Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reason's Personal and Public Roles in Meeting Snow's Challenge

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Reason's Personal and Public Roles in Meeting Snow's Challenge

Article excerpt


C.P. Snow left quite a challenge; one he was not at all sure could be met. The question is whether humans might individually reach a degree of integration such that they are able to participate meaningfully in both the culture of science and that of which modern literature is emblematic? Can inquirers take up, to some life changing degree, the findings of science and the modernist (or even postmodernist) leanings of recent and contemporary literature? Can they take up (and use) realist and empiricist inquiries into the physical existence of which humans are a part and in which they find their way forward in progress, whilst embracing literature that treats us with "...ahistoricity: [and offers up a] static view of the human condition (meaning by this mainly what [Snow has] called the social condition)"? (See Snow, 1964, p. 95.) But even more, the challenge is to put this integrated intellectual culture to work for the amelioration of the human condition. Assuming inquirers can sort out the defensible from the indefensible uses of science, can they move forward to employ it? In 1963 Snow did not believe humans were yet ready:

   Escaping the dangers of applied science is one thing. Doing the
   simple and manifest good which applied science has put in our power
   is another, more difficult, more demanding of human qualities, and
   in the long run far more enriching to us all. It will need energy,
   self-knowledge, and new skills. It will need new perceptions into
   both closed and open politics. (1964, p. 99)

Apparently, Snow thought education adequate to the task, but only for some.

   With good fortune, however, we can educate a large proportion of
   our better minds so that they are not ignorant of imaginative
   experience, both in the arts and in science, nor ignorant either of
   the endowments of applied science, of the remediable suffering of
   most of their fellow humans, and of the responsibilities which,
   once they are seen, cannot be denied. (1964, p. 100)

Thus, apparently, the project is one of directing or channeling human goodness. And Snow seems to have felt that perhaps there are enough with that endowment.

   If we are not members one of another, if we have no sympathy at
   this elemental level, then we have no human concern at all, and any
   pretense of a higher kind of sympathy is a mockery. Fortunately
   most of us are not so affectless as that. (1964, p. 85)

This is challenge, then: to inform, to shape the intellect of many so as to create a culture in which people are ready to use science for the good of all at least so far as to provide basic needs. In this work literature or more generally the arts and humanities, or simply sensibility, cannot be forgotten. They are present, will abide, and do inform the thought and feeling of many. But it seems that the cultures of science and that of technology are to be integrated or amalgamated with the social sciences, and the resulting third culture of progressive action is to be brought to an intellectual peace with the culture of sensibility; a peace deep enough that self-control and concern for others will take society forward into a better future.

Today public cynicism would dismiss such a project as mere sentimentalism. But for its time, a challenge such as Snow's was not surprising. When he gave his Rede lecture (1959) the world, perhaps more clearly than now, appeared divided in dangerous and difficult ways. The threat was personal and palpable, made clearly visible by deadly and widely available nuclear technology. Other thinkers recently had expressed hopes similar to those of Snow. For example, not too many years earlier the Nobel laureate Bergson called for human amelioration in Creative Evolution and in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. (See Bergson, 2005 and 1935.) At the time of Snow's lecture, Lord Russell's social program, one with aspirations not greatly different from those of Snow, was articulated with attention to strategies of realization. …

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