There were some great comments on our last post announcing the “Two Cultures” 50 year anniversary conference at the New York Academy of Sciences. I wanted to build on that discussion, but haven’t gotten around to it until now.
So let’s address some of the more noteworthy points; meanwhile, I also suggest that anyone interested should get a copy of Snow’s amazing little 1959 lecture. This is the edition that I own, and I highly recommend it.
Why is C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” argument so influential and cited? Ironically, it has in part to do with the conflict that resulted after F.R. Leavis, an eminent literary critic, attacked Snow in extraordinarily vituperative terms following the lecture. Then all the intellectuals dove in to comment on the Snow-Leavis clash of the titans. I have written an essay about this, which was at one point to compose part of our new book, Unscientific America, but has since been excised. I’ll have to see where I might be able to publish it.
At the same time, much as it’s a deadly term, you gotta give Snow credit for “framing.” Many people in those days were talking about how literary and scientific cultures and mindsets don’t mesh. But Snow is the only one who called it the problem of “the two cultures,” and that made all the difference. (Even though, as you will see if you read the lecture itself, much of it is not even actually about this divide.)
Does the “Two Cultures” problem still persist? Interestingly, nobody really questioned this. A lot has happened over the 50 years since C.P. Snow spoke, after all–and he was speaking to a British audience. Yet the truth that we’ve not come very far is I think evident in the fact that no one deeply challenged the existence of this divide, or its continuing problematic nature.
The Role of the Sokal Affair. Yes, this clearly was an instance of the “two cultures” divide during the 1990s. The lessons to be drawn, however, are not so clear. I don’t think there were obvious winners or losers here; certainly the humanistic study of science was not refuted or undermined in any serious way. Here I am at Princeton studying the history of science. I hope no one thinks, as a result of the Sokal Affair, this has become a less worthwhile endeavor. I think Snow certainly would have admired it.
Anyway, those are some rough thoughts. I have many more that I will enunciate at the conference, and in subsequent articles. This is just to get the discussion rolling.
Countdown to the “Two Cultures” 50 Year Anniversary: 55 Days…