March 3, 2013

THE PROBLEM ISN'T THAT THEY CAN'T SPEAK TO EACH OTHER...:

Never the Twain : What the idea of the "two cultures" is really about (William Deresiewicz, 3/03/13, The American Scholar)
 
Literary culture on the one hand, and scientific culture on the other, Snow lamented, are failing to communicate. A scientifically trained civil servant who also wrote novels (rather bad ones, apparently), Snow left no doubt as to who was to blame: "Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites." A scientist would be ashamed to admit that he hadn't read Shakespeare, but where's the humanist who can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

The breasts have been abeating ever since. If only humanists weren't so obtuse! If only we could "bridge the two cultures"! The trouble with that noble desideratum is that no one's ever known what it means, least of all Snow. Never mind the objections raised by F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, two of the leading literary critics of Snow's day. There aren't two cultures, Leavis pointed out; there are many--not only beside and between science and the humanities (most notably that habitually slighted tertium quid, the social sciences), but within each one, as well. As for that alleged literary culture, Snow seems to have meant traditional upper-class English culture--the culture of people who might have studied literature at Oxford or Cambridge but were hardly in the business of creating it. The latter, Trilling notes in response to Snow's charge that the great English writers failed to adequately respond to the Industrial Revolution, could hardly have been more aware of the changes that science had brought to society (think of Blake or Dickens or H. G. Wells), an observation that can be extended to the writers of our own day.

No, the biggest problem with Snow--the problem he bequeathed to all who've taken up his cry--is that he doesn't have the vaguest idea what "bridging" or "bringing together" the two cultures would actually entail. His essay contains not a single solid suggestion--not even a liquid or gaseous suggestion--as to how he thinks contemporary science should, as he puts it, "be assimilated" into art. As for higher education, a major part of his concern, his famous jibe about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is not the beginning of a program; it is the whole of it. But why should humanists be taught the Second Law of Thermodynamics? 

...after all, since they're both wrong, what would be gained.  It is that they can't speak to anyone.



Posted by at March 3, 2013 8:04 AM
  

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