The Two Cultures (Canto Classics)
C. P. Snow
Cambridge University Press, 2012
179 pp., $19.99
Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow (Canto Classics)
F. R. Leavis
Cambridge University Press, 2013
121 pp., $13.99
The Two Cultures, Then and Now
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.