Book notes: The Two Cultures

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The Two Cultures | CP Snow

The stuff Snow was talking about in this lecture feels antiquated now. Probably it was the peculiar time and place that polarised the “two cultures”. Or perhaps it was Snow’s caricaturisation. (Snow himself looked retrospectively at his 1959 lecture in Part II.)

Nevertheless we can always learn something – some of the points are interesting and and applicable. The divide of the current age though is between scientists and non-scientists – hopefully it is something we will overcome. The introduction by Stefan Collini also proves to be a commentary that is also worth reading.

Introduction (by Stefan Collini)

This distinctiveness was reflected in the linguistic peculiarity by which the term ‘science’ came to be used in a narrowed sense to refer just to the ‘physical’ or ‘natural’ sciences. This appears to have become common in English only in the middle of the nineteenth century

…the development of molecular biology has probably been the most significant change in the face of science since the 1950s, re-defining whole areas of enquiry between biochemistry and medical research, and throwing up a host of vexed ethical and practical issues in bio-technology and genetic engineering.

Thomas Kuhn have argued that scientific change does not invariably take the form of a steady accumulation of knowledge within stable parameters; ‘anomalies’ in the evidence accumulate to the point where change takes the form of a discontinuous jump or ‘paradigm shift’, which involves a fundamental change of perspective and the creation of a new professional consensus, which is itself largely rooted in generational change.

This surely suggests that what is wanted is not to force potential physicists to read a bit of Dickens and potential literary critics to mug up some basic theorems. Rather, we need to encourage the growth of the intellectual equivalent of bilingualism, a capacity not only to exercise the language of our respective specialisms, but also to attend to, learn from, and eventually contribute to, wider cultural conversations.

And this has been achieved, it should be noted, not by any one of these individuals attempting to be a modern Leonardo, commanding advanced know- ledge in widely disparate fields, but rather by retaining or acquiring the skill, and the desire, to impart to a non-specialist readership some sense of the significance if not the detail of extremely technical research.

For all its defects, Snow’s argument has the valuable effect of preventing us from being complacent about the condition of knowledge in our time. The rigid divisions between disciplines, the lack of mutual comprehension, the misplaced feelings of superiority or disdain in different professional groups - these should be seen as problems, not fatalistically accepted as part of the immutable order of things (or, to quote Wolf Lepenies once more: ‘What we need is less tragic self-conceit and rigidity of principle and more irony, self-criticism and the ability to see our own scientific work as though from the outside’42).

One of the most familiar tropes of modernity is the bemused reflection that in one’s own lifetime the pace of change has accelerated to the point where it almost escapes comprehension, and we must beware the inducements to cultural pessimism offered by those who lament that the process has got out of control (when was it ever ‘under control’?).


Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals,… at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.

At one pole, the scientific culture really is a culture, not only in an intellectual but also in an anthropological sense. That is, its members need not, and of course often do not, always completely understand each other; biologists more often than not will have a pretty hazy idea of contemporary physics; but there are common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behaviour, common approaches and assumptions. This goes surprisingly wide and deep. It cuts across other mental patterns, such as those of religion or politics or class.

At the other pole, the spread of attitudes is wider. It is obvious that between the two, as one moves through intellectual society from the physicists to the literary intellectuals, there are all kinds of tones of feeling on the way. But I believe the pole of total incomprehension of science radiates its influence on all the rest. That total incomprehension gives, much more pervasively than we realise, living in it, an unscientific flavour to the whole ‘traditional’ culture, and that unscientific flavour is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific.

Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?


As the flood of literature mounted, two deductions became self-evident. The first was that if a nerve had been touched almost simultaneously in different intellectual societies, in different parts of the world, the ideas which produced this response couldn’t possibly be original. Original ideas don’t carry at that speed. Very occasionally one thinks or hopes that one has said something new: and waits a little bleakly for years, in the hope that it will strike a spark of recognition somewhere. This was quite different. It was clear that many people had been thinking on this assembly of topics. The ideas were in the air. Anyone, anywhere, had only to choose a form of words. Then—click, the trigger was pressed.

There are, as I said before, common attitudes, common standards and patterns of behaviour, common approaches and assumptions. This does not mean that a person within a culture loses his individuality and free will. It does mean that, without knowing it, we are more than we think children of our time, place and training.

The scientific process has two motives: one is to understand the natural world, the other is to control it.

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