Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Two Cultures

I just finished reading C.P. Snow's “The Two Cultures,” a transcript of his 1959 Rede lecture, together with a “second look” written 4 years later. Snow bemoans the lacking communication between the humanities and the sciences, and argues that this is an obstacle to the solution (if not a cause) of many problems, most notably the poverty in the developing world. Well, I disagree with him on several points, but then 40 years later things might look different. In the second look he addresses some of the criticism that has been raised.

More interesting than Snow's lecture I found actually the introduction to the Canto edition (it makes up half of the book) by Stefan Collini (who amazingly doesn't seem to have neither a website nor a Wikipedia entry. Does the man actually exist?). He embeds the lecture in the historical content and also provides a more up to date view, especially with regard to the fact that there have in the last decades been many interdisciplinary efforts to bridge these gaps, and that Great Britain in particular might be an extreme case. I just wanted to dump here some quotations from this introduction that I found particularly interesting:

    “[M]ore important still will be the nurturing within the ethos of the various academic specialisms not only of some understanding of how their activities fit into a larger cultural whole, but also of a recognition that attending to these larger questions is not some kind of off-duty voluntary work, but is an integral and properly rewarded part of professional achievements in the given field.”

    “[T]he pressures of competitive research, especially in the natural sciences, tend to relegate engagement with larger cultural or ethical questions to the status of soft options, to be pursued only by those not able to maintain the pace at the cutting edge of research.”

    “It may be far more damaging to encourage, however inadvertently, the reduction of the processes of decision making to matters than can be counted or measured than it would be to appear complacent about an inadequate level of technological or statistical under understanding. At least as pressing as the need for a basic scientific literacy is the need to develop and diffuse a public language in which non-quantifiable considerations can be given their proper weight.”

8 comments:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


It’s plain with this you've been researching others such as C.P. Snow and your mysterious Stefan Collini, who also held concerns as to how science relates in terms of its role and place in serving to benefit and shape society. Although I’ve heard of Snow and have seen references to him in other things I’ve read, I really can't add much. One thing I have run across was how Snow said he remembered the three laws of thermodynamics, which leaves one the impression he superimposed and correlated humanities condition and limitations with the laws of natural science.

1.You cannot win (that is, you cannot get something for nothing, because matter and energy are conserved).

2.You cannot break even (you cannot return to the same energy state, because there is always an increase in disorder; entropy always increases).

3.You cannot get out of the game (because absolute zero is unattainable).

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

You said:
“Snow bemoans the lacking communication between the humanities and the sciences, and argues that this is an obstacle to the solution (if not a cause) of many problems, most notably the poverty in the developing world. Well, I disagree with him on several points, but then 40 years later things might look different.”

Perhaps then you would agree with the late world renown Canadian literary theorist and critic Northrop Frye's critique of C.P. Snow’s views in arguing the following:

“It is not the humanist’s ignorance of science or the scientist’s ignorance of the humanities which is important, but their common ignorance of the society they are living in, and their responsibilities as citizens. It is not the humanist’s inability to read a textbook in physics or the physicist’s inability to read a textbook in literary criticism, but the inability of both of them to read the morning newspaper with the kind of insight demanded of educated citizens.”

-From “The Changing pace in Canadian Education, the Kenneth E. Norris Memorial Lecture delivered at Sir Willaims University, Jan. 24, 1963 as reprinted in Frye, 1988, p.69

As I said earlier in your other post, I’m more fearful of the overall general state of ignorance as it relates to all in society, then any one particular group or knowledge base. This still however requires a methodology which I agree with you by wat of recognizing the nature and complexities of our current society can be found nowhere else but in science

Best,

Phil

Tom said...

Yeah, Stefan Collini exists! He's a professor of English at Cambridge: http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/faculty/Collini/Stefan/

Bee said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks. I know, I wasn't being serious. But thanks for the link - I couldn't find it in any obvious way from the University homepage. Best,

B.

bill benzon said...

Hi Bee,

Just saw the Bloggingheads you did with Peter Woit and thought I drop by and say "hi."

I'm trained as a humanist - English Literature, literary theory - and had heard about Snow's book for years before I finally got around to reading it. I'd always heard about it in connection with the need for more communication between the humanities and sciences, even a need for new conceptual languages or - oh woe are we! - the whole intellectual enterprise will disappear in a Babel of mutual incomprehension.

Thus I was a bit surprised at what I found in the book. It seemed to me that Snow seemed to think that the British Empire fell because English gentlemen knew too much Greek and Latin and not enough math, chemistry, and engineering. That is, he wasn't primarily concerned about lack of interaction between the humanities and the sciences, but that elites weren't getting enough science in their education, which is a very different problem.

As for me, I'm certainly in favor of interdisciplinary work; I think we need more of it, yadda yadda yadda. But I've also seen a proliferation of interdisciplinary conferences, journals, programs and so forth over the last 40 years even as the same old disciplines retain a strangle-hold on academic discourse. What's the point of mixing different flavors in the icing when the cake itself is the same old stuff?

Phil - Your Northrup Frye quotation is spot-on.

Bill B

Bee said...

Hi Bill,

I do agree with you. I just wasn't in the mood to write a lengthy commentary on Snow's work. I wasn't very taken by this lecture, it was (as he writes himself in the 'second look') very polemic. I found the argument generally weak and unconvincing though I think that in the UK at that time it might have sounded more convincing.

Even though I believe that interdisciplinary work is important it seems to me that the encouragement that it gets nowadays is not very productive. 'Interdisciplinarity' is in many cases an empty fashion word that funding agencies like to hear. The problem I think, as I have expressed in earlier writings, is not with the funding agencies but within the community itself. Unless we raise an awareness about what is beneficial for progress and pay attention to this we are wasting resources. And yes, I mean with that we need to pay more attention to the sociology of sciences and knowledge management in an applied manner. Best,

B.

bill benzon said...

And yes, I mean with that we need to pay more attention to the sociology of sciences and knowledge management in an applied manner.

Yes, and no one wants to do that because it means rethinking how our work is organized, from the ground up. We've gone as far as 19th century precedent can take us.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bill,


“Yes, and no one wants to do that because it means rethinking how our work is organized, from the ground up. We've gone as far as 19th century precedent can take us.”

Well as Snow was looking for the development of what he referred as being a “Third Culture” where he envisioned the cross communication of the humanities and Science a third culture had already been born, which Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has called “Nerd Culture”. It’s really the lack of recognition of the significance of this shift, by both the humanities and science to a new culture based on and driven by technology that must be come to grips with. As Kelly says in this article:

“While science and art generate truth and beauty, technology generates opportunities: new things to explain; new ways of expression; new media of communications; and, if we are honest, new forms of destruction. Indeed, raw opportunity may be the only thing of lasting value that technology provides us. It's not going to solve our social ills, or bring meaning to our lives. For those, we need the other two cultures. What it does bring us--and this is sufficient--are possibilities.”

So I agree with Kelly that what the humanities and science are required to do is to come to understand how they can operate effectively within this already emergent “Third Culture” if we are ever to be confident again in achieving a continuing and progressive future.

Best,

Phil