Still can't find the words to bridge the culture gap

November 11, 2005

The centenary of C. P. Snow's birth may be just the time to revisit his debate on the intellectual divide, says Brian Morton

C. P. Snow was born 100 years ago this month. He's not much read now, but he has bequeathed some powerful material to that insidious enemy of thought, the dictionary of quotations. It is hard to think of the workings of Government without talking about "the corridors of power". And how would any essay or editorial writer ever manage to write about the long stand-off between the sciences and humanities without invoking "the two cultures"?

It might seem time for a moratorium on grouchy articles about the "two cultures" debate. If the Snow centenary suggests it might be worth reviving, there's an even better reason - the ideas and issues raised by those words are more relevant than ever.

Snow's usual reference-book designation as "scientist, novelist, politician" is sufficiently out of the ordinary to merit attention. It's also the basis of the powerful warning he bequeathed. Snow was educated at University College Leicester and Cambridge University. He became a fellow at Christ's and later served in Harold Wilson's Labour Government. He was knighted in 1957 and became a life peer seven years later, presumably for standing closer than most politicians to the "white heat of the technological revolution". That's one of Wilson's few reliable candidates for the dictionary of quotations.

Snow's quotations are less obviously pitched for the shorthand pads. "The intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups... literary intellectuals at one pole - at the other scientists... Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension."

This was first stated in Snow's Rede Lectures and subsequently published in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959). It sparked a furious debate with F. R. Leavis, who defended literary culture against the encroachment of science. As always, when an argument is thus polarised, the niceties of both positions were knocked off in the first clash.

Snow's key complaint about the Leavisites is that while they complained about the scientists' lack of culture they were themselves unable to answer a simple question about the second law of thermodynamics, what Snow described as "the scientific equivalent of 'have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'". He went further. How many literary intellectuals could define mass or acceleration, the scientific equivalent of "can you read?"

He concluded that "the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into (modern physics) as their neolithic ancestors would have had".

Science remains overlooked by the general populace. It is also under assault, not just from religious fundamentalism, but more insidiously from public assumption that scientists can, if sufficiently motivated, deal on demand with encroaching avian flu, with future hurricanes and tsunamis, with the nightmare scenario of near-Earth asteroids. The problem is not competing ideologies but a deepening version of Snow's vast gulf of incomprehension. We are still two cultures, each confidently attributing negative characteristics to the other.

Snow's argument can't be reduced to a bullet point. He was anxious to distinguish between the bland progressivism of the scientific community and the tragic quietism of the literary intellectuals. That philosophical gap left an excluded middle that was all too easily colonised by unfettered experiment on the one hand and ever more strident jeremiads on the other.

Some would argue that the situation is less bleak today than it was in 1959, when "science" was blamed for everything from "the Bomb" to the environmental crisis, when literary intellectuals were still toying with the alienation implied in Modernism. Scientists attract crowds almost as large as those greeting TV presenters at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; poets do less well. Newspapers are full of science columns and reports.

"One culture" optimists point to an increasing interest in scientific ideas among creative artists - Ian McEwan and Christine Borland - as a sign that the gap is closing. But in reality this is no more encouraging a scenario than to say that x thousand Britons read (or bought and left unread) A Brief History of Time .

The fundamentals for communication are still not there. The lack of a common language, some methodological lingua franca , has led to mutual contempt and suspicion. At a moment when the world requires not just urgent scientific mobilisation but a parallel shift in paradigms among the humanities, this seems doubly disturbing. Snow may be largely forgotten and largely unread, but he is as relevant as ever and it would be worse than naive to pretend otherwise.

Brian Morton is a writer and broadcaster.

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