It sounds like a very basic question, but I have often wondered why the concept of art and science exist as two distinct disciplines when there is actually very little to distinguish or separate the two concepts.

I saw an interesting quote referenced by someone in an article that I read that goes something like this:

“… their lies buried in the Greek language a startling insight: the same word, poiesis, describes the work of both the mechanic and the poet. In modern times we have grown accustomed to thinking of the inspired artist and the disciplined engineer as opposed to human types who gaze upon one another with mutual incomprehension, if not outright and avowed hostility. The Greeks, however, could not even express in language the difference between the artist and the engineer.” — Barry M. Katz

It almost feels like we tried to find a reason to distinguish between art and science rather than embrace the view that these two seemingly separate (but related) areas of human endeavour are actually two sides of the same coin.

If you look up the definition of art and science in the dictionary, the apparent distinction is also quite ambiguous.

From Wikipedia on Art:

Though there is no generally agreed definition of what constitutes art, and ideas have changed over time, general descriptions typically include an idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency and creation. The nature of art and related concepts, such as creativity and interpretation, are explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.

From Wikipedia on Science:

Science (from the Latin word scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

I think when you look at any definition about science or art, it seems impossible to exclude some of the concepts and activities involved in one from the other (hence the common expression about "the art of..." or "the science of..."). A common example is cooking, which involves both the physics and chemistry of the culinary sciences but also the creativity and aesthetics of a dish that is being prepared.

So the question is, where did the idea of separating art and science come from, when everything can be seen as art and/or science? What is the reason for doing this and when did it first become established if the Greeks (who think about a lot of things) didn't see the difference?

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    The concepts of art and science were needed to describe the establishment of art and science. We did not "create" them, nor they simply emerged in common usage to reflect what already happened. "Definitions" of such things are not meant to characterize them, they are simply vague pointers that direct people towards what they are already familiar with in practice, so looking at Wikipedia's definitions for insight is not a wise idea. In fact, ancient Greeks already distinguished art (poiesis), craft (techne) and science (episteme), and the practices diverged even further since then.
    – Conifold
    Mar 2, 2021 at 4:49
  • @Conifold I am not sure that I follow the answer. If the concepts of art and science were needed to describe the establishment of art and science, then somebody created or established them didn't they? You can look at any reference (not just Wikipedia, but a dictionary or encyclopaedia) and find the same vagueness, which suggests that trying to divide something that are essentially connected (like the mind and body) only makes it harder to try and understand and appreciate it. Or perhaps Mr. Katz's interpretation is not quite so accurate? Mar 2, 2021 at 6:01
  • No, it does not mean that anybody "established" them or "created" concepts they fall under. Practices form gradually over multiple micro events and generations with nobody deciding anything global about them, and concepts emerge in common use to service them the same way. After the fact dictionary writers try to summarize what already happened. Your question is similar to asking why living creatures "created" plant and animal kingdoms instead of all staying plants.
    – Conifold
    Mar 2, 2021 at 12:51
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    You might also want to look at Coxeter and Escher en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._C._Escher or Penrose’s tiling. But that’s math, and math is certainly used in Art.
    – Gordon
    Mar 2, 2021 at 14:39
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    I don't see much overlap in those definitions of Art and Science. Art is imaginative, creative, and interpretative, while science is systematic, unambiguous, and testable. I certainly agree that some things have elements of both art and science, but I completely disagree that the categories are so ambiguous they cannot be distinguished. Mar 2, 2021 at 15:18

4 Answers 4


[...] why do we need the concept of art and science when everything can be seen as art and/or science?

This assumption is false. Science and art are completely different domains. Mario Bunge suggests in several of his books that every discipline can be approached from three complementary perspectives:

  • Science is the body of knowledge (following certain constraints) regarding the discipline. Any shoemaker can know all books regarding shoe making, but that's not enough to make good shoes. Any musician can know all music theory books. But this is not enough to make good music. etc. Notice that science is just knowledge in someone's understanding.
  • Technique is applied science; more or less, apply the theoretical knowledge using the hands to produce something. A shoemaker can learn how to build shoes for years, but still don't make good shoes. A musician can spend years learning all theory and practive in a music school, but that's still not enough to make good music. Notice that technique is knowledge+abilities.
  • Art is technology applied to help some need. Art is not necessarily related to aesthetics (music, painting, poetry). For example, a good shoemaker applies all his theoretical knowledge and his practical abilities to produce a shoe that satisfy some need (e.g. "What a beautiful shoe!" "This is a work of art!" "This is indestructible!", etc.). A good musician applies his theoretical knowledge and his practical abilities to produce music and communicate emotions ("What a sad song!" "This makes me feel in love"... etc.). etc. Notice that art is knowledge+abilities+social interaction.
  • +1 Your explanation of Mario Bunge's work actually supports the point I am trying to make - that every discipline of human endeavour incorporates elements of science and art, and therefore the distinction is much less than what we think it is. You could argue that science is technology applied to help some need in the case of inventing a new vaccine, or that our knowledge about aesthetics in the arts is also a body of knowledge. This is a useful framework for me to consider how to explore this further. Mar 2, 2021 at 22:59

Poiesis means work or making, so we have kept words that similar don't distinguish between artist & scientist.

Science as we understand it now, is a modern offshoot from ancient ideas, which has needed to distinguish itself from religion and pseudoscience, in a series of demarcation conflicts, which have developed and clarified what science is.

Galileo's persecution by the church, Newton's followers lack of patience with his alchemy, & Popper's felt need to clarify why Marxist & Freudian thought, then posing as science, as not being. These changed what science is.

As I have argued elsewhere, science is what scientists do. There are core values. But crucially the scientific community is involved in a kind of autopoesis, a self-writing or self-creation. It is rooted in time, and the scientific community and it's practices.

Art is obviously incommensurable. It was historically 'high craft'. And in a modern sense where have 'Great Art' even further set beyond that, we tend to reserve 'Art!' for creativity that pushes the bounds of what can be created, that transforms previous ideas or expectations in some deep way. I get into the 'what is art?' thing, here Video games as new art

Why do we need to distinguish between actors & painters? So people can quickly make sense of each others communities, roles, etc. What would served by saying, 'We must call them both simply artists'? Ridiculous.

Science has gone from being, curate's cabinets of curiosities, and occasional royal patronage of ballistics & aids to navigation, to almost constantly transforming the world, and knowledge of it required of every citizen. So of course it has progressively delineated and defined what it is.

The community purposes of not elite art but universal training in arts, are not so easy to identify - and are increasingly neglected, in education, and patronage. Catharsis perhaps as Aristotle identified. A creative space beyond ordinary language, to understand and reshape personal and community identity, seems important. Perhaps knowing our internal worlds and the nature of creativity, as science approaches the exterior and to use the known.

CP Snow had the 'Two Cultures' dividing, description. And we discussed whether that can be overcome here Can philosophy overcome "the two cultures" divide?

I would advocate a clearer understanding of what art is and why it is valuable, by our leaders. And I would advocate pursuit of wonder and making, as great unifiers.

  • +1 for that last sentence, although I still think that the way science is applied in decision making processes these days (e.g. COVID-19 pandemic) leaves me to wonder how 'scientific' our science is. I think if you take the science out of art and art out of science you will end up with two things that don't mean as much as if they were combined. Mar 2, 2021 at 22:55
  • @MichaelLai: You blame the science? South Korea, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, all handled the pandemic very well, by following the science. What is 'putting the art into science'? Do you mean maybe humanism..?
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 2, 2021 at 23:33
  • The science is sound, so maybe we have to blame the people? These countries handled the first wave admirably, but most of them suffered setbacks in subsequent waves. I think most people consider scientific work as something that is structured and rigorous in its approach, without realising how many significant discoveries are the result of 'thinking outside the box' and 'accidents'. The fact that you need both types of thinking process to get to these discoveries/outcomes is a good indicator why both elements are equally important in human endeavours. That's all I am trying to suggest. Mar 3, 2021 at 0:06
  • @MichaelLai: Covid deaths in New Zealand, 26. In USA, 0.5m. That difference isn't because of different science. It's because of whether politicians listen to scientists. A 'setback' in NZ has to be understood as not even a blip elsewhere. Perspective. Popper is interesting on hypothesis generation as fundamentally creative. This should be better understood by students, that it's not just grinding out experiments.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 3, 2021 at 8:49

A great Chef is always trying to push his materials to the limit. Something that looks great and also literally tastes good. All artists are pushing their materials to the limit. This frustration over the limits of materials is the struggle of art which is quite interesting. For instance, how to make a dome, or how to cast bronze. Your example of cooking is very interesting because literal taste comes into play. This idea of struggle with the world is what we see across human endeavors, but modern science is going to be much more conservative in making broad claims. PS there is sure to be a philosophy of food out there somewhere!

I guess you could say that since mathematics always seems to be ready for the next advance in science, then there is some unity in our brains. As Plato might have suggested: we know it all already, we just have to uncover it. But Plato’s writing on art is rather negative (Republic?) didn’t he come down on music as a silly endeavor, at least in its social aspect? He wanted to ban at least music? It has been a long time since I’ve read Plato.

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    He wanted to ban poetry from The Republic.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 2, 2021 at 16:07
  • Thanks for the correction.
    – Gordon
    Mar 2, 2021 at 16:09
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    I'm a poet - and I hate Plato's fascism, so maybe he was right! 😅
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 2, 2021 at 16:20
  • +1 Maths is also a very interesting example because there is 'beauty' to the patterns that exist in nature, and how we try to conceptualize that in our mind through mathematical formulas to describe and find other similar patterns in nature shows that art and science can be (and is) intertwined in many ways :) Mar 2, 2021 at 23:00

For me art is a much more general concept than science. Science division was mostly because the technicalities and specialties involved emergent from about 300 years ago. There existed many renowned universalists before who basically knew most parts of art and science. Today science usually means the knowledge accumulated so far with all the results, experiments, taxonomy, schools of theories, etc. What's common between them and most important imho is nothing but epistemological metaphysics and dialectics originated from philosophy. Scientific or art revolutions were historically ignited by a few heroic people with a few vital ideas which was not practiced or emphasized before. In this sense, science is a kind of art which needs both machine-like labors and gnostic touches...

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