Edward O Wilson popularised this rare word earlier this year when he used it in the title of his best-selling book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge. It means “a jumping together”, and in his book he encourages those who study the sciences, the humanities and the arts to bridge the gaps between their narrow specialisms and so link together all the branches of learning, an aim which goes back to the thinkers of the time of the Enlightenment. Professor Wilson is trying to bring together what three decades ago the late C P Snow called “the two cultures” in what he calls a “dream of unified learning”. Wilson argues that all fields of study have a common goal, to give understanding a purpose, and to lend to us all “a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws”. But Wilson didn’t invent the word: that honour belongs to the nineteenth-century philosopher William Whewell (who also gave us the word scientist), who used it in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences in 1840 to describe the interlocking of explanations of cause and effect between disciplines. He seems to have derived it from the Latin word consilere, formed from con-, “with”, and salire, “to leap”.
The trend cannot be reversed by force-feeding students with some of this and some of that across the branches of learning; true reform will aim at the consilience of science with the social sciences and the humanities in scholarship and teaching.
E O Wilson, Consilience, 1998
What prevents us from coming to grips with environmental decay or the rest of our social bedevilments has less to do with a lack of consilience in learning than with the interplay of interests and power.
New York Times, Apr. 1998