Towards a Critique of C.P. Snow

The way in which somTower Bridge nearing completion.  Public Domain image from UK National Archives.e literary critics cite C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” speech of 1959 is always rather interesting to me.  It’s not uncommon to see humanists interested in developing points of contact between the sciences and the humanities cite Snow’s model as a useful heuristic. It’s remarkable that this particular text gets cited so frequently, because I’m not so certain that we can really get all that much mileage out of it.  The point that I am going to try to make here is that we need to be a bit more critical when we cite this text, lest we end up investing it with an authority that ends up actually obscuring the implications of Snow’s argument.  It’s time to subject this text to a fresh critique that we may be able to move beyond it.

The basic thesis, for those unfamiliar with the speech, is that academia has become polarized between “literary intellectuals” on the one side and scientists on the other, and each side perceives only a distorted image of the other, which fuels a certain mistrust (4)1.  For Snow, it’s a mutual suspicion borne out of mutual ignorance, but the blame does not fall equally on both sides.  Instead the attack is mostly directed against so-called literary intellectuals.  Snow recounts asking a crowd of this persuasion if they knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he claims to be the scientific equivalent of having read Shakespare, only to be greeted with a deafening silence (14-15).  “If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it.  Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” (22).  Part of Snow’s ethos, then and now, comes from having had a career as a scientist and a novelist.  This street cred as a novelist is probably undeserved, after all, who in 2013 has actually read one of Snow’s novels?

These are all rather provocative claims, and stirred up no small amount of controversy in their day.  Critic F.R. Leavis polemicized against Snow, and he has had other critics, including Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Pynchon.  Criticisms notwithstanding, it’s not particularly surprising that the two cultures metaphor still gets batted around.  Snow offers a dichotomy that appeals to common sense, but it’s printed and you can cite it, and so if you are looking for ways to raise the stakes of your argument, it’s a handy go-to text.

Of all of the critiques I have encountered of Snow, Thomas Pynchon’s 1984 essay “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?” is my personal favorite for its perceptiveness and its humor.  Pynchon points out the reductiveness of Snow’s dichotomy given the accessibility of information, and that was in 1984, before any trivial question that popped into ones head on any subject could be answered in the time it takes to type it out.  Although less a critique of Snow and more a defense of Luddism, Snow’s speech is the point of departure for Pynchon.  Still, his characterization of the Snow text seems to me to capture the character of the speech in a way that gets lost whenever the two cultures metaphor turns up in scholarly as well as popular discourse:

Fragmentary echoes of old disputes, of unforgotten offense taken in the course of long-ago high- table chitchat, may have helped form the subtext for Snow’s immoderate, and thus celebrated, assertion, ”If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the Industrial Revolution.” Such ”intellectuals,” for the most part ”literary,” were supposed, by Lord Snow, to be ”natural Luddites.”

Except maybe for Brainy Smurf, it’s hard to imagine anybody these days wanting to be called a literary intellectual, though it doesn’t sound so bad if you broaden the labeling to, say, ”people who read and think.” Being called a Luddite is another matter. It brings up questions such as, Is there something about reading and thinking that would cause or predispose a person to turn Luddite? Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? And come to think of it, what is a Luddite, anyway?

Needless to say, the answer is that it’s more than okay.  But what Pynchon is getting at in a humorously roundabout way is that Snow’s text – beyond the human element of hurt feelings which is very present – in tossing around the label “Luddite” as a pejorative, casts its imagined opponents as irrational reactionaries unable to appreciate the wonders of the industrial revolution.

This is the real problem that I see obscured when Snow is cited by people who think that we in the humanities should be more receptive to the sciences.  While the argument that we should learn more about science and math when and where we can is a good one and an important one, Snow’s vision is the kind that is grist for the mill of leftist critiques of science.  Because the talk is not really about how unfortunate it is that these two cultures won’t come together in some kumbaya moment, but that the preference for the humanities and particularly the classics in British education has diminished the nation’s status on an international stage.  This at a historical moment when Britain is confronting its perceived diminished status as a global player with the loss of its colonies and the emergence of the United States (which is handling STEM instruction better than Britain, according to Snow) and the Soviet Union.

My basic problems with Snow’s text, then, are these: 1.) His vision is a technocratic one.  He argues for a restrictive kind of positivism that has its place as one way of arriving at knowledge, but by no means has a monopoly on possibilities for knowing the world. That’s why the humanities are important and necessary – we explore all of the questions that you can’t answer with the help of fancy instruments.  2.) It accepts the scientific and industrial revolutions as intrinsically good when that is obviously not the case.  People concerned with the plight of the environment ought to know that all too well.  3.) The speech is a politically compromised document, invested as it is with particularist concerns over the material well being of the British nation.  4.) It proceeds from a false dichotomy, and offers nothing substantial to ground its positions.

In short, before we cite this text we need to think about what it means, both for politics in general and for the survival of our own disciplines.  Speaking of disciplines, it may be my own disciplinary bias, but it always seemed to me that the person whom we ought to be citing if we want to think about the humanities versus science isn’t C.P. Snow, but Robert Musil.  As an engineer who studied with Ernst Mach, he knew what he’s talking about when it comes to empiricism versus more speculative modes of thinking.  One of my favorite sections in The Man Without Qualities reads:

If someone were to discover, for instance, that under hitherto unobserved circumstances stones were able to speak, it would take only a few pages to describe and explain so earth-shattering a phenomenon. On the other hand, one can always write yet another book about positive thinking, and this is far from being of only academic interest, since it involves a method that makes it impossible ever to arrive at a clear resolution of life’s most important questions. Human activities might be graded by the quantity of words required: the more words, the worse their character. All the knowledge that has led our species from wearing animal skins to people flying, complete with proofs, would fill a handful of reference books, but a bookcase the size of the earth would not suffice to hold all the rest, quite apart from the vast discussions that are conducted not with the pen but with the sword and chains. The thought suggests itself that we carry on our human business in a most irrational manner when we do not use those methods by which the exact sciences have forged ahead in such exemplary fashion.(I, 264)3

Everyone here has their shortcomings.  The utopia of essayism is what Musil’s narrator offers where Snow talks about a “third culture,” but the fact that that whole project falls apart by the end of the first book makes me think that it gives us far more opportunities to think about these disciplinary questions in far more interesting ways.

1.  Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

2.  Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Sophie Wilkins, trans. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1995

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