Dionysians and Apollonians: Letter from Albert Szent-Györgyi to Science (1972)

Winner of the  Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1937) Albert Szent-Györgyi (b1893-d1986) photo taken in 1948. 
Dear Editor,

Wilhelm Ostwald (1909) divided scientists into the classical and the romantic. One could call them also systematic and intuitive. John R.Piatt (personal communication) calls them Apollonian and Dionysian. These classifications reflect extremes of two different attitudes of the mind that can be found equally in art, painting, sculpture, music, or dance. One could probably discover them in other alleys of life. In science the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research. Nobody knows what 'intuition' really is. My guess is that it is a sort of subconscious reasoning, only the end result of which becomes conscious.

These are not merely academic problems. They have most important corollaries and consequences. The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support mostly takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian. Applying for a grant begins with writing a project. The Apollonian clearly sees the future lines of his research and has no difficulty writing a clear project. Not so the Dionysian, who knows only the direction in which he wants to go out into the unknown; he has no idea what he is going to find there and how he is going to find it. Defining the unknown or writing down the subconscious is a contradiction in absurdum. In his work, the Dionysian relies, to a great extent, on accidental observation. His observations are not completely 'accidental', because they involve not merely seeing things but also grasping their possible meaning. A great deal of conscious or subconscious thinking must precede a Dionysian's observations. There is an old saying that a discovery is an accident finding a prepared mind. The Dionysian is often not only unable to tell what he is going to find, he may even be at a loss to tell how he made his discovery.

Being myself Dionysian, writing projects was always an agony for me, as I described not long ago in Perspectives of Biology and Medicine (Szent-Györgyi 1971). I always tried to live up to Leo Szilard's (personal communication) commandment, 'don't lie if you don't have to'. I had to. I filled up pages with words and plans I knew I would not follow.When I go home from my laboratory in the late afternoon, I often do not know what I am going to do the next day. I expect to think that up during the night. How could I tell then, what I would do a year hence? It is only lately that I can see somewhat ahead (which may be a sign of senescence) and write a realistic proposal, but the queer fact is that, while earlier all my fake projects were always accepted, since I can write down honestly what I think I will do my applications have been invariably rejected. This seems quite logical to me; sitting in an easy chair I can cook up any time a project which must seem quite attractive, clear, and logical. But if I go out into nature, into the unknown, to the fringes of knowledge, everything seems mixed up and contradictory, illogical, and incoherent. This is what research does; it smooths out contradiction and makes things simple, logical, and coherent. So when I bring reality into my projects, they become hazy and are rejected. The reviewer, feeling responsible for 'the taxpayer's money', justly hesitates to give money for research, the lines of which are not clear to the applicant himself. A discovery must be, by definition, at variance with existing knowledge. During my lifetime, I made two. Both were rejected off-hand by the popes of the field. Had I predicted these discoveries in my applications, and had these authorities been my judges, it is evident what their decisions would have been. These difficulties could perhaps, be solved to some extent, by taking into account the applicant's early work. Or, if the applicant is young and has had no chance to prove himself, the vouching of an elder researcher acquainted with the applicant's ability may be considered. The problem is a most important one, especially now, as science grapples with one of nature's mysteries, cancer, which may demand entirely new approaches.

Albert Szent-Györgyi (1972)


Szent-Györgyi, A. (1972) Dionysians and Apollonians. Science 176:966.

Ostwald, W. (1909) Grosse Männer. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellchaft GMBH


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