The Two Cultures – C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures – C. P. Snow – Brief Article

Harold Orlans

In his 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures,” C. P. Snow declared that Western intellectuals were “split into two polar groups,” literary and scientific, parted by “a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Scientists knew little literature or history; literary people, little science. Many great writers (Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson, Yeats, Lawrence, and others) were Luddites who opposed industrialization, which, by improving food, health, and education, was “the only hope” of the world’s poor. “Modern industrial society,” Snow declared, rested on modern science and engineering. Scientists “have the future in their bones”; humanists “wish…the future did not exist.”

Impressed by Russia’s industrialization, Snow summoned Britain to follow Russia’s lead in educating more scientists and engineers and correcting the appalling scientific ignorance of humanists. We also need “politicians, administrators, an entire community,” he wrote, “who know enough science to have a sense of what scientists are talking about.” (Leading American scientists said the same.)

Science historian D. Graham Burnett has recently examined the context of Snow’s talk, which aroused astonishing controversy. Sputnik had just been launched, leading many to fear that Russia’s lead in rocketry extended to industry and education. The Cold War and threat of nuclear proliferation exacerbated that fear. Snow’s talk ignited debate about Britain’s “time of crisis.” (In the United States, Sputnik led to the appointment of the president’s first science adviser, the passage of the National Defense Education Act, and a larger National Science Foundation budget.)

The “two cultures” debate, Burnett observes, is about “what kind of human knowledge and intellect” best addresses “human wellbeing.” The debate has a long history. Eighty years before Snow’s lecture, T. H. Huxley wanted traditional humanities “to yield up its stranglehold on the university”; Matthew Arnold responded that scientific and technological advances made the humanities more essential. In 1962, critic F. R. Leavis caustically attacked Snow for confusing the “standard of living,” which technology can raise, with the “quality of life” that humanists explore.

Burnett senses “the distinct flavor of Snow” in E. O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998); Wilson “recapitulates… Snow’s argument,” deems the humanities “non-rational,” and seeks a “vast extension of the domain of science.” Burnett concludes that, be it correct or misguided, perceptive or simplistic, Snow’s thesis of the two cultures “is very much with us.” (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959; Daedalus, Spring 1999)

Harold Orlans has conducted many studies of higher education and research policy for private and government bodies in Washington, DC. He retains the copyright for this column.

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