The Two Cultures

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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 breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. As a trained scientist who was also a successful novelist, Snow was well placed to pose the question.

The talk was delivered 7 May in the Senate House, Cambridge, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The lecture and book expanded upon an article Snow wrote for New Statesman magazine, published 6 October 1956, also entitled The Two Cultures. Published in book form, Snow's lecture was widely read and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, leading him to write a follow-up, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1964).

Snow's ideas were not without critics, however. For example, he was derided by literary critic F. R. Leavis in The Spectator, who dismissed Snow as a "public relations man" for the scientific establishment. However, The Times Literary Supplement listed The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in the hundred books which have influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.[1]


[edit] Implications and influence

The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as a shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are

  1. the increasingly constructivist world view suffusing the humanities, in which the scientific method is seen as embedded within language and culture; and
  2. the scientific viewpoint, in which the observer can still objectively make unbiased and non-culturally embedded observations about nature.

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’"[?]

Roger Kimball[3]

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 John Brockman. Introducing the reprinted The Two Cultures (1993), Stefan Collini[4] has argued that the passage of time has done much to reduce the cultural divide Snow noticed; but has not removed it entirely:

[F]urther reflection on the nature of academic disciplines as well as developments within individual disciplines have made any binary division into two cultures look more implausible than ever.

Stefan Collini

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.

Nonetheless, Snow's basic point remains valid: that many humanities scholars do not know much science, and would not be embarrassed not to know the second law of thermodynamics, while any scientist would be embarrassed not to know who Shakespeare was, or, indeed, not to know a lot about his plays. This distinction is what is understood by the shorthand of "the two cultures" as attributed to Lord Snow.

[edit] As philosophical avatar

Simon Critchley, in Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2001, p. 49) suggests about in the lecture:

[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 favour 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.

Simon Critchley

That is, Critchley argues that 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 (ibid, p. 51), citing also T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.[5]

[edit] C. P. Snow quotations

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.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^
  2. ^ Roger Kimball: “The Two Cultures” today, on the C. P. Snow–F. R. Leavis controversy. In: The New Criterion, Volume 12, February 1994.
  3. ^ Roger Kimball: “The Two Cultures” today, on the C. P. Snow–F. R. Leavis controversy. In: The New Criterion, Volume 12, February 1994.
  4. ^ On p. lv.
  5. ^ Collini, p. xxxv of his introduction to the 1993 The Two Cultures, uses very similar terms.

[edit] External links

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