The setting was Cambridge, England, and the time a little after five o’clock on the afternoon of May 7, 1959. That was when a “bulky, shambling figure approached the lectern . . . ”
The bulky, shambling figure was a 53-year-old scientist, turned senior government bureaucrat, turned novelist, named C. P. Snow. The lecture he gave was titled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” It fired up a great public debate that rumbled on for years, and is still occasionally revived today.
Literary intellectuals, said Snow, though tremendously influential in culture and politics, didn’t know anything about science. Contrariwise, scientists, whose discoveries were a great driving force of the modern world, were too often ignorant of the Humanities. Nor was it just that neither party had time to master the other’s disciplines, but would if it could: Attitudes were actually negative on both sides, the literary types regarding scientists as coarse, nerdy plodders in smelly labs, the scientists looking down on Humanities people as self-absorbed, absinthe-sipping aesthetes wearing silk cravats and uninterested in the workings of nature.
The reaction was terrific. Peter Watson gives fair coverage of it in Chapter 26 of his fine book The Modern Mind. (From which I took my opening quote. The quote-within-the-quote is from Stefan Collini’s introduction to the printed version of Snow’s speech, which of course is titled The Two Cultures.) Most savage of all was a blast from F. R. Leavis, the premier English literary theorist of the time. Roger Kimball, writing in The New Criterion on the 40th anniversary of Snow’s speech, described Leavis’s riposte as “a devastating rhetorical fusillade”: “It’s not just that no two stones of Snow’s argument are left standing: each and every pebble is pulverized; the fields are salted; and the entire population is sold into slavery.” (Roger’s essay is included in his 2000 book Experiments Against Reality.)
Lurking behind Snow’s observations, and all British social commentary of the time, was class — just as race forms the subtext of most American social commentary today. Snow came from the white-collar lower-lower-middle class; his father was a clerk in a shoe factory. By sheer brilliance, Snow Jr. became a research chemist and fellow of a Cambridge college. Then he and a colleague claimed a new and important result . . . which turned out, on peer review, to be based on faulty calculations. It was honest error, not fraud, but it chilled Snow’s enthusiasm for scientific research. He turned to writing and editing. When World War II came, he was drafted into the British Civil Service as a science adviser. Here he found himself among the grandees of British governmental administration: Sir Humphreys from good families, who had attended the great old boys’ boarding schools where they had received thoroughly classical educations. Snow adapted pretty well — the word “sensitive” is not one that leaps to mind when contemplating Snow’s personality — but the air of class and cultural superiority these types carried with them must have inflicted some psychic bruises even on his thick skin.
His “Two Cultures” lecture at any rate shows clear partiality to the scientific worldview. “Traditional culture,” by which Snow meant the classical, humanistic culture of those Civil Service grandees, was not merely unscientific, but anti-scientific, he declared. Roger Kimball, in the aforementioned essay, pooh-poohs this: “Aristotle, Euclid, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, Locke, Kant: Are there any more ‘traditional’ representatives of ‘the whole “traditional culture” ’? There’s not much anti-scientific aroma emanating from those quarters.”
I think Roger has been carried away by his own rhetoric here. (As well he might be: He is one of our finest rhetoricians. Elsewhere in the essay he describes Snow as “so well-rounded as to be almost spherical.”) The youngest of the names in Roger’s list died in 1804. There was indeed little “anti-scientific aroma” in the air up to that point. Educated people, even those whose inclinations were literary or artistic, believed it their duty to keep up with scientific discoveries. Think of Voltaire’s struggles to master Newtonian mechanics.
This all changed in the 19th century, though. Listen to historian Paul Johnson in The Birth of the Modern:
As the 1820s progressed, it became harder to maintain that all men of genius could speak to one another. There was a sad moment at Lowther Castle in 1827, when Sir Humphry Davy and William Wordsworth met for the last time. Wordsworth later complained to a correspondent that it had no longer been a meeting of kindred spirits: “His scientific pursuits had hurried his mind into a course where I could not follow him, and had diverted it in proportion from objects with which I was best acquainted.”
Snow was speaking from a point a further century and a third along that road. The sciences had advanced to a point where years of specialist training were required before young scientists reached the frontiers of knowledge where new discoveries might be made. A person educated in the Humanities might reasonably believe that he had little hope of comprehending such discoveries, having spent his own education reading novels and poems, familiarizing himself with great art and music, and taking in works of history, biography, philosophy, or literary criticism. Guiltily aware of his own ignorance, he erected psychological defenses — hauteur towards those grubby fellows in lab smocks who didn’t know Bellini from Bernini. In Snow’s Britain, as Snow noted in his lecture, the snobbery was compounded by the fact that most scientists have humble origins, science much more than the Humanities being a smart child’s escape route from the working class.
The arts/sciences division was taken for granted in the Britain of the 1950s. The good boys’ secondary school I went into in 1956 taught us all together for the first year, then streamed us into A, B, C, and D forms. There were two A forms, though: A(L) and A(S). The “L” stood for “languages,” the “S” for “sciences.” The top few percent of the cognitive-talent pool were, everyone assumed (I believe more or less correctly), divided about equally by inclination to either the sciences or the Humanities. At age 12, the budding intellectual’s life course was set.
How do things stand now, 50 years further along the road? Here Roger Kimball pretty much nails it in his 1999 essay. In very brief: The Humanities, as C. P. Snow and his critics understood them, are in retreat, if not rout. They are being chased from the field not so much by science as by the rise of pop culture from one side, and postmodern intellectual fads from the other.
The concerns of mid-20th-century culture critics look quaint and dated, in fact. In 1959, there was some reasonable hope that high culture — the culture consumed by those Civil Service grandees Snow moved among, the culture declared by T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, F. R. Leavis, and others to be the indispensable sheet anchor of civilized society, the culture that suggested answers to the great question How should we live? — might continue to advance into new territories, as science had. This did not happen. High culture is in fact pretty much dead. Who reads literary fiction anymore? — let alone poetry. Flip on your local serious-music radio station (if you even have one): The chance it will be playing anything composed later than 1950 is small. Do you know any operatic arias well enough to sing a few lines? I bet none of them is from anything later than Turandot (1926). The current superstar of the visual arts is Damien Hirst. I rest my case. There are of course good painters, writers, and composers conscientiously at work in the grand traditions; but they’re not getting any air time. Nobody much is interested.
Science itself, meanwhile, has gained significant ground. Part of this is a consequence of improved presentation. Peter Watson again:
The end of the twentieth century sees us living in what might be termed a “crossover culture,” where popular (but quite difficult) science books sell almost as well as novels and rather better than books of literary criticism. People are becoming more scientifically literate. Whether or not one agrees wholeheartedly with Snow, it is difficult not to feel that . . . he had put his finger on something.
Science has, too, been considerably humanized. The scientific personality is better understood now than 50 years ago, through sheer familiarity. Vladimir Nabokov’s paradoxical quip about “the passion of the scientist, the precision of the artist” is much less counterintuitive now than when he made it, back about the time of the “Two Cultures” lecture. Frieda Wishinsky’s biography of Albert Einstein was a bestseller.
Also, science itself has had a change of direction. On a word-association test 50 years ago, “science” conjured up images of lab workers in white coats peering at reactions taking place in test tubes — dull, stinky stuff, not improved by images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science meant chemistry and physics, smells and explosions.
Nowadays chemistry is generally (if not altogether correctly) regarded as “complete,” while physics has wandered off into metaphysics — sub-sub-microscopic strings of something-or-other vibrating in eleven dimensions, universes proliferating like oysters. The credible action today is all in biology, and most especially in the human sciences. This is something everyone wants to talk about. Nothing is as interesting to us as our own species. Furthermore, because the human sciences, as rigorous sciences, are all fairly new, and their results often debatable, everyone can talk about them. Even the Humanities people are beginning to take up the language of science, with biological explanations being put forward in history, aesthetics, ethical philosophy, and yes, even literary criticism. (What on earth would F. R. Leavis say?) Some of this stuff is only borderline plausible; but the fact that people want to write in this way and other people want to read them makes Peter Watson’s point, and some of C. P. Snow’s.
The real division in intellectual life today is not between the arts and the sciences so much as between difficult, rigorous disciplines on the hand, and sub-intellectual flim-flam pseudo-disciplines on the other. A serious student of, say, Art History has more in common with a serious student of, say, microbiology than either has with a person majoring in Critical Race Theory, Media Studies, or “Education.”
Multiculturalism, too, has cast a strange, cold light over the “Two Cultures” debate. At the time of C. P. Snow’s lecture, Western culture was still in high-triumphalist mode. Western culture was culture, though of course others were welcome to take it up if they chose. Until Pearl Harbor, all the great wars of the modern age had been fought between Western powers, with the rest of the world mere onlookers. So with cultural conflict: The art/science debate was a difference of opinion among white Europeans.
Today’s world is quite different. White-European populations are dwindling and aging. Great new powers are on the rise, in places that no cultured gentleman of 1959, either artist or scientist, would have thought important. Yes, their demographics are only a generation behind ours on the way to the cliff edge, but they still have the vigor and confidence that come from knowing your life is vastly better than your parents’, and their will has not been addled by post-colonial guilt. Even within the Western world, the European-descended populations are withdrawing from strenuous intellectual activity of any kind. Today’s concert pianist, as much as today’s neurobiologist, is almost as likely as not to have East or South Asian parents. Their vitality sapped by cultural success, decades of prosperity, and self-loathing, European and European-descended populations are sunk in lotus-eating, intellectual indifference, and reproductive decline. Such intellectual energy as we can still summon up directs itself into parasitic or frivolously hedonistic channels — postmodern literary theory, Diversity Management, law school, the movies. The great cultural phenomenon of the last few months bears the name “Twitter.”
C. P. Snow’s anxieties, where they were not misplaced altogether, were of their time. From the world-historical point of view, the bread he was selling was already stale. Demographic trends tell us we are closing out a great creative period. The modern age — the age of constrained, highly structured bourgeois civilization, fruitful in art and science — is coming to a close, the death of the Humanities having been only an early signal, like the coldness of death beginning in the limbs. Perhaps clever machines will take up the creative slack, or perhaps we’ll bio-engineer ourselves into something quite different. If neither thing happens, we’re looking at a long, dull Dark Age, not of cruelty and privation, but of stagnant incuriosity, trivial stimulations, and grumbling geezers. In that age, neither the arguments of C. P. Snow nor those of his critics will even be understood.
– John Derbyshire is an NRO columnist and author, most recently, of Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra.