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The Two Cultures and a Second Look: An…

The Two Cultures and a Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two…

by C. P. Snow

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3-4/14 B&C review entitled The Two Cultures, Then and Now by Alan Jacobs of C. P. Snow's The TWO CULTURES and TWO CULTURES? THE SIGNIFICANCE OF C.P. SNOW--(my sum)--do the sciences or the humanities provide better handles (doors) to grasping reality? Snow’s point was not to discount the humanities, but to say that science will help ameliorate hurtful (starving) world conditions.

The Two Cultures, Then and Now
The sciences, the humanities, and their common enemy.

When, in May of 1959 at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow delivered a lecture called "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," it did not generate a great deal of controversy. Soon thereafter it was published in Encounter with a series of largely positive responses: the respondents generally agreed that Snow had identified a genuine problem, though no one had a clear sense of what, if anything, could be done about it.

What most readers took from Snow's lecture was this simple point: that academic and (more generally) intellectual specialization had in the 20th century proceeded to the point that the sciences and humanities had become mutually incomprehensible—and, perhaps more worryingly, each side had come to accept and even take some pleasure in the irrelevance to its own work of the other side. Scientists, Snow noted, knew little of books, "and of the books which to most literary persons are bread and butter, novels, history, poetry, plays, almost nothing at all …. It isn't that they lack the interests. It is much more that the whole literature of the traditional culture doesn't seem to them relevant to those interests. They are, of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished." But literary types are self-impoverished too, "perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of 'culture', as though the natural order didn't exist."

In what would become the most famous passage from the lecture, Snow continued:

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 about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

So this is the picture that has come down through the decades about Snow's lecture: that the sciences and the humanities have, regrettably but probably inevitably, come to take very different paths. But this was not really Snow's point; indeed, the chief purpose of his lecture has never, even to this day, been generally recognized. However, within a few years of the lecture's delivery, readers gradually came to realize at least this: Snow had no intention of distributing blame for the divorce even-handedly.

Both the lecture itself and the controversy it spawned are complex phenomena, and in his editions of Snow's lecture and of the most famous response to it, by the literary critic F. R. Leavis, Stefan Collini has carefully and skillfully disentangled the many strands. The tale he tells is instructive in many respects—and perhaps more important now than it was when Leavis gave his response, fifty years ago.

I have said that the real purpose of his lecture has never been widely recognized, and that is in part due to its generally being known simply as "The Two Cultures": even the full title, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," only hints at his prime concern. A summary might then be useful:

The English people are justly proud of their leading role in the Industrial Revolution, but are insufficiently aware of the subsequent Scientific Revolution: the dramatic increase of knowledge about the natural world that accelerated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, often led by Britons (Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Arthur Eddington). This second revolution has affected all the sciences, but its particular importance has been in biochemistry and in the practical sciences (especially agricultural) that develop from biochemistry. And that is because for the first time in history it is now possible to feed and heal the whole of humanity. The Southern Hemisphere especially is filled with people who are hungry or starving, who are sick and even dying from treatable diseases. We in the West possess the knowledge and the resources to put an end to all this suffering; yet we do not. Why not?

Responsibility for this shameful state of affairs must be assigned to our political leaders; and responsibility for their failure to see clearly and act decisively must be assigned to their education, to the "traditional culture" of the humanities in which most of them, as graduates of Eton and Harrow and Rugby and then Oxford and Cambridge, were brought up. They are scientifically illiterate and therefore do not understand what science can do. Moreover, they have learned from great literature, especially modern literature, that the fate of every human being is necessarily tragic, which may be true; but they fail to see that that need not keep us from improving the general material condition of humanity when we can. In short, the traditional humanistic education that most British political leaders have received equips them not at all for meeting their responsibilities to a suffering world. Scientists "have the future in their bones"; but to this "the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist. It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world." And this is why our world is a mess.

He was pleading for a more adequately educated ruling class so that the suffering of the poor might be ameliorated. But little if any of this has been noticed, despite the fame of the "two cultures" idea.

Among those early readers, none perceived Snow's attitude more clearly than did F. R. Leavis; and none was angrier about it. In 1962 he gave a lecture of his own, also at Cambridge, to make his anger known. This event proved to be something of a bombshell, and ever since people have spoken of the "Snow-Leavis controversy" or the "Leavis-Snow debate." This, I think, is unfortunate.

In the best-known commentary on the whole dispute, Lionel Trilling—writing from New York in a tone of Olympian detachment—made the shrewd comment that culturally and socially Snow and Leavis had a great deal in common. Each man came from a solidly middle-class background—interestingly, Snow's father was a church organist while Leavis' owned a small musical-instrument shop—and had nothing like the public-school education that Snow sees as intrinsic to British rulership. But while Snow's route of escape from his social limitations was scientific, Leavis followed the path of English literature, or, rather, of that subset that he came to call the "Great Tradition."

But though Jardine has rightly noted the immediate context, Collini and Ortolano are right to point out that the roots of the controversy go deeper: the sciences-humanities debate as we know it today emerged in the 1880s in an exchange of essays by Matthew Arnold, poet and critic, and Thomas Henry Huxley, advocate for science and especially for Darwin's theory of evolution.

In 1880, Huxley took up Arnold's famous claim that an ideal education should be devoted to "the best that has been thought and said," and should seek to achieve a "criticism of life," and offered this retort:

But we may agree to all this, and yet strongly dissent from the assumption that literature alone is competent to supply this knowledge. After having learnt all that Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity have thought and said, and all that modern literatures have to tell us, it is not self evident that we have laid a sufficiently broad and deep foundation for the criticism of life which constitutes culture.
Indeed, to any one acquainted with the scope of physical science, it is not at all evident. Considering progress only in the "intellectual and spiritual sphere," I find myself wholly unable to admit that either nations or individuals will really advance, if their common outfit draws nothing from the stores of physical science. I should say that an army, without weapons of precision, and with no particular base of operations, might more hopefully enter upon a campaign on the Rhine, than a man, devoid of a knowledge of what physical science has done in the last century, upon a criticism of life.

When Arnold responded to Huxley, two years later, in the Rede Lecture at Cambridge—Snow's "The Two Cultures" was the 1959 installment of that same lecture series—he immediately recognized that this was not a general or abstract question about the knowledge most worth having but rather an intensely practical question about how young people are to be educated.

His answer was basically twofold. First, he pointed out that he advocated the "scientific" rather than the merely impressionistic study of literature and the arts; and second, he argued that while study of the sciences could fill the mind with facts, the humanities could move the human spirit and empower it—could build up in young people "the power of conduct, the power of intellect and knowledge, the power of beauty, and the power of social life and manners … . Human nature is built up by these powers; we have the need for them all." And we feel the need for them, which is why, Arnold believes, people offered the chance to study either the sciences or the humanities will frequently opt for the latter.

Rather, the sciences and the humanities share a common enemy: an educational system that, despite its ceaseless rote invocations of the value of "critical thinking"—overwhelmingly evades the "severities" that might equip people to deal seriously with the world and its manifold challenges.
2 vote | keithhamblen | May 5, 2014 |
Fascinating essay about the book by Peter Dizikes: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/books/review/Dizikes-t.html who discusses whether a "third culture" (evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neurscientists) is "superseding literary artists in their ability to 'shape the thoughts of their generation.' "
1 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
read in high school for college-level humanities class. ( )
  librken | Jul 14, 2012 |
Mentioned in this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/jun/12/ts-eliot-waste-land-ipad-app. 9/1/2011 Update: attempted to read this while travelling, but realized very early on that it was going to be too dry and dated for me. Too many other things to read to spend time on this right now.
  esquetee | Nov 22, 2011 |
I am surprised this work is not more a part of the liberal arts college curriculum; it’s clearly written, pretty short, and addresses a very interesting, relevant issue – the split between literary intellectuals and scientific intellectuals.

These two groups, each comprised of many very smart people, seem to exist largely in a state of mutual incomprehension (and sometimes mistrust, even scorn).

For so many scientists, their literary experience is limited to “a bit of Dickens.”

In the literary culture, most are completely unaware of the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the scientific equivalent to: “Have you read Shakespeare?”…… ( )
  Ray_Cavanaugh | Nov 1, 2010 |
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The 1993 Cambridge/Canto edition of The Two Cultures (ISBN 0521457300, 0521065208) also includes A Second Look.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521457300, Paperback)

The notion that our society, its education system and its intellectual life, is characterized by a split between two cultures--the arts or humanities on one hand, and the sciences on the other--has a long history. The reissue of The Two Cultures and its successor piece, A Second Look (in which Snow responded to the controversy four years later) has a new introduction by Stefan Collini, charting the history and context of the debate, its implications and its afterlife.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:08 -0400)

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