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The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
C. P. Snow
Cambridge University Press, 2012
179 pp., $19.99

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Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow (Canto Classics)
Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow (Canto Classics)
F. R. Leavis
Cambridge University Press, 2013
121 pp., $16.99

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Alan Jacobs


The Two Cultures, Then and Now

The sciences, the humanities, and their common enemy.

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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.

At the very least, then, Snow deserves recognition for his humanitarian passion: he was neither describing with sociological detachment a state of academic affairs, nor merely bemoaning the intellectual limitations of the people he talks to at literary cocktail parties. 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.

However, it did not take long for at least some readers of the lecture to realize that Snow's invocation, early in his lecture, of mutual incomprehension did not lead to any even-handedness in his analysis. For him, the scientists may be "self-impoverished," but in their blindness and ignorance the representatives of the "traditional culture" were not "perhaps"—that was a disingenuous qualifier—but certainly, tragically, and unforgivably worse, all the more so because they held the reins of power. 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." Though Leavis was never embraced by the authorities of Cambridge—he taught there for more than thirty years without ever being promoted to professor—he was by far the best-known and most influential figure in the English faculty, and rescued English studies at the university from decades in the doldrums. Terry Eagleton's comment on Leavis' influence is definitive: "In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become a question of why it was worth wasting your time on anything else." No wonder, then, that Leavis decided to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Snow.

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