Though in his time he was both a renowned novelist and a respected scientist, C. P. Snow may be best remembered for the distinction that he drew, in a 1956 essay for the New Statesman (The Two Cultures) and in this 1959 Rede Lecture, between the culture of science and the culture of intellectuals (mostly of the literary/artistic world), two cultures that he was one of the few to straddle. Snow traced the divide to the belief of non-scientists that scientists were "shallowly optimistic" and of scientists that the intellectuals of the day were in turn "totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment."
I have to admit, that threw me when I first read it. After all, the intellectuals of the 20th Century were predominantly Leftists, whether merely liberal, socialist, or actually Marxist. And the defining characteristic of the Left sensibility is optimism about Man's nature, the belief that Man is essentially good but has been corrupted by an oppressive and unfairly hierarchical economic system. But then as you read on you find that he's talking about conservative intellectuals--Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Wyndham Lewis--who he, quite improbably and totally inaccurately, calls the most famous of twentieth-century writers. At any rate, taking this as his jumping off point, Snow argues that the gulf that exists between science and his version of "intellectuals" is a result of scientists complete disregard for traditional culture and the "intellectuals" refusal to look at what the natural world might teach us about potential problems with that culture.
Snow goes on to call these intellectuals "natural Luddites", men who refuse even to understand the industrial revolution (the transition from agriculture to manufacturing). He's of course right that most conservatives are at least somewhat hostile to the industrial revolution, precisely because of the damage it did to traditional culture, but that's a very different matter from not understanding it. Snow decries their failure to celebrate this revolution because in his view "Industrialization is the only hope of the poor." He believed that the problem of his own age was that this revolution was being followed by a pure "scientific revolution" in the area of electronics, atomics, and automation, that was widening the cultural divide still further as pure scientists lost the ability to communicate with even the mechanics and artisans of industry, who had at least understood the industrial revolution.
Snow also took note of another divide plaguing the modern world, that between rich and poor nations. And he blamed that divide on the failure of poor nations to industrialize. Thus, he included the USSR and other communist nations in the group of rich nations, because they had made the transition to heavy industry.
He located the solution to all of these problems in education. He thought that simply by making education in the West, specifically in Britain, less specialized that the breach could be healed, with scientists learning about culture and intellectuals learning science. And he thought that making poor nations rich would be merely a matter of educating their populations.
I'd like to think that it's not only in retrospect that we can see how profoundly wrong Snow was in everything except for his initial metaphor, of a divide between science and the rest of the culture, about which more later. Firstly, as noted above, the real intellectual class, the Left of literature, art, and academia, shares the optimism of scientists. This is the case for one obvious reason, that neither group believes in the Judeo-Christian biblical world view, most specifically the belief that Man is Fallen, is by nature sinful. It is this belief, more than any other, that undergirds the pessimistic conservative intellectualism that Snow was apparently bothered by. But this is a decidedly minority view and became more so with every passing year of the 20th Century. In fact, the shallow optimism of the intellectuals of the Left and of scientists had largely prevailed by the time Snow wrote--as witness the triumph of communism, socialism, and liberalism across the globe.
Even today, it is basically only in the U.S (the West's last Christian nation), that there exists a vibrant and powerful conservative movement, but it is significant that America is the exception because it proves the conservatives to have been on the right side of this cultural divide. We need only look at the social pathologies that the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age unleashed--crime, violence, illegitimacy, deviancy, drugs, etc.--to see that Man was not a plastic waiting to be perfected by science. We need only look at the basket case that the Communist worlds became to see how mistaken Snow was about the inevitability of industrialization improving peoples' lives. We need only look at the education levels achieved in places like the Soviet Union and Cuba to realize that no amount of education can compensate for a misguided political philosophy. We need only look at America's stubborn resistance to the worst excesses of the optimists and our corresponding predominance in the political and economic realms to realize how closely that success has been tied to the conservative pessimism that is built into our very system of government. The great educational task turns out not to be getting conservatives to understand why they should be optimistic, but instead to teach scientific and Leftist utopians why they should be at least skeptical of their own optimism.
Snow did though tip toe right up to the edge of a profound truth in his metaphor of the two cultures. Because while the scientists and the intellectuals (now we speak of the real intellectuals, those of the Left) share a common optimism, they do not any longer have any way of communicating with each other and, more importantly, neither any longer communicates with the rest of us. This is so because of an unnecessary but understandable sequence of events. As Snow notes, as late as say the 1850s, any reasonably well-educated, well-read, inquisitive man could speak knowledgeably about both science and the arts. Man knew little enough that it was still possible for one to know nearly everything that was known and to have been exposed to all the religion, art, history--culture in general--that mattered. But then with the pure science revolution of which Snow spoke--in biology and chemistry, but most of all in physics--suddenly a great deal of specialized training and education was necessary before one could be knowledgeable in each field. Like priests of some ancient cult, scientists were separated out from the mass of men, elevated above them by their access to secret knowledge. Even more annoying was the fact that even though they had moved beyond what the rest of us could readily understand, they could still listen to Bach or read Shakespeare and discuss it intelligently. The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible. If Picasso couldn't understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn't going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn't pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either. And so grew the two cultures, the one real, the other manufactured, but both with elaborate and often counterintuitive theories, requiring years of study.
Snow was an entirely conventional novelist so perhaps it's not surprising that he missed this point. He was also a member of both elites, the scientific and the intellectual, and to a significant degree they've reached an implicit agreement whereby each accepts the others judgment in their given fields. Artists don't question the likelihood of the Big Bang and scientists simply accept that Finnegan's Wake is brilliant, and everyone's happy. Everyone that is except for those of us who think that both sides, though the intellectuals much more than the scientists, know far less than they'd like us to think they do.
-Snow, C. P. (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.)
-CARICATURE : C. P. Snow (This drawing originally appeared with "Suspect Sages" (September 21, 1972) NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY: C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide (DAVID P. BARASH, 11/25/05, The Chronicle Review)
-ESSAY : "The Two Cultures" Today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion, February 1994)
-ESSAY : Two cultures still : It is 40 years since CP Snow raged against the marginalisation of science (Martin Kettle, February 2, 2002, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : Agreeing to disagree : Communication will help bridge the gap between science and humanities, and lead to a greater understanding of both (Dr Ian Gibson, February 28, 2002, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : Two Cultures or One? (Serendip )
-ESSAY : Two Cultures: Never The Twain Shall Meet? : Scientists wonder why today the word "Intellectual" is used to describe only those in arts and letters (John P. Wiley, Jr. , October 1997, Smithsonian Magazine)
-ESSAY : The Third Culture : The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are. (John Brockman, Edge)
-ESSAY : INTERTWINING THE TWO CULTURES IN THE YEAR TWO THOUSAND (Ken Stange, June 1998)
-ESSAY : The Two Cultures Revisited : Let's try again to close the gap between the sciences and the humanities. (KEVIN FINNERAN, Spring 1998, Issues in Science & Technology)
-ESSAY : Griffiths Looks at `Two Cultures' Today (The Rice University Weekly, 09-21-1995)
-ESSAY : C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Hardware and Software, Discovery and Creation (Dan Dewey, MIT)
-ESSAY: Closing time in the gardens of the West: Anthony Powell and C. P. Snow: Why has Snow's static, English, scientism faded where Powell's fluid, Europeanised, high Tory sensibility retains its currency? A fascinating tale of money, Englishness, and social morbidity. (Chris Harvie, 21 August 2002, Open Democracy)
-INTERVIEW : The Importance of Understanding Science : An Interview with David Balamuth (Penn Arts & Science, Winter 1997)
-LINKS : Two Cultures : Web sites relating to the Snow-Leavis Controversy
-REVIEW : of Two Cultures (Danny Yee's Book Reviews)
Book-related and General Links:
-ESSAY: Art History Can Trade Insights With the Sciences (ELLEN WINNER, 7/02/04, The Chronicle Review)
-ESSAY: Shakespeare and Thermodynamics: Dam the Second Law! (Frank L. Lambert, Professor Emeritus (Chemistry), Occidental College)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd