The Two Cultures

CP Snow

The Two Cultures is the title of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow. Its thesis was that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of western society’ was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Snow’s Rede Lecture condemned the British educational system as having, since the Victorian period, over-rewarded the humanities (especially Latin and Greek) at the expense of scientific and engineering education, despite such achievements having been so decisive in winning the Second World War for the Allies.

This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world. By contrast, Snow said, German and American schools sought to prepare their citizens equally in the sciences and humanities, and better scientific teaching enabled these countries’ rulers to compete more effectively in a scientific age. Later discussion of ‘The Two Cultures’ tended to obscure Snow’s initial focus on differences between British systems (of both schooling and social class) and those of competing countries.

The term ‘two cultures’ has become a shorthand in certain academic circles for differences between two attitudes; ‘The phrase has lived on as a vague popular shorthand for the rift—a matter of incomprehension tinged with hostility—that has grown up between scientists and literary intellectuals in the modern world.’ This polarization of perspective certainly was a factor in latter 20th century academia. Snow’s original argument relied on rhetorical devices. ‘[I]n order to further his gulf-gap-chasm thesis, Snow is soon using ‘literary intellectual’ interchangeably with ‘traditional culture.’ This fusion yields the observation that there is ‘an unscientific,’ even an ‘anti-scientific’ flavor to ‘the whole ‘traditional’ culture. What can this mean? Aristotle, Euclid, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Kant: are there any more ‘traditional’ representatives of ‘the whole ‘traditional culture.”

Snow himself, in his reconsideration, backed off some way from his dichotomized declarations. In his 1963 book he talked more optimistically about the potential of a mediating third culture. This concept was later picked up in the 1995 book ‘The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution’ by science writer John Brockman. Introducing the reprinted ‘The Two Cultures’ (1993), Stefan Collini has argued that the passage of time has done much to reduce the cultural divide Snow noticed; but has not removed it entirely. Stephen Jay Gould’s 2003 book ‘The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox’ provides a different perspective. Assuming the dialectical interpretation, it argues that Snow’s concept of ‘two cultures’ is not only off the mark, it is a damaging and short-sighted viewpoint; and that it has perhaps led to decades of unnecessary fence-building.

‘[Snow] diagnosed the loss of a common culture and the emergence of two distinct cultures: those represented by scientists on the one hand and those Snow termed ‘literary intellectuals’ on the other. If the former are in favor of social reform and progress through science, technology and industry, then intellectuals are what Snow terms ‘natural Luddites’ in their understanding of and sympathy for advanced industrial society. In Mill’s terms, the division is between Benthamites and Coleridgeans.’ That is, what Snow said represents a resurfacing of a discussion current in the mid-nineteenth century. Critchley describes the Leavis contribution to the making of a controversy as ‘a vicious ad hominem attack’; going on to describe the debate as a familiar clash in English cultural history citing also T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.

Snow writes in the book, ‘I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, ‘Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.’ ‘A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’ ‘I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.’ ‘Technology is […] a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.’ ‘…the individual condition of each of us is tragic. Each of us is alone: sometimes we escape from solitariness, through love or affection or perhaps creative moments, but those triumphs of life are pools of light we make for ourselves while the edge of the road is black: each of us dies alone.’

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