Thursday, January 30, 2014

Discussion Summary: Snow, C.P. (1959), The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures is the first of a two-part 1959 lecture in the centuries-running Rede series at Cambridge.  Delivered by Charles Percy (“C.P.”) Snow (1905-1980), a PhD Cambridge-trained physicist and novelist, the talk expands upon his 1956 article in The New Statesman, and is understood as a controversial and pivotal intervention proliferating decades-further debate on the ideal relationship between the sciences and the arts & humanities, as well as the structure and content of education.  

Main Argument
  • Snow asserts the existence of a calcified and deeply problematic chasm in the West  between “scientists” (represented by Snow as physical scientists) and “literary intellectuals” (which Snow also sometimes refers to as “the traditional culture”).

  • He characterizes the polarization as, “two groups. . . who in intellectual, moral, and psychological climate [have] so little in common,” and describes a mutual  incomprehension (sometimes willful, deliberate, and even sneering) on the part of both “scientists” and “literary intellectuals” of the theory, empirics, and findings of the other.  
  • Snow argues that the distance between the two cultures constitutes a “practical and intellectual and creative loss,” to people and society.  Snow believes there is great creative potential at the intersection of any two clashing disciplines or cultures and that this is where great breakthroughs arise, but the fact that scientists and literary intellectuals can’t talk to each other precludes this.  

  • The author directly implicates the system of education in England in the persistence of “the two cultures,” arguing that, 1)  its “fanatical” focus on specialization (an educational policy dictated at the national level and by an echelon of elites self-interested in the preservation of an intellectual culture rooted in Oxford and Cambridge), and 2) a particularly English cultural tendency to “let [its] social forms crystallize” renders the problem difficult to address.  Snow also compares education in England to other countries (e.g., the United States, the former USSR, and the countries of Scandinavia) as achieving much greater breadth in education, though some achieving this at the expense of rigor (note a sub-theme of national competitiveness).  

Audience and Method
  • The audience(s) for this particular lecture includes, obviously, the immediate audience of Rede lecture attendees and readers (specific members of the British intelligentsia), but insofar as The Two Cultures was first published in The New Statesman and, ultimately, in book form, the audience includes scholars interested in the critique of the Science/Arts & Humanities relationship, as as well as scholars and policy-makers interested in the content and structure of education.   Whether Snow successfully speaks to a general public, or even elaborates on practical implications for the public (at least in the portion of The Two Cultures read for this class) is unclear and a point of critique of Snow’s work. 
  • Methods and evidence deployed by Snow to make his argument are a bit vague.  He mentions as his only credibility to lay out “the problem” the fact that he works as an academic physicist by day (he also held several civil service positions for the British government)  and a writer who walks in literary circles by night, and has done so for many year.  Therefore, he has intimate knowledge of the insights, work, criticism, and self-reflection of both scientists and “literary intellectuals.”  He cites some demographic statistics about “scientists” (p.171) as being “less religious” (than “literary intellectuals”), more “on the Left in open politics,” and that considerably more of them (scientists) “come from poor families.”  Snow also references interviewing (along with colleagues) “somewhere between thirty to forty thousand” of the “fifty thousand scientists working in the country and about eighty thousand professional engineers or applied scientists,” but the context of these interviews is left out.   

  • While Snow begins relatively even-handedly in describing how both cultures become impoverished by their lack of understanding of each other (e.g., “literary intellectuals” who can’t define what are considered basic terms in Physics—”mass,” “acceleration,”—and scientists who find approaching Dickens a gargantuan challenge), he quickly assumes a bias, obvious in several instances, one notable section on p. 171: “They [scientists] have their own culture, intensive, rigorous, and constantly in action.  This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons’ arguments—even though the scientists do cheerfully use words in senses which literary persons don’t recognize, the senses are exact ones, and when they talk about “subjective,” “objective,” “philosophy,” or “progressive,” they know what they mean, even though it isn’t what one is accustomed to expect.”  

  • In describing scientists as more “optimistic” in their pursuit to improve social life through discovery, the author mentions but gives short shrift to sociologists whom he mentions could be a “third” culture.  This is one of many parts of the argument that over-exaggerates the binary and tends to overdraw both elements of the binary.  

  • Without explanation, Snow too easily exchanges “literary intellectual” with something called “traditional culture,” which he leaves undefined while making broad claims about it.

  • Snow never meticulously (at least in what we read) lays out the “practical, intellectual, and creative” loss(es) created by the distance (how, in precise terms, do the disciplines (or discovery) suffer?  does society suffer?).  

Some Discussion Questions
  • To what extent does Snow’s 54-yr old argument hold and not hold today?  The 50th anniversary of The Two Cultures, in 2009, produced relatively widespread follow-up commentary on this question:

  • What is Snow’s “traditional culture”?  Is it problematic to interchange it in such a facile manner with “literary intellectual?”

  • This is tertiary to Snow’s piece or argument, but he makes one biographical reference about coming from a poor home and later cites that scientists, more than intellectuals, come from poor families.  Does this drive his increasingly sneering tone toward “literary intellectuals” throughout the piece and are class and the disciplines/interdisciplines important things to think about together?

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