'Thirty years ago the cultures at least managed a frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness has gone and they just make faces'

March 19, 1999

So said C. P. Snow in his famous 'Two cultures' lecture. What's changed 40 years on? Simon Midgley finds out

Forty years ago Charles Percy Snow, scientist, public administrator and novelist, coined a phrase that resonantly highlighted an apparent schism in contemporary intellectual life in Britain, if not in the rest of the developed western world.

While delivering Cambridge University's Rede lecture, Snow sketched a fault line distancing scientific from literary culture. His lecture "Two cultures and the scientific revolution" spoke of a gulf between literary intellectuals and natural scientists characterised by mutual suspicion and incomprehension.

While scientists were unfamiliar with works of history, poetry, drama or fiction, arts scholars were unable to say what was meant by "mass" or "acceleration", let alone describe the second law of thermodynamics.

Snow said: "So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had ... As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.

"Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if they want to, they can't. It is rather as though, over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group was tone deaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn't come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training."

Initial reactions to the lecture were overwhelmingly favourable. But the real storm came three years later, in 1962, when the literary critic F. R. Leavis, a reader of English at Cambridge, ferociously attacked Snow's thesis in the Richmond lecture. His savage tour de force described Snow as "intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be", adding that his lecture "exhibits an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style".

The Rede lecture, complained Leavis, showed no evidence of any scientific training or rigorous scientific habits. Nor, moreover, did Snow know anything about history. Leavis's lecture provoked an outcry.

In 1963 Snow revisited the controversy in The Two Cultures: A Second Look. Here he restated his position. Advanced western society, he said, has lost even the pretence of a common culture. Education is the means to salvation:

"Education, mainly in primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universities. There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves."

The interesting thing about this celebrated spat is that while for many it is old hat, for others it is still a passionate cause for concern.

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