Books & Arts | Published:

Dissecting The Two Cultures

Nature volume 459, pages 3233 (07 May 2009) | Download Citation

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Fifty years ago today, Charles Percy Snow argued in an influential lecture that the failure of science and the humanities to converse, and the lack of scientists in positions of power, was disastrous for society. In the first of three essays marking this anniversary, Martin Kemp contends that the real enemy of understanding is not these 'Two Cultures' but specialization in all disciplines.

“The Two Cultures” is a phrase — like “the corridors of power” — that has seeped into common usage. Divorced from their original context, such phrases tend to become a form of negligent shorthand that allows us to avoid precise thinking. Both were coined by the same author, Charles Percy Snow — one-time physicist, prolific novelist and political climber.

Science stalwart: Charles Percy Snow. Image: R. COLEMAN, BARON STUDIOS/NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON

'The Two Cultures' was the title of Snow's hugely influential Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge, UK, on 7 May 1959. One culture was science; the other was the humanities, as represented by “literary intellectuals”. Snow decried what he saw as the total inability of highly educated people to cross a deep rift of mutual incomprehension.

Snow's cultural diagnosis is encapsulated in his famous challenge: “Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company [of 'intellectuals'] 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?'”

Snow's early career as a research scientist had been aborted in the mid-1930s, when he became disillusioned by having to acknowledge that some of his experimental work on vitamin A — published in Nature with Philip Bowden — did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. He subsequently flourished as a novelist, most notably with his 'Strangers and Brothers' series, centered incestuously in the hermetic hothouse of Cambridge academic politics.

He also climbed the ladder of official posts, rising to become parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Technology (1964–1966) in the House of Lords as Baron Snow. He was a major shaper of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's 1963 vision of the “white heat of the technological revolution”, and commanded a wide audience both nationally and internationally.

Snow saw applied science as holding the key to a humane future, in terms of a rational understanding of nature but also as the only force that could tackle the problems of well-being in developed and developing countries. Yet 'Luddites' from the humanities still prevailed in the 'corridors of power' — as Snow titled his 1964 novel.

Fuelling the fire

“In almost all countries, a gulf of understanding has opened up by the time students enter university.”

In 1960, as a student newly arrived at the University of Cambridge, I inadvertently encountered the person who was to reignite the controversy sparked by Snow. I saw a haggard figure, shambling across the lawns at Downing College. He was draped in an elderly coat intended for a more ample frame. His leathery neck emerged from a shirt with no tie. Not knowing who he was, I gave him a wide berth, wary of being asked for money.

It transpired that this was the legendary don of English literature and fiery literary critic, Frank R. Leavis. In 1962 Leavis subjected Snow and 'The Two Cultures' to a stinging assault, described not unfairly by philosopher Simon Critchley as “a vicious ad hominem attack”. Leavis delivered his criticism in the Richmond Lecture that commemorated the last of his 30 years of teaching at Downing College.

Despite his international reputation, Leavis remained, and relished remaining, an outsider in official university circles. Snow, by contrast, had become a heavyweight of the establishment. The cover of the slim volume of Snow's lecture in the university book shop portrayed a well-nourished bulldog of a man in contemplative mode, with dark jacket and neat tie. An obvious insider, in contrast to Leavis the outsider.

Leavis despised Snow's literary works: “as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is.” Leavis also dismissed Snow's authority as a cultural guru, regarding him as a mindless sign of the times: “he is a portent in that, being in himself negligible, he has become for a vast public on both sides of the Atlantic a master-mind and a sage... It is ridiculous to credit him with any capacity for serious thinking about the problems on which he offers to advise the world.”

Leavis acclaimed great literature as the true guardian of human values: “the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life. What the critical discipline is concerned with is relevance and precision in making and developing them.” He sided with Blaise Pascal, the French seventeenth-century mathematician and theologian, who declared in his Pensées that “physical science will not console me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignorance of the physical sciences.”

Image: ILLUSTRATION BY SUZANNE BARRETT

For Leavis, science — and the technological society it was spawning — was devoid of humane values. He insisted on the need for other kinds of concern, “entailing forethought, action and provision about the human future”. To speak of human well-being only “in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress” was morally bankrupt. Leavis was witnessing with horror what he saw as the beginning of a takeover by dreaded technocrats, the apocalyptic results of which had been portrayed by George Orwell in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

False divide

Viewed historically, Snow's way of setting up the debate about the two cultures was founded on a false comparison between knowledge of Shakespeare and thermodynamics. The roots of this mistaken comparison were laid when knowledge in all forms of learning started to become specialized and professionalized, reaching an apogee when disciplines were institutionalized in the nineteenth century. The establishment of societies was not limited to the sciences and technologies. We can set, for instance, the founding of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in 1844 beside that of the Government School of Design (later to become the Royal College of Art) in 1837.

Literary legend: Frank R. Leavis. Image: GRANGER COLLECTION/TOPFOTO

Since then, the general aspects of high culture have continued to engage professionals in the sciences and humanities to similar degrees. A 2006 study from University College London showed that scientists are only a little less likely to watch a Shakespeare play than their counterparts in the humanities. Specialized research in the humanities is another matter. All academic subjects have become 'laboratory' pursuits with respect to their specialized techniques and vocabularies. Snow's poser about the second law of thermodynamics would be better matched against a narrower question in literary studies, such as asking what is meant by deconstruction as practised by the philosopher Jacques Derrida.

On re-reading the Rede and Richmond lectures today, I am struck by how they are very much of their time. It is difficult to disentangle the personal animosity, the citing of anecdotal experiences and the academic politics from the real issues.

Perhaps the best statement of what was and remains at stake came in Snow's later essay 'The Two Cultures: A Second Look', first published in The Times Literary Supplement in 1963: “Persons educated with the greatest intensity we know can no longer communicate with each other on the plane of their major intellectual concern. This is serious for our creative, intellectual and, above all, our normal life. It is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future. It is making it difficult or impossible for us to take good action.”

But we should also recall, above all in the light of current financial and ecological crises, Leavis's insistence on the inadequacy of defining human 'progress' in terms of the implementation of technologies that have been seen as delivering endless economic growth.

The issue does not involve two monolithic 'cultures' of science and humanities. It is about the narrow specialization of all disciplines and wider understanding. I wonder how many biologists could answer Snow's test question, especially in the light of modern physics. I suspect that most scholars in the humanities would fare little better with the Derrida test.

The problem is educational. There is certainly a division between 'sciences' and 'humanities', but the categories are too general to be useful in formulating any plan of action. It is the perceived need for intense specialization of any kind — in history or physics, in languages or biology — that needs to be tackled. Levels of early specialization vary across the world, but in almost all countries, a gulf of understanding has opened up by the time students enter university.

What is needed is an education that inculcates a broad mutual understanding of the nature of the various fields of research, so that we might recognize where their special competence and limitations lie. To paraphrase Christ from the Bible, it is a case of 'render unto science the things that are the sciences' and 'render unto humanities the things that are the humanities'. It is equally important not to render more to each than is warranted. The trick is to do this in the public arena, using well-informed judgement over what belongs and does not belong to each.

Snow's concern about the rift between science and the humanities is real and urgent. But so are Leavis's questions about the terms on which we can arrive at a humane definition of progress.

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  1. Martin Kemp is emeritus professor in history of art at the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/459032a

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