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

"The Two Cultures" and the Historical Perspective on Science as a Culture

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

"The Two Cultures" and the Historical Perspective on Science as a Culture

Article excerpt


In the Rede lecture of 1959, C.P. Snow speaks in terms of two cultures, one of science, the other of literary intellectuals. Snow's discussion presupposes that science represents a culture of its own, independent of and superior to the arts and humanities, and unified within itself. At our present distance from this claim, Snow's point of view can be seen as a product of the philosophical orientation to science as an embodiment of universal truths about nature as well as cold war pressures on the West to improve educational standards in science. As the terms in which science is discussed have changed in the last nearly half-century, so has our response to the terms of Snow's "Two Cultures" altered with time. The fields of history and sociology of science have shown the degree to which science is both fully enmeshed in society and conditioned by history, making it more difficult to support the idea of a separate "culture" of science immune from the effects of society and history. That the viability of a culture of science as an independent entity is contested in contemporary academic circles furthermore affects the mode in which students of science and the humanities are inculcated. This paper discusses the historical perspective on science as a culture and considers the impact of changing views about the nature, aims, and methods of science on the teaching of science and its history.


The schismatic relation defined in the 1959 Rede lecture of C.P. Snow between the so-called cultures of science and of "literary intellectuals" presupposed the idea that science represents a culture of its own, independent of the arts and humanities and unified within itself. Snow pitted the two communities of intellectuals against one another as though they were foreigners looking suspiciously at one another over the border fence. Of course Snow referred only to modern science, though it will be my aim to open the question of the culture of science to a historical perspective. Implied in Snow's lecture, as well as by those who still invoke the two cultures, is an image and status of science as authoritative and universal, evidenced by its worldwide spread and currency.

In the mid-twentieth century, when Snow's Rede lecture was given, philosophers of science were concerned principally with the analysis of the nature of science as knowledge and the character of that knowledge from an epistemological point of view. It was by and large a point of view that favored logical-empiricism with its strict criteria for meaning. The history of science was not considered to be terribly important to that mission. Scientific theories, at least those that were regarded as having certainty and demonstrability, were treated as though they had achieved a status of immunity from history. In his lecture, and especially in the follow up "A Second Look," Snow's view of science (especially applied science) as a veritable panacea for the suffering of the world was a kind of proof that science transcended history, and with it the failures of particular societies or individuals. Science, by means of its culture, had the capacity to elevate humanity by virtue of its collective, even universal, validity and power. (1)

By contrast with science's objective truths and transcendent achievements, Snow associated disciplines in the humanities such as literary criticism or other highly interpretative fields with a subjective form of thought and a consequent opacity to science. Such implicit enmity between scientists and humanists reflects an ideology built of what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls "crude binaries." In her recent book, Scandalous Knowledge: Science, Truth and the Human (2005), she does, however, remark that the divide "may be, in some respects, even sharper and more extensive now than then [nearly 50 years ago], and the institutional, especially educational, mechanisms of their perpetuation even more deeply entrenched. …

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