"A profound and richly suggestive work. Thomas McFarland is unique among literary scholars and theorists in his detailed and powerful grasp of philosophy and cultural history. His latest book, Shapes of Culture, probes deeply into the pressures that have splintered our traditional forms of culture into a multitude of specialisms, while holding out the hope that they are being replaced by 'shapes' of culture expressive of and responsive to experience."—W. Jackson Bate
"Lucid, erudite, and penetrating causeries by one of the eminent scholars and critics of our time."—M. .H. Abrams
"Should prove seductive to all but those few diehards permanently allergic to philosophical speculation on the arts."—Kirkus Reviews
Shapes of Culture addresses a pressing intellectual crisis in modern society: the replacement of complex forms of culture with shapes of culture—smaller, more specialized areas of learning that do not relate to each other.
Writing out of his many years as a critic and professor of literature, Thomas McFarland asserts that the fragmentation of knowledge into isolated disciplines has revolutionized the experience and structure of culture. Where the Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics was also the Regius Professor of Greek, and Leibniz was not only a mathematician and classical scholar but also a practiced philosopher, historian, and legal theorist, no such interrelatedness among the academic disciplines exists today. Indeed, members of the same field often lack the common background to talk meaningfully about their work. This, contends McFarland, is a true crisis in learning and knowledge. We have begun to know a plethora of details about subfields but little of the larger disciplines. Even more momentous is the fact that these subdisciplines are becoming the basis of our learning rather than its product.
In clear and vivid prose, McFarland shows us how this phenomenon has occurred and predicts the inevitability of its continuation. He considers the difference between meaning that is felt and meaning that is translated into knowledge, and he examines efforts by artists and scholars to obscure meaning with specialized vocabularies. Shapes of Culture should be read by anyone interested in modern culture and our quest for meaning through knowledge.