Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
ArticleComments [1]
The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
C. P. P. Snow
Cambridge University Press, 2012
180 pp., 19.99

Buy Now
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., 14.99

Buy Now

Alan Jacobs

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.

The authority Charles Percy Snow claimed was that of a person who managed to bridge those two increasingly divergent cultures. As a young man he had been a research chemist who seemed on track for a significant career, but in 1932, when he was still in his late twenties, he made a major error. He and a colleague announced that they had discovered a means of artificially producing Vitamin A, an announcement that received a good deal of public applause; but they soon learned that they had made a mistake in calculation, and were forced to withdraw the claim in just as public a way as they had made it. Snow's brother would later say that "the trauma after all that publicity put Charles off scientific research irrevocably."

So Snow began to devote more and more time to what had already been a serious avocation for him: writing fiction. He began to publish novels at a brisk rate, and gained some acclaim for them, as well as very solid sales; meanwhile, his combination of scientific training with literary ability set him up as a public advocate for science, and later as the holder of a number of governmental posts. By the time he delivered his 1959 lecture at Cambridge, he had already been knighted for his services, and in 1964 was elevated to the peerage as Baron Snow of Leicester. His lecture was written in casual language and delivered in an avuncular tone; but he possessed the assurance of a man accustomed to having his views taken very seriously.

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.

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.

Trilling, the American Olympian, would later write that "There can be no two opinions about the tone in which Dr Leavis deals with Sir Charles. It is a bad tone, an impermissible tone." Indeed it is. Here's a sample: "Snow is, of course, a—no, I can't say that; he isn't: Snow thinks of himself as a novelist." But "as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is." More generally, "he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be." Much follows along these lines, and Leavis never regretted his unsubstantiated name-calling. When asked to consider toning things down before publication of the lecture, he considered the possibility and then expressed his complete satisfaction with the spoken version. "It will be a classic," he said.

Leavis' "impermissible tone" ended up generating a long and pointless argument about civility and incivility in academic debate, which has served mainly to disguise the fact that his response to Snow is at best inadequate, at worst wholly empty. (It says something about Snow's self-image that his main complaint about Leavis was that the attack had diminished his chances of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. He of course never had even the slightest chance of climbing that mountain. He existed as a novelist but was never a major one, and today it's hard to read his books without boredom.) I am not convinced that Leavis' response deserves to be placed between covers: even if it were good it would be slight, and Collini has to add a second Leavis lecture plus an introduction of his own that's longer than Leavis' whole contribution in order to fill 118 pages. Probably a better solution would have been to produce a new version of his edition of Snow's lecture, which first appeared in 1998, with Leavis' writings as an appendix—though, as I will later explain, at least one other response to Snow deserves to be far better known than Leavis'.

Perhaps the chief, and most lasting, consequence of Leavis' intemperate rant has been to make Snow's lecture more prominent than it deserves to be. Not because it is bad—I think it's a consistently interesting and genuinely thoughtful piece, even though, as I'll make clear, I have serious reservations about the argument—but because it is anything but unique. As Collini points out, Snow had made almost exactly the same argument, using many of the same words, in an article that appeared in the New Statesman in 1956. Moreover, as Guy Ortolano has shown in his excellent book The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (2009), "in 1928 the Cambridge Union debated the proposition that 'the sciences are destroying the arts'; in 1946 the BBC called the division between scientific and humanistic thought 'the challenge of our time'; and by 1956 the polymath Jacob Bronowski had repeatedly addressed the subject in lectures and in print." The BBC talks Ortolano refers to eventually became a book, one of the leading essays of which was titled "Can Science Be Reconciled with the Humanities?"; and Bronowski's most important book on the subject appeared the very year that Snow first wrote on the theme: Science and Human Values, which in my view is something close to a classic. (Perhaps most interestingly, when the Cambridge Union held its 1928 debate, both Snow and Leavis were in residence, the former as a doctoral student and the latter as a new lecturer.) As Lisa Jardine has commented, "the lecture Snow gave in 1959 was the culmination, rather than the beginning of a post-war debate about the role of science in British society. It was an argument which had begun in the final years of the Second World War, and had been enlarged on and developed in the course of the 1950s, in the context of discussion about the direction Britain should take in manufacturing and technology as the country came off a war footing."

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. (It's worth noting that by profession Arnold was an inspector of schools; and his father, Thomas Arnold, was the most famous headmaster of Rugby School.) "I am boldly going to ask whether the present movement for ousting letters from their old predominance in education, and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural sciences, whether this brisk and flourishing movement ought to prevail, and whether it is likely that in the end it really will prevail."

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.

Arnold's is the serious version of this argument; the comic version is provided by Bernard Nightingale in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia:

A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars—big bangs, black holes—who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves? … If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing "When Father Painted the Parlour"? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. "She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies, / And all that's best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes." There you are, he wrote it after coming home from a party.

Bernard's quarrel with Valentine Coverly, a young scientist who's just trying to research grouse populations in peace, reminds us that if the debate didn't start with Snow and Leavis it didn't end with them either. The hoary old conflict was even re-enacted in 2013 in the pages of The New Republic, with Stephen Pinker playing the role of the condescending and only apparently fair-and-balanced Snow—his essay is called "Science Is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea to Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, and Tenure-less Historians"—followed by Leon Wieseltier's remarkably faithful imitation of Leavis' "impermissible tone." When will enough be enough?

In C. S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength (1945), a young sociologist named Mark Studdock finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a web of evil, and seems to possess no resources of intellect or will that would help him to resist that evil. Lewis' portrayal of Mark is anything but flattering, but it is not without compassion, as we see in this curious authorial aside:

It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical—merely "Modern." The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on Essays and General Papers) and the first hint of a real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling.

If we can set aside what looks like a mere prejudice against the social sciences, I think we can find in this passage some useful wisdom. In a sense, Stephen Pinker is right: Science is not the enemy of the humanities. 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. A rigorous education in any field challenges its students: it doesn't let them get away with easy answers; it doesn't reward "glib examinees"; it forces second and third thoughts; it demands revision and correction, and presses people even to start over from scratch when that's necessary. People trained in this fashion will be ready for surprises, will expect the unexpected, will adapt to circumstances.

And there is one other matter to be considered. It was considered by the anthropologist and essayist Loren Eiseley in what I believe to have been the best response to Snow's lecture, an essay that appeared in The American Scholar in 1964 under the title "The Illusion of the Two Cultures." Eiseley believed that artistic, humanistic, and scientific achievement alike are driven by the power of human imagination—and that the contemporary academy, with its relentless enforcement of disciplinary boundaries and its cult of "professionalism," is draining imaginative power from the sciences:

Happily, the very great in science, or even those unique scientist-artists such as Leonardo, who foreran the emergence of science as an institution, have been singularly free from this folly. Darwin decried it even as he recognized that he had paid a certain price in concentrated specialization for his achievement. Einstein, it is well known, retained a simple sense of wonder; Newton felt like a child playing with pretty shells on a beach. All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist. It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.

In a passage that has become even more powerful and relevant in the intervening decades, Eiseley comments that "it is one of the disadvantages of big science, just as it is of big government, that the availability of huge sums attracts a swarm of elbowing and contentious men to whom great dreams are less than protected hunting preserves." And in what seems to me the key point in the essay, he writes that in the money-driven world of "big science,"

some minds exhibit an almost instinctive hostility toward the mere attempt to wonder, or to ask what lies below that microcosmic world out of which emerge the particles that compose our bodies, and that now take on this wraithlike quality.
Is there something here we fear to face, except when clothed in safely sterilized professional speech? Have we grown reluctant in the age of power to admit mystery and beauty into our thoughts, or to learn where power ceases?

If I were ever rich enough to endow a science building at a university, I would insist that that last sentence be engraved over its doors.

Finally, to circle back to what Snow most cared about, as I feel I should, I want to say that people who have learned these lessons in severity and imagination, whether in the sciences or the humanities, will, I think, have a real chance of developing the political virtues that we need.

I don't suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow's time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow's picture of the "traditional culture," But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher's status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one. (Wilson's father was a chemist, though.) The arrows here point in many directions; they don't tell the coherent story that Snow would like them to tell. It is hard to discern what connects politicians' academic training with their political judgments.

Snow wanted to believe something like this: political decisions in the modern world often concern how to deploy science and technology, so people well-trained in science and technology will be better prepared to make those decisions. But that's a syllogism without a minor premise. And before we fill in that minor premise, we might reflect on one little story, which I offer, though it's a true story, as a kind of parable. At the height of the Red Scare in the 1950s, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed the American atomic bomb program during World War II, found himself under scrutiny for alleged Communist sympathies. He was interviewed at length, and at one point found himself reflecting on how he and his people had made their decisions. Oppenheimer said, "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success. That's the way it was with the atomic bomb."

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared