasional leaps of logic beyond it. You might say what is exceptional in science (going outside the pre-existing framework) is the normal expectation in art.

  • There has been a few papers in recent times questioning whether a large volume of the research done in the area of social science and biology is reproducible. But even for a school/style of art to be recognized it has to be reproducible to some degree, in that certain themes, styles or techniques need to be applied consistently. Oct 17, 2017 at 0:44

Mario Bunge describes disciplines having three attributes (I read it once, but I can't figure which book, if someone can help, thanks), hope remembering correctly:

  • science: basic knowledge (e.g. music theory, how to harmonize a choir with the piano, how does the natural scale works, etc.)
  • technique: applied knowledge (e.g. play the piano, move the fingers, read and play a musical score)
  • art: socially impacting knowledge (e.g. playing a piece and reach the emotional fibers of the audience)

Making a shoe has the same equivalents: science, knowing the theory of leather; technique: using the hands to make a shoe; art, making a nice and useful shoe.

Science is not only about academic knowledge. Technique is not only about industrial knowledge. Art is not only about paintings and music.

For your question, science is just pure knowledge, art has a social impact. You are an artist if you make a beautiful shoe, even if you don't know its science. But knowing it helps it lasting longer and being more functional.

  • +1 I will have to look into Mario Bunge's work further. I can also see science having social impact, but just in a different way. Just think about artificial intelligence and genome sequencing has created some interesting ethical & moral issues that affects society. Oct 25, 2017 at 1:26

Art is the laboratory of ethics and beauty. Some ancient Greek said theatre teaches us how we feel. It instructs our inward reality.

To be human is a dual reality, the outward and the inward. Science gives voice to the outward. In science, you quiet the inward reality (your own bias, desire, hope, etc) so that you can listen more clearly to the voice of the external reality.

Sometimes the voice is too quiet or foreign to us, and the scientist has to entertain some wildly speculative and imaginative ideas. In those cases the scientist looks a bit like an artist. Once in a while it is helpful, but usually not.

Philosophy is the librarian who keeps the inward reality organized.

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