The Two Cultures

First edition (publ. OUP)

The Two Cultures is the first part of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow.[1][2] Its thesis was that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

The lecture

The talk was delivered 7 May 1959 in the Senate House, Cambridge, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The lecture and book expanded upon an article by Snow published in the New Statesman of 6 October 1956, also entitled The Two Cultures.[3] Published in book form, Snow's lecture was widely read and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, leading him to write a 1963 follow-up, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.[4]

Snow's position can be summed up by an often-repeated part of the essay:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. 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 the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?[5]

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.[5]

In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.[2]

Snow's Rede Lecture condemned the British educational system as having, since the Victorian era, over-rewarded the humanities (especially Latin and Greek) at the expense of scientific and engineering education, despite such achievements having been so decisive in winning the Second World War for the Allies.[6] This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world. By contrast, Snow said, German and American schools sought to prepare their citizens equally in the sciences and humanities, and better scientific teaching enabled these countries' rulers to compete more effectively in a scientific age. Later discussion of The Two Cultures tended to obscure Snow's initial focus on differences between British systems (of both schooling and social class) and those of competing countries.[6]

Implications and influence

The literary critic F. R. Leavis called Snow a "public relations man" for the scientific establishment in his essay Two Cultures?: The Significance of C. P. Snow, published in The Spectator. The article attracted a great deal of negative correspondence in the magazine's letters pages.[7]

In his 1963 book Snow appeared to revise his thinking and was more optimistic about the potential of a mediating third culture. This concept was later picked up in Brockman, John (1995), The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution . Introducing the reprinted The Two Cultures, 1993 , Stefan Collini[8] has argued that the passage of time has done much to reduce the cultural divide Snow noticed; but has not removed it entirely.

Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox provides a different perspective. Assuming the dialectical interpretation, it argues that Snow's concept of "two cultures" is not only off the mark, it is a damaging and short-sighted viewpoint; and that it has perhaps led to decades of unnecessary fence-building.

Simon Critchley, in Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction suggests:[9]

[Snow] diagnosed the loss of a common culture and the emergence of two distinct cultures: those represented by scientists on the one hand and those Snow termed 'literary intellectuals' on the other. If the former are in favour of social reform and progress through science, technology and industry, then intellectuals are what Snow terms 'natural Luddites' in their understanding of and sympathy for advanced industrial society. In Mill's terms, the division is between Benthamites and Coleridgeans.
Simon Critchley

That is, Critchley argues that what Snow said represents a resurfacing of a discussion current in the mid-nineteenth century. Critchley describes the Leavis contribution to the making of a controversy as 'a vicious ad hominem attack'; going on to describe the debate as a familiar clash in English cultural history citing also T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.[10][11]

In his opening address at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014, the Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves said that the current problems related to security and freedom in cyberspace are the culmination of absence of dialogue between "the two cultures": "Today, bereft of understanding of fundamental issues and writings in the development of liberal democracy, computer geeks devise ever better ways to track people... simply because they can and it's cool. Humanists on the other hand do not understand the underlying technology and are convinced, for example, that tracking meta-data means the government reads their emails."[12]


Contrasting scientific and humanistic knowledge is a repetition of the Methodenstreit of 1890 German universities.[13] In the social sciences it is also commonly proposed as the quarrel of positivism versus interpretivism.[13]

See also


  1. Snow, Charles Percy (2001) [1959]. The Two Cultures. London: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-521-45730-0.
  2. 1 2 "The hundred most influential books since the war". The Times. London. 30 December 2008.
  3. Snow 2013.
  4. Snow, Charles Percy (1963). "The Two Cultures: A Second Look". The Two Cultures: and A Second Look. Cambridge University Press.
  5. 1 2 "Across the Great Divide". Nature Physics. 5: 309. 2009. doi:10.1038/nphys1258.
  6. 1 2 Jardine, Lisa (2010). "CP Snow's Two Cultures Revisited" (PDF). Christ's College Magazine: 48–57. Retrieved 2012-02-13. Jardine's 2009 C. P. Snow Lecture honored the 50th anniversary of Snow's Rede Lecture. She places Snow's lecture into its historical context, and emphasizes the expansion of certain elements of the Rede Lecture in Snow's Godkin Lectures at Harvard University in 1960. These were ultimately published as Science and Government. New American Library. 1962.
  7. Kimball, Roger (12 February 1994). "The Two Cultures' today: On the C. P. Snow–F. R. Leavis controversy". The New Criterion.
  8. Collini 1993, p. lv.
  9. Critchley 2001, p. 49.
  10. Critchley 2001, p. 51.
  11. Collini 1993, p. xxxv.
  12. Ilves, Toomas Hendrik: "Rebooting Trust? Freedom vs Security in Cyberspace" Opening address at Munich Security Conference Cyber 31 January 2014. 31.01.2014.
  13. 1 2 Brint, Steven G (2002), The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, pp. 212–3, positivism-versus-interpretation language [...] these fractal distinctions are generally quite old. Most of them have been around at least since the celebrated Methodenstreit of the German universities in the late nineteenth century. CP Snow's "two cultures" argument captures a later instantiation of them. [...] In negotiating the complexities of social scientific and humanistic knowledge, it is extremely helpful to have a dichotomy like positivism versus interpretation, because it saves our having to remember the exact degree of positivism of any scholarly group. [...] Every single social science discipline has internal debates about positivism/interpretation, narrative/analysis, and so on. The narrative/analytic debate may look very different in economics, anthropology, and English. But underneath all the surface differences it is quite similar.

External links

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