First Impressions | The Two Cultures – CP Snow


I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” during the first lecture of my scicomm MSc. When we were talking about scicomm history, “The Two Cultures” stood proudly on our timeline alongside documents which were fundamental to the field. So I wanted to read it for myself.

Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, presented by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In the lecture, Snow sketched out  divisions between these cultures, with anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist amongst scientists and a scientist amongst literary intellectuals. He blamed this cultural divide on Britain’s education system, which forced people to specialise in one subject too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.

The idea that people specialise in either sciences or humanities is now commonplace, while mass media often places sciences and humanities in separate, unintelligible bubbles. Similar arguments had been made publicly in Snow’s lifetime. But Snow’s name and terms have been firmly stuck to the concept, because of how intensely he made his points. Snow didn’t just say that two cultures existed, he blamed the majority of the world’s unsolved problems on their existence.

The beginning of “The Two Cultures”, however, is much more specific. Snow’s critics would argue that the Two Cultures are restricted to “the 1940’s British upper-class who studied humanities at elite universities and moved on to political or creative careers” and “the 1940’s British middle-class who became professional scientists”, and are no longer applicable. To critics, Snow’s view is merely a reflection of his own life, and the tensions between his class, his work in science, and his work in literature.

Initially, I felt the same way. The best comparison I could make was perhaps Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex. Through a complicated set of early-life circumstances, young Freud was attracted to his mother. In understanding this, he extrapolated his personal experience into a universal experience, and developed the opinion that the Oedipus complex was a necessary aspect of childhood development. Now, that idea is part of the pool of common knowledge, freely referenced within media.

After reading The Two Cultures for myself, and reading other digests of it, I can see parallels between them. How much of the lecture was Snow extrapolating from his personal circumstances, class, and feelings about the world he lived in, then projecting them onto the world as a universal experience?

In contrast, other reviewers have argued that Snow was using the Two Cultures to ask a much deeper question about the future of Britain as it began to rebound from WWII; that Snow was really asking whether the scientific education which was fundamental to parts of the war would be built upon for peace, or whether it would be buried in a return to the past. Seen through that wider lens, the Two Cultures still makes important points: its warning about burying science seems prescient today.

Initially, I intended to review the lecture. However, I couldn’t fairly do so, as my responses and judgements have been inextricably influenced by when I read it. This is because many of Snow’s predictions now appear comically naïve, when seen with 2018 eyes. When discussing the disparity between the global rich and global poor, Snow states:

“This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed …. because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on.”

Snow isn’t being illogical in his belief that we are able to reduce the global disparity. But rather than shrinking, this disparity has increased, and the world seems to be pulling further and further away from the collectively-focused conscience that Snow’s solutions require. Similarly, Snow’s main solution to the issue of improving British education was to join forces with educational generalists the USA, and educational specialists the USSR. However, I read this just as the depth of Russian interference with the 2016 election was being announced; this was a jarring context that made Snow’s arguments seem nonsensical.

Personally, I found Snow’s solutions interesting, because I usually share his support for collectivism. Generally, I believe that multiple countries joining forces and working together could solve many social problems. At the same time I know these solutions are currently untenable, given how xenophobic most western countries now are. (Again, see Brexit).

If I could have time-travelled and read this book as an adult before the year 2000, I would have supported Snow’s arguments and optimism more strongly. Even reading it before 2016 would have changed my response. But right now, reading The Two Cultures seems like looking in to an alternate universe.

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