November 30, 2005


C.P. Snow: Bridging the Two-Cultures Divide (DAVID P. BARASH, 11/25/05, The Chronicle Review)

The year 2005 is the centenary of the birth — and the 25th anniversary of the death — of C.P. Snow, British physicist, novelist, and longtime denizen of the "corridors of power" (a phrase he coined). It is also 45 years since the U.S. publication of his best-known work, a highly influential polemic that generated another phrase with a life of its own, and that warrants revisiting today: The Two Cultures.

Actually, the full title was The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, presented by Snow as the prestigious Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1959 before being published as a brief book shortly thereafter. Since then his basic point has seeped into public consciousness as metaphor for a kind of dialogue of the deaf. Snow's was perhaps the first — and almost certainly the most influential — public lamentation over the extent to which the sciences and the humanities have drifted apart. [...]

[T]oday's readers will be surprised by Snow's conflation of "literary intellectuals" with backward-looking conservatives, notably right-wing Fascist sympathizers such as Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, and Ezra Pound, and his cheerful, optimistic portrayal of scientists as synonymous with progress and social responsibility. After all, for every D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot there were a dozen luminaries of the literary left, just as for every Leo Szilard, an Edward Teller. Snow himself was an establishment liberal, suitably worried about nuclear war, overpopulation, and the economic disparities between rich and poor countries. He lamented the influence of those who, he feared, were likely to turn their backs on human progress; in turn, Snow may have been naïvely optimistic and even downright simplistic about the potential of science to solve the world's problems.

The Two Cultures is generous in criticizing both cultures for their intellectual isolationism, and Snow — being both novelist and physicist — was himself criticized for immodestly holding himself forth (albeit implicitly) as the perfect embodiment of what an educated person should be. Indeed, someone once commented about Snow that he was "so well-rounded as to be practically spherical." But Snow's gentle curses do not fall evenhandedly on both houses, which doubtless raised the ire of Leavis and his ilk. The "culture of science," Snow announced, "contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than the literary persons' arguments." Scientists "have the future in their bones" whereas literary intellectuals are "natural Luddites" who "wish the future did not exist." Snow's proposed solution? Broaden the educational system.

More significant for our time, however, are not Snow's recommendations, the tendentious reception of his thesis, how he couched it, or even, perhaps, whether he got it right, so much as whether, as widely construed, it currently applies. And whether it matters.

Other than the initial idea of a cultural divide, pretty nearly everything in the book is wrong.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2005 11:50 PM

Robert Conquest really hammers Snow as a Soviet dupe in his latest book. It's a fun performance.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at December 1, 2005 9:08 AM
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