Time to Let Go of the Two Cultures?

This post reviews “The Two Cultures: Sixty Years On,” an event held at the Foundation for Science and Technology on 24 April 2019. It originally appeared here alongside podcasts of the event, and is reproduced here with permission. 

Ben Alderson-Day & Åsa Jansson

Nineteenth-century philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte famously proposed “that there is one kind of objective knowledge in the world, and that the natural sciences have shown in practice what it is” (Smith, 2007: 93). Would that it were so simple. The nineteenth century may have heralded a new scientific objectivity, but the birth of modern academic disciplines as we know them today also gave us the tools with which to critique discourses of objectivity and singular conceptions of truth.  In this way, the natural and the human sciences have been locked together in a critical embrace since the beginning of the modern period.

C P Snow in 1969. Image from Wikipedia.

This uneasy yet mutually constitutive relationship was very much in evidence at a recent debate hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology to mark the sixtieth anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture. In the spring of 1959, Snow delivered the Rede Lecture at Cambridge, arguing that a chasm had developed between the natural sciences and the humanities, so deep as to constitute “a gulf of mutual incomprehension”. For Snow, “literary intellectuals” and physical scientists – his two proposed magnetic poles – not only talked past one another, but in some cases took pride in their ignorance of the other. Indeed, the former were “natural Luddites” that had never “tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution”.  To avoid this trap, Snow called for an education system that discouraged narrow specialisation at university level and earlier, and reoriented how different types of knowledge were valued in British society.

Since then the Two Cultures debate has become a perennial fixture of sorts – an intellectual’s Old Firm derby. A curiosity of this area, however, is just how many speakers are at pains to challenge its premise from the start. Many of the evening’s contributions from both speakers and the audience highlighted in different ways the ambivalent and often tense relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences, and agreed with the importance of achieving closer and better communication and collaboration between the two spheres. But most started from the position of rejecting any notion of two cultures being a valid observation.  Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, spoke of his own enjoyment of moving through different academic fields and cultures (narrowly avoiding an academic career in Tudor history to go into politics).

In his view, a truly interdisciplinary education would provide students with the most useful knowledge from both the sciences and the humanities to equip them with the skills needed to respond to the challenges of a rapidly changing modern world.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, challenged Snow’s stereotyped characterisation of the sciences – highlighting the diversity and creativity within scientific practice – and noted that today the situation is almost the reverse of what Snow posited in his lecture. It is the natural sciences, not the humanities, that currently wields the greatest influence over contemporary society, over how we perceive and make sense of the world; scientists are, conversely, not necessarily as well versed in humanities culture and language as Snow suggested.


If Snow’s diagnosis was so flawed, the question arises as what drives the appeal (or at least, recurrence) of the Two Cultures concept. One clue may come from the contribution of Prof Helen Small (Oxford), who spoke on the vociferous reaction to Snow’s lecture by the literary critic FR Leavis, writing over two years after in 1962. The strength of Leavis’ ire did much to build the legend of the Two Cultures, and there is an open question as to whether the debate would still have the same afterlife without Leavis’ response. That response might be considered extreme (and borderline vitriolic), even when read today, but perhaps it belies a truth about some of what Snow had to say about intellectual pride and the horizons of our knowledge. Do we, personally, know enough about climate change? Or gene therapy? Or artificial intelligence? Do we take the time to truly think of the human impacts of our work, whether social, political, or ethical? Do silos act to protect, as well as limit?

A second problem that can ensue from rejecting Snow’s argument is a mood of glib positivity about interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary exchange can sometimes be treated as an intrinsic good in discussions of this kind: it becomes something we should all be aiming for, aspiring to, and revelling in – together, we can break down boundaries and bask in the light of shared knowledge. But interdisciplinarity is messy, hard, and uncomfortable in many cases. Whether one rejects the concept of two cultures or seeks to correct such a schism, a commitment to working across disciplines demands intellectual generosity, resources, and a curiosity about how such endeavours work in practice.  Prof Jane MacNaughton (Durham University) provided an example of this via the work of Durham’s Institute for Medical Humanities, which hosts a number of interdisciplinary projects and collaborations. In her contribution she outlined how the strength of the humanities lies in the power of analysis and critique, tools which can help us understand how and why current challenges emerged. It is crucial that this critical component is not lost when the humanities are fused with the natural sciences, but rather that it forms the basis for thinking about what kind of future we want.

Professor Jane Macnaughton

Such work, however, is not without constant challenges. Often a large degree of cross-talk between disciplines can disguise fundamental misunderstandings between participants. In Rethinking Interdisciplinarity, Callard and Fitzgerald (2015) discuss how attempting to create interdisciplinary spaces where the humanities or the social sciences meet with the natural – in this case the neuro – sciences is fraught with pitfalls, and suggest that existing attempts by humanities scholars to engage with the neurosciences have often taken either the form of critique or of naive acceptance. The latter in particular may sometimes be based on a limited reading and understanding of the relevant scientific literature.

How, then, can we build meaningful and mutually comprehensive interdisciplinarity between the two cultures? Despite questioning Snow’s diagnosis, many at the event would appear to have agreed with his prescription, in more ways than one.  The aim for a more varied education – both at undergraduate level and earlier – was endorsed by many of the speakers, and reflected in the ensuing comments from the audience, which centred around school qualifications systems encouraging breadth as well as depth (such as the international baccalaureate, or even the lesser-spotted AS level). Other solutions offered – such as flexible and part-time undergraduate courses, or two year degrees – did not seem to offer breadth in the same way. But the aim for interdisciplinary education as a repertoire of employable skills in the 21st century also echoed some of Snow’s original (and often forgotten) reasons for bringing the two cultures together: to ensure the youth of mid 20th century Britain would not be left behind in the technological revolution and Britain’s declining influence as a world power.

While not wanting to discount the importance of teaching young people the skills needed to thrive in a rapidly changing world, interdisciplinary education and study must be more ambitious. If we allow the current social and economic order to dictate what kind of knowledge is useful and which skills are needed to respond to existing challenges, we risk losing some of the most valuable qualities of both the natural sciences and the humanities. Within the former, it is crucial to allow time and space for open-ended exploration and investigation, for curiosity about the natural world and our place in it to develop in new directions different or even contrary to current political and economic priorities. As for the latter, the most valuable skills offered by the humanities arguably belong to the realm of critical thinking and ethical problem solving. Such skills are essential for developing and conducting ethically responsible research and education in both the sciences and the humanities, as well as in any interdisciplinary fusion of these spheres. Human beings are complex thinking, feeling beings whose scientific judgement is never truly objective, but, as Donna Haraway (1988) has suggested, always partial and situated. It follows that meaningful and mutually respectful interdisciplinarity must begin with recognition of our disciplinary biases and the limits of our knowledge, as well as with a willingness to learn and listen to perspectives, languages, and concerns that might at first seem utterly foreign and incomprehensible.

Dr Ben Alderson-Day & Dr Åsa Jansson are members of Hearing the Voice, Durham University’s interdisciplinary project on voice-hearing (or auditory verbal hallucinations). They are both affiliates of the Institute for Medical Humanities. For more information about the practice of interdisciplinarity, you may wish to visit Working Knowledge, a collection of resources for running interdisciplinary research projects.


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