“The Two Cultures” 60 years later

In this week’s blog, Dr Thomas H Bak from the Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS) project looks back on C.P. Snow’s “The two cultures” lecture, wondering if “literary” and scientific academic cultures are still as separated as they were sixty years ago.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most famous and controversial academic lectures in European history: C. P. Snow’s Rede lecture at Cambridge University entitled: “The two cultures”.

The lecture is complex and has many interwoven themes, some specifically British, others consciously global, but I think it would be fair to say that at its heart lies C P Snow’s criticism of the lack of respect, interest and knowledge that the “literary” academics have when it comes to science, particularly applied science and technology. The topic has been extensively debated in the context of its intellectual history and subsequent criticism, but my question is a slightly different one: does it still have anything relevant to say to sciences and humanities of our time?

As much as I find the lecture thought provoking and engaging, it is quite different from my own academic experience. One of the most cherished memories of my school education is the painting of Rafael’s “School of Athens” at the ceiling of the entrance hall of my high school, the Nowodworski Liceum in Cracow; we passed under it every time we entered the school. The picture shows Plato pointing his finger up to the sky, in conversation with Aristotle, pointing to earth. Admittedly, Archimedes might have been a better representative for science, but the message we got was to pay attention equally to the natural world as to the world of ideas. In the school aula, there were portraits of former alumni, including writers (among them Joseph Conrad) as well as scientists (such as the chemist Jędrzej Śniadecki). There was never a hint that one was superior to the other. Neither did I perceive this gap moving to Germany, where the term “Wissenschaft” applies equally to the natural world (“Naturwisschenschaften”) as well as the world of ideas (“Geisteswissenschaften”), the latter including social sciences as well as humanities.

But also my experience of Cambridge was very different from that of C P Snow 40 years earlier. Whether in the professional interaction at the university or in the dinner conversations at the colleges, I perceived science to be held in very high esteem by members of all faculties. But I met also many scientists with a passionate interest in arts and literature. In the international poetry club, which I established around 2000, we had a lively mixture of humanities as well as theoretical and applied sciences, including medicine. Two of the most committed members of our poetry club hold now positions of a Professor of Quantum Physics at Cambridge and of Neuroscience and Mental Health at Reading University, respectively.

Also my work in Edinburgh, where I have been based since 2006, brings together science and humanities, through research as well as through intensive public engagement activities as part of Bilingualism Matters (http://www.bilingualism-matters.ppls.ed.ac.uk/), including performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and Book Festivals and, more recently, working together with playwrights and actors approaching the topic of language and dementia through theatre. Likewise, spanning sciences and humanities is my work with Dina Mehmedbegovic on “healthy linguistic diet”: http://healthylinguisticdiet.com/.

The latest episode in my science-humanities exchange is the AHRC Open World Research Initiative project “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies” (MEITS) (http://www.meits.org/). The 6 strands of the project move all the way from cultural and literary studies, through sociolinguistics, language education and policy, to the experimental methods of cognitive studies, a variety of approaches explicitly welcomed by the AHRC. The atmosphere is characterised not only by respect, but by a genuine desire to learn from each other and understand each others’ language, concerns and the way of thinking. The project had already profound effect on my work, convincing me of the usefulness of qualitative methods, which I have now applied in studies as different as language learning in early dementia and the influence of the arctic environment on Svalbard on wellbeing and cognitive functions.

So could it be that the whole idea of “two cultures” was just a product of its times, overcome by the development of modern society with science and technology as one its most important foundations? Interestingly, when I asked my friends and colleagues about it recently, I got different opinions. Some felt that the topic is still very relevant, citing as an example the “science wars” and the controversial decision of the American Anthropological Association to remove the word ”science” from its mission statement in 2010. If the authority of science is undermined, even within academia, how can we be surprised about phenomena such as the anti-vaccination movement and climate change denial? But there is also the opposite view, namely that the pendulum moved too far in the other direction, idolatrising science and technology as a panacea for all the ills of individuals and society (with the additional assumption, that at least some of these ills might have been caused by technology).

But the main question might be not whether science is under- or overvalued, but whether it is still misunderstood, or at least misrepresented. In his lecture, C P Snow focused on the knowledge of science and literature respectively; for me, an even more interesting point is how scientific and literary work shape our view the world, our approach to work, the way we ask questions and try to answer them. Shortly after I came to work in Edinburgh, in 2006, I was at a discussion about the public understanding of science, a topic which has grown enormously in importance since C P Snow days, when science was a preserve of a small elite. A professor of geology, whose name unfortunately I cannot recall, said that many people in general public think that science is about certainty, whereas scientists themselves think it is mainly about uncertainty. This view has only been strengthened by my experiences and reflections over the following years: one of the main things that science can teach us is modesty. When I walk to the university to teach our students I like to remind myself how the lecture I am about to give is different from those that I was listening to when I was student myself. This pace of change can be unsettling, for students, teachers and researchers alike and I have discussed its consequences for teaching in a blog on the importance of suspense and surprise in teaching (http://www.teaching-matters-blog.ed.ac.uk/codi-show-ditch-the-classroom-speak-in-tongues/). But it can also have a liberating power over preconceptions and prejudices; it teaches us that we can err, indeed, that we are bound to err, and that we always need to correct, update and revise our knowledge. Being aware of the limitations of one’s own methodology is a sign of strength, not of weakness.

Such “constructive scepticism” teaches us also that our knowledge is influenced by the historical, social and cultural aspects of the world we live and work in, as I was trying to illustrate on the example of research on multilingualism and cognition, currently an area of a major controversy. Which brings me back to my interdisciplinary experience in the MEITS grant I mentioned before: rather than trying to show off who is better (which is often reduced, alas also in academia, to the question of who shouts louder), let us recognise the weaknesses as well as the strengths of our respective approaches and try to learn from each other: for the benefit of us all and of the society.

One thought on ““The Two Cultures” 60 years later

  1. I’m reading “The Two Cultures” at the moment, and really enjoying it. I’m a literature student and I love science, so this debate is particularly interesting to me. I’ve found it hard sometimes not to be resentful of the funding that goes into science research and university departments – often, it seems, at the expense of humanities research. I think this is something which perhaps widens the “gap”. At the same time, there are some great interdisciplinary projects going on – medical humanities being one example of where collaboration across science and humanities is vital. Thanks for sharing.

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