Two cultures, three cultures, and feeling dizzy

2628723One of those people that have initials for their first name, CP Snow is famous and infamous for a lecture given 50 years ago at Cambridge University. In “Two cultures and the Scientific Revolution”, Snow indicted the humanities for halting the progress of society. The literary inclined Universities were unwelcoming to the knowledge and methods of technologists and natural scientists. (A likely third culture might be social scientists, whether angels or devils, I don’t know if Snow specified.) In the New York Times book review section Peter Dizikes, a science writer, thought again about the Snow essay and tried to get something fresh and contemporary out of it. And it seems quite a struggle to make that text speak again. The world seems less binary without the Cold War. Dizikes concludes hurriedly:

the aspect of “The Two Cultures” that speaks most directly to us today. Your answer — and many different ones are possible — probably determines how widely and deeply you think we need to spread scientific knowledge. Do we need to produce more scientists and engineers to fight climate change? How should they be deployed? Do we need broader public understanding of the issue to support governmental action? Or do we need something else?

The equivalent of the “two cultures” is a bureaucratic decision about what kinds of big science to fund? I guess that means the humanities lost, but then again it was never their war…


8 thoughts on “Two cultures, three cultures, and feeling dizzy

  1. Your post echoes very nicely with an interesting review article I read yesterday in the Journal of the History of Ideas (vol. 68, n°4, p. 683-99). The article is a broad comment on the New Dictionary of the history of ideas (6 vols, New York, 2005), which is compared to its predecessor published in 1973-1974. In it, the author of the review reflecting on the trajectory of the history of ideas stressed the fact that was once a unitary program of research have exploded in myriads of sub-programs practised in different institutional settings and without straightforward unity of design. He relates this fact to the disappearence of the Cold war that justified a program of research stressing the historicity and intellectual power of western culture (interestingly he mentions that the Journal of the history of ideas received money from the CIA at that time).

  2. See Guy Ortolano’s new book, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (a lamentable $91.50 on Amazon!). Also Guy’s article, “The Literature and the Science of ‘Two Cultures’ Historiography,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 39 (2008): 143-150.

    The notion of cultures of “science” and “not science” has been devastating to both commentary on science as well as scholarship in science studies. The prior, like Snow, often imagines that “science is not taken seriously enough; we need more science” is a coherent encapsulation for society’s and the state’s cultural history and ills. For the latter, “science is taken to be unproblematic; we need to muddy the picture” is an inversion of the same argument. See Latour’s “new constitution”, for example.

    Both arguments fail to describe how the sciences have historically worked and been perceived. I would argue that one needs to understand history in terms of shifting and overlapping expertise. It will be necessary to get a lot dizzier before both history and the present start to make sense, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause. We just need to expand our 2-3 cultures into maybe about 40-50 before things start to make sense. The good news is that if this ever happened, the histories of management and economics—especially mundane economics—would become much more prevalent.

  3. Actually, there is a chapter in BHS’s Scandalous Knowledge devoted to these issues. It is titled “Disciplinary cultures and tribal warfare: the sciences and the humanities today”.

  4. On top of that, let me suggest one more reference: the review article “Human sciences in cold war America” in The Historical Journal (2007, n°3), which should be useful as well.

  5. It is not two cultures it is THREE. The Sci/tech people, the arts/humanities people and the MASSES or Great Unwashed or whatever you want to call them.

    But there are lots of pseudo-intellectual phonies in both of the first two groups pretending what they know is more difficult than it really is. Just because someone has a science degree does not mean they can have an original thought. But they aren’t about to admit they are second or third rate.

    Now computers and the internet make it possible to short circuit the educational system. What are we going to do with that ability?

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