Two Cultures

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The term two cultures refers to a failure of scientists and humanists to comprehend the content, nature, and implications of each other's intellectual activities. An issue that goes back at least to the rise of modern science as a distinct practice and the romantic criticism of some of the results of the scientific worldview, it received international attention when Charles Percy Snow (1905–1980) considered the breakdown in a 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution."

Snow, who had experience as a novelist and a scientist, coined the phrase to deplore a widening gulf of mutual incomprehension between literary intellectuals and natural scientists. The division between cultures represented a dilemma over the role of science and technology in human affairs and led to the failure to address the three menaces of nuclear weapons, overpopulation, and the gap between rich and poor. Although he recommended broadening education for both groups, Snow ultimately implied that solving these problems simply required more science and technology. Accordingly Snow accused literary intellectuals of being anti-scientific: While scientists held the future in their bones, the literati (whose ideas, Snow believed, unduly influenced western policy makers) were natural Luddites.

Critics, notably Frank R. Leavis, criticized Snow for being anti-cultural: In reducing humanistic knowledge to the equivalent of factual information, Snow undermined the capacity for reflexive ethical inquiry. In "A Second Look" (1964), Snow acknowledged that his phrase ignored the emergence of a third culture of social scientists that studied the human effects of the scientific revolution. Snow's phrase, imprecise in excluding third groups and in reducing culture to a set of conditioned responses, nevertheless calls attention to the problem of specialization and the disagreements about the proper function of science and technology that have persisted to this day.

Exchanges such as the science wars demonstrate that in many respects intellectual chasms have only continued to widen. Moreover, public policy debates over the relations among science funding, technology development, and the common good are often indicative of clashing worldviews reminiscent of Snow's two cultures. Within academe, most often in engineering and science curricula, occasional multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary programs do allow students to analyze and even synthesize humanistic and scientific paradigms; these offset to some extent the trends of increased specialization and balkanization. Public science agencies have likewise paid increasing attention to the ethical and societal implications of their research and development activities.

Efforts to integrate the two cultures can potentially balance technological goals with humanistic ones, but they can also be superficial and even counter-productive if they treat humanistic contributions as afterthoughts. Moreover the problem is not simply one of social groups; engineers, for example, tend to be the main advocates of appropriate technology. The gap, however, will continue to widen as specialized knowledge continues to be valued over broader, more integral understanding. A modern educational grounding in the fundamental concepts and practices of technical and humanistic traditions would be ideal. At the very least, interdisciplinary efforts that critically engage values and assumptions on both sides are indispensable if there is to be communication, understanding, and collaboration across the various intellectual divides.


SEE ALSO Governance of Science;Interdisciplinarity;Science Policy.


Brockman, John, ed. (1995). The Third Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Leavis, Frank R. (1963). Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow. New York: Pantheon. Leavis, a literary critic, maintains the primacy of the humanities, not science; contains "An Essay" by Michael Yudkin.

Snow, Charles P. (1998). The Two Cultures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. This reprint includes Snow's original lecture "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" (1959) and his "Second Look" (1964); the introduction by Stefan Collini presents the Snow-Leavis debate in light of precursors such as that between T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.