Britain's Two Cultures - a Third Look

By Syer, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, August 1992 | Go to article overview

Britain's Two Cultures - a Third Look


Syer, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


IN 1959 the novelist C. P. Snow gave his Rede Lecture in Cambridge, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. He articulated some ideas which had been around for some time, principally that modern industrial society was living not in one, unified, culture but in two. On the one hand there are the |literary intellectuals' (Snow's term); on the other, the scientists, particularly the physical scientists. Between the two is a lack of mutual understanding amounting sometimes to hostility. The non-scientists, Snow went on, |have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man's condition'. In contrast, |the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment'. Some of the literary intellectuals, like Pound, Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, were |not only politically silly, but politically wicked'. The two sides hardly entered into each other's area of knowledge; Snow claimed to know scientists who were totally ignorant of literature, who had never read Dickens or Shakespeare, and literary intellectuals who knew nothing of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that scientific equivalent of Shakespeare. The two cultures had been separating for some time -- between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension -- sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding'. Snow knew that, so crudely expressed, the dichotomy was a simplification but, as a novelist who was widely read in European and American literature, and as a scientist who had done some distinguished work in his youth, he straddled both cultures and knew what he was talking about. He was careful to point out that the split was not confined to Britain, but was apparent everywhere in developed countries in varying degrees.

So far there could have been little dissent from the analysis. But Snow went further. The literary intellectuals were more to blame for they are |natural Luddites'. Here Snow took sides for he believed |Industrialism is the only hope of the poor' and in a key paragraph he took a vigorous stick to the Luddites: |It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation -- to do a modern Walden if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the choice, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them'.

Here Snow took another tack. There is a difference, he maintained, between the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution. The latter is that applied science which is changing all our lives, electronics, atomic energy and automation, mainly. The literary intellectuals know nothing about this, nor about the various levels of organisation in industry which the revolution requires. Britain is particularly bad here. The split between literary people and scientific applies to all modern societies. But in Britain there is a further split which hardly obtains elsewhere and that is between the pure scientists and the applied. Britain because of its specialised education system, |the old pattern of training a small elite' is much worse than other countries, particularly America and Russia. This is worrying, for the main issue in the scientific revolution is that |the people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day'. …

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