C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ Is Fifty Years Old Today
Posted by Hilary
C.P. Snow introduced the idea of the Two Cultures in the annual Rede Lecture in Cambridge of 7 May 1959. Himself both an eminent scientist and contemporary historian of science, and a novelist, in that lecture he lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’, arguing that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. Now fifty years later (as on the fortieth anniversary) a range of commentators continues to debate this claim.
Science & Technology.
Some of us may feel that the great contribution to British culture of Charles Percy Snow (1905 – 1980) was in fact to write novels and commentaries about science which are still remembered for the light they shed on how science works in modern society.
For me that’s certainly true: the dozen novels of the Strangers and Brothers saga (1949 – 1970) and his non-fiction (if not undisputed) accounts of how science ‘works’ – especially Science and Government (The Godkin Lectures at Harvard University) (1961), The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1963) and The Physicists: A Generation that Changed the World (1982, republished 2008) – have helped to bridge that science – humanities chasm.
Focus on the Corridors of Power
These were the books which, as a post-grad student of the sociology of science, opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t even previously known existed: the world of high level science and policy, the world as Snow himself styled it, of The Corridors of Power.
But this focus has been largely lost in the debate about the Two Cultures and the heavyweight attack which the literary critic F.R. Leavis (1895 – 1978) made on C.P. Snow’s thesis a couple of years after the Rede Lecture, suggesting that Snow was a dreadful novelist and rejecting the validity of his concerns that the literary elite was not scientifically literate.
Not always incompatible
Isn’t it interesting in this context that quite a lot of excellent musicians are also good at maths and science; and probably just as many very good scientists are also decent musicians?
There remains as ever a cultural gap between the humanities and ‘science’, but they are both very complex enterprises, and it does not follow that all those in the arts are unaware of science, any more than the converse must always be true.
The nature of evidence
What is more worrying is that sometimes people don’t seem to understand the nature of evidence (not ‘science’) … that whenever possible it needs to be good enough to rely on, before conclusions are drawn.
Of course all evidence in the end is relative, but we have to start somewhere…. the important thing in a democratic society, is that the basis on which we as individuals, and those with influence, choose to decide actions and positions is open to scrutiny.
Moving towards rationality
Slowly, modern western society is becoming more rational and moving out of the mists of myth and cultural comfort zones. There is without doubt a limit to how much this can or should happen, but I think we’re nearer to a balance on this than we were even a few decades ago. Many scientific terms are commonplace in everyday debate.
When C.P. Snow wrote his Two Cultures lecture we as a society ‘knew’ less than we do now. It’s difficult to accept the claim that education for most people is ‘worse’ than it was in the 1950s and 60s – and I say that as the product of an inner-city grammar school of that era. Then we just didn’t perceive the awfulness of the education which most children received; this was still the post-war era when anything was better than nothing.
For most people, cultural memory is it seems very short. We can surely now, despite all the naysayers, learn more, quickly, about anything, than ever before.
The longer view
It’s said that 90% of the scientists who ever lived are here on this planet now. Possibly the same applies to artists, for what it’s worth. But what I’m sure of is that C.P. Snow has excited a lot of people – including me – over several decades, with the debate he sparked.
Snow’s perspective is of course now dated; but those who currently deny that things have got better have (potentially) the benefit of hindsight ,and they need to think quite carefully about whether they are using that very valuable vantage point properly. More people now know something about science and the arts, than ever before.
You don’t need to be able to describe the double helix and the works of great poets in detail to share some mutual understanding about our complex cultural underpinnings.
Evidence and ideas for sustainability
What you do need to be able to do is draw threads together to make sense of where you find yourself in the world… and never has that been more true than now, with the ‘one planet living’ challenges we all face.
Indeed, Lord Snow argued himself that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems.
Bridging the gap
I’m not therefore sure that the most important debate around education can continue now be an arid discussion of so-called ‘standards’; surely it has to be about searching for common understandings? And in that debate C.P. Snow and those who followed have helped a lot.
If the musicians and their counterparts can sometimes bridge the gap, then maybe the rest of us should start to be more positive, and have a go too.
Read more about Science & Technology.
For more commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Two Cultures’ Rede Lecture, see e.g. here and here.
Posted on May 7, 2009, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Science Politics And Policy, Social Science, Who Is Hilary?. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.