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Revisiting C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" Revisiting C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures"
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-01-08 09:51:40
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It is not a question of annihilating science, but of controlling it. Science is totally dependent upon philosophical opinions for all of its goals and methods, though it easily forgets it.

                                                                                                      --Friedrich Nietzsche 

These musings follow those of Dr. Larry Nannery on the thorny subject of Truth vis a vis Science and Philosophy. If one reads the history of philosophy in the West, it will not take very long before one realizes that there is from its beginnings an irrationalism that regularly manifests itself in anti-scientific biases of one sort or another. Certain varieties of 19th century romanticism  fit here. One discerns it immediately in the writings of Nietzsche, perhaps the best known philosopher to first point out the Dionysian and the Apollonian in ancient Greek culture.

There is nowadays a widespread suspicion of the achievements of science coming close to an outright rejection of the idea of factual truth. This applies to academic circles too; to radical movements and “theories” such as cultural constructivism, deconstruction, radical feminism, and various other politically correct anti-empirical ists and isms. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt have already ably analyzed this thorny issue in their book in Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. They show that this new hostility to science is part of a more general hostility to Western values and institutions, an anti-Enlightenment hostility that “mocks the idea that … a civilization is capable of progressing from ignorance to insight.”

And then of course there is The Two Worlds of C.P. Snow. Few literary phrases have had as enduring an after­life as “the two cultures,” (1959) coined by C. P. Snow to describe what he saw as a dangerous schism between science and literary life. More than 50 years ago Snow, an English physicist, civil servant and novelist, delivered a lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” which was later published in book form. Snow’s famous lament was that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other. Snow largely blamed literary types for this “gulf of mutual incomprehension.” These intellectuals, Snow asserted, were shamefully unembarrassed about not grasping, say, the second law of thermodynamics — even though asking if someone knows it, he writes, “is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

The deeper point of “The Two Cultures” is not that we have two cultures, that is quite obvious. It is that science, above all, will keep us prosperous and secure; culture is merely frosting on the cake. Scientists, he argues, are morally “the soundest group of intellectuals we have,” while literary ethics remain suspect. Literary culture has “temporary periods” of moral failure, he argues, quoting a scientist friend who mentions the fascist proclivities of Pound and Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, and asks, “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?” Obviously, the table is being turned around here.

Snow’s essay provoked an ad hominem response from the Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis — who called Snow “intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be” — and a more measured one from Lionel Trilling, who nonetheless thought Snow had produced “a book which is mistaken in a very large way indeed.” Snow’s cultural tribalism, Trilling argued, impaired the “possibility of rational discourse.”

For the past two decades, John Brockman has promoted the notion of a “third culture” to describe scientists — notably evolutionary biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists — who are “rendering visible the deeper meanings in our lives” and superseding literary artists in their ability to “shape the thoughts of their generation.”  So why did Snow think the supposed gulf between the two cultures was such a problem? Because, he argues in the latter half of his essay, it leads many capable minds to ignore science as a vocation, which prevents us from solving the world’s “main issue,” the wealth gap caused by industrialization, which threatens global stability.

Some of this sounds familiar; for decades we have regarded science as crucial to global competitiveness, an idea invoked as recently as in Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign. But in other ways “The Two Cultures” remains irretrievably a cold war document. This is, I think, why Snow’s diagnosis remains popular while his remedy is ignored. We have spent recent decades convincing ourselves that technological progress occurs in unpredictable entrepreneurial floods, allowing us to surf the waves of creative destruction.  Yet “The Two Cultures” actually embodies one of the deepest tensions in our ideas about progress. Snow, too, wants to believe the sheer force of science cannot be restrained, that it will change the world — for the better, and it will happen naturally, without human guiding hand. The Industrial Revolution, he writes, occurred “without anyone,” including intellectuals, “noticing what was happening.” But at the same time, he argues that 20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists. That’s why he wrote “The Two Cultures.”

This question is the aspect of “The Two Cultures” that speaks most directly to us today. Your answer — and many different ones are possible — probably determines how widely and deeply you think we need to spread scientific knowledge. Do we need to produce more scientists and engineers to fight climate change? How should they be deployed? Do we need broader public understanding of the issue to support governmental action? Or do we need something else?  “The Two Cultures” initially asserts the moral distinctiveness of scientists, but ends with a plea for enlisting science to halt the spread of Communism. In this sense it is a Cold War document. Neverthless some scholars have pointed out that contrasting scientific and humanistic knowledge is a repetition of the Methodenstreit of 1890 German universities. In the social sciences it is also commonly proposed as the quarrel of positivism versus interpretivism. Snow takes the philosophical position of scientism in conflating the complex fields of knowledge of the humanities.

 As soon as it appeared, the brief work became a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1961, the book was already in its seventh printing. I personally read it while I was in college in 1965. Its fame got an additional boost in 1962 when the critic F. R. Leavis published his attack on The Two Cultures in The Spectator. Leavis derided what he considered the “embarrassing vulgarity of style,” his “complete ignorance” of history, literature, the history of civilization, and the human significance of the Industrial Revolution. He can’t be said to know what a novel is, so continues Leavis, he is “utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters.”

The extreme reaction was partly a response to Snow’s own extremity. But the questions raised by The Two Cultures—and by Leavis’s criticisms  remain . There is little doubt that since Galileo and beyond the gulf between scientists and literary intellectuals has grown wider as science has become ever more specialized and complex and seems unbridgeable. The more pressing issue concerns the fate of culture in a world increasingly determined by science and technology. Leavis described C. P. Snow as a “portent” revealing modern society’s tendency to trivialize culture by reducing it to a form of diversion or entertainment. For him, it was not surprising that The Two Cultures so captured the public imagination: it did so precisely because it pandered to the debased notion of culture championed by established taste.  As we look around it is hard not to notice a civilization and its culture bent on cultural suicide: the triumph of pop culture, the glorification of mindless sensationalism, the attack on the very idea of permanent cultural achievement—in the West. All this in tandem with unprecedented material wealth and  profound cultural and intellectual degradation. C. P. Snow may be the canary in the mine. He is a symptom of something deeply troubling.  

The tone of The Two Cultures is intriguing in itself. It swings between the anecdotal and the apocalyptic. In some “afterthoughts” on the two-cultures controversy that he published in Encounter in 1960, Snow refers to his lecture as a “call to action.” But what is the problem? And what actions does Snow recommend  given the gulf of  mutual incomprehension of which he talks? On one page the problem is reforming the schools so that “English and American children get a reasonable education.” A bit later the problem is mobilizing Western resources to industrialize India, Africa and Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and the Middle East, in order to forestall widespread starvation, revolution, and anarchy. The Soviet Union, as far as Snow is concerned. It all appears as a  terrible muddle. It would be nice if “literary intellectuals” knew more science, the gulf as described by Snow seems unbreadeable. Snow uses “literary intellectual” interchangably with “traditional culture.” This fusion yields the observation that there is “an unscientific,” even an “anti-scientific” flavor to “the whole ‘traditional’ culture.” What can this mean? Aristotle, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Kant: are there any more “traditional” representatives of “the whole ‘traditional culture’”?

At the beginning of his lecture, Snow affects a generous even-handedness in his attitude toward scientists and literary intellectuals. There’s a bit of criticism for both. But this show of even-handedness soon evaporates. The “culture” of science, Snow tells us, “contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than the literary persons’ arguments.” Literary intellectuals are “natural Luddites”; scientists “have the future in their bones.” This is a formulation that Snow likes enough to repeat: “If the scientists have the future in their bones,” he writes, “then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” To clinch his argument that literary intellectuals (“the traditional culture”) “wish the future did not exist,” Snow holds up … George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four—as if that harrowing admonitory tale could have been written by anyone who did not have a passionate concern for the future!

Snow is especially impatient with the politics of “the traditional culture.” He indicts “nine-tenths” of the great literary figures of the early twentieth century (1914–1950) as politically suspect. Scientists, too, appreciate the tragic nature of human life—that each of us “dies alone.” But they are wise enough to distinguish between the “individual condition and the social condition” of man. As Leavis notes, the second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems oblivious to this distinction as are most professors selling capitalism and entrepreneurship nowadays. A similar confusion is at work in Snow’s effort to neutralize individuality by assimilating it to the project of “social hope.” But what is the “social hope” that transcends, cancels or makes indifferent the inescapable tragic existential condition, the angst of choosing one’s destiny of each individual as pointed out by a Kierkegaard? Where, if not in individuals, is what is hoped for … to be located?  This is for Leavis the central philistinism and, the deeply anti-cultural bias, of Snow’s position. For him, a society’s material standard of living provides the ultimate, really the only, criterion of “the good life”; science is the means of raising the standard of living, ergo science is the final arbiter of value. Culture— literary, artistic culture—is merely frosting on the cake. It provides us with no moral challenge or insight, because the only serious questions are how to keep increasing and effectively distributing the world’s wealth, and these are not questions culture is competent to address. “The upshot” of Snow’s argument, Leavis writes, “is that if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action and provision, about the human future—any other kind of misgiving—than that which talks in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite.”

The progress of science may be inexorable but Leavis is not prepared to accept that science represents a moral resource or that there is such a thing as a culture of science. Science may tells us how best to do things we have already decided to do, not why we should do them. Its province is the province of means not ends. That is its glory and its limitation. In this sense the statement by Albert Einstein makes perfect sense: our age is characterized by perfection of means and scarcity of goals.

 One word that is missing from Snow’s essay the editors of  The Spectator note in an unsigned editorial, is “philosophy”—“that effort to impart moral direction that was found in the best nineteenth-century English writers.” Chief among them Matthew Arnold whose Rede lecture delivered in 1882—the same as Snow’s lecture, and titled “Literature and Science”—was itself a kind of “two cultures” argument. But his point was essentially the opposite of Snow’s. Written in response to T. H. Huxley’s insistence that literature should and inevitably would be supplanted by science, Arnold argued that, “so long as human nature is what it is,” culture would continue to provide mankind with its fulcrum of moral understanding.”

Arnold, like Leavis is concerned with  “the cultural consequences of the technological revolution.” He too argues passionately  against the trivialization of culture, against “a superficial humanism” that is “mainly decorative.” And both looked to culture to provide a way of relating the “results of modern science” to “our need for conduct, our need for beauty.” This is the crux: that culture is in some deep sense inseparable from conduct—from that unscientific but ineluctable question, “How should I live my life?” Leavis’s point was the same. It is exactly the  upheavals precipitated by the march of science and technology that has  rendered culture—the arts and humanities—both more precarious and more precious. So the preservation of culture as a guide to “conduct” is now more crucial than ever. For Arnold, if mankind was to confront the moral challenges of modern science “in full intelligent possession of its humanity” and maintain “a basic living deference towards that to which, opening as it does into the unknown and itself unmeasurable, we know we belong,” then the realm of culture had to be protected from the reductive forces of a crude scientific rationalism.

The temptation to reduce culture to a reservoir of titillating pastimes is all but irresistible nowadays. Rock music, “performance art,” television, video games (not to mention drugs, violence, and mindless sex): since Descartes we are everywhere encouraged to think of ourselves as complicated machines for consuming sensations—the more, and more exotic, the better. Culture is no longer an invitation to confront our humanity but a series of opportunities to impoverish it through diversion. We are, as Eliot put it in Four Quartets, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” C. P. Snow and his entrepreneurial cohorts represents the smiling, jovial face of this predicament. Critics like Arnold and Leavis offer us the beginnings of an alternative. Let those who have ears, let them hear.



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Lawrence Nannery2013-01-08 20:08:38
This is the best thing that I have read of yours, Emmanuel! Leavis was always the brightest of that generation's literary critics. This article brings out beautifully why it is that when it comes to values, scientists should not be part of the conversation. The reason is that science is no more than another of many human inventions, restricted in range in order to eliminate extraneous factors, which are not factors that can not be part of an explanation.

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