This Week’s Special: C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959)

By Michael Boyle

In 1956, Charles Percy Snow, physicist, novelist, and civil servant, published an article in the New Statesman, which, three years later, he would turn into a Rede Lecture and then publish as a book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The lecture and the book had a significant impact on the intellectual life of Britain at the time, particularly after Cambridge literary critic Frank Raymond (F. R.) Leavis responded with a scathing reply in 1962.

The “two cultures” to which Snow was referring were the humanities and the sciences. More specifically, Snow excoriated the humanities and valorized the sciences, arguing for the moral superiority of the latter and characterizing the former as a collection of uninspired Luddites. This divide, however, did not originate with Snow and Leavis, for the controversy that ensued around Snow’s lecture was simply the 20th century version of an argument at least as old as that between Thomas Henry (T. H.) Huxley and Matthew Arnold in the 19th century.

There are a number of theses that Snow advances, all of them favorable to science and unfavorable to the humanities. There are also a number of now-dated contextual factors that provide important ingredients for these arguments, the two most important being the state of higher education in Britain and the Cold War.  Snow’s antipathy to the humanities, in terms of educational curricula, has to do, in part, with the dominance of the traditional humanities-heavy curriculum at Oxbridge and with the fact that much of Britain’s ruling class was being educated in this way. The reason why he felt this was detrimental had to do with Snow’s arguments concerning why science was so important in the modern world.

Snow made a compelling case that the Industrial Revolution is the most significant global change for humans since the Neolithic Revolution, a precursor to the emergence of civilization in terms of the large cities, monumental architecture, and so forth that we see with the earliest great civilizations. This being the case, he thought it imperative that the leadership cadres of Britain be more educated in terms of science and that the whole notion of what it means to be educated be expanded to include scientific knowledge. Furthermore, science is crucial, he believed, because it would provide a way to bridge the divide between the Communist bloc and the West. Soviet and Western scientists might disagree about communism versus capitalism, but because they spoke the language of science, there would be a profound mutual connection.

This connection also touches on a deep philosophical assumption embedded in Snow’s argument. In his description of the humanities, he charged that they had been out to lunch during the Industrial Revolution, that modern art has ignored science, and that there was a deep-seated antipathy toward scientific knowledge. Moreover, he also (in a somewhat cagey manner) criticized the humanities for having leading figures in the first half of the 20th century who held politically wicked views – in particular, anti-Semitic ones.

In contrast to this, Snow’s description of the sciences consistently assumes that there is an inherent moral superiority on the part of scientists because of who they are in terms of what they do. In essence, the upshot of this was an attempt to bridge the fact/value distinction by arguing that scientists are not just in the business of collecting and explaining facts, but that they do what they do because they have a positive, future-oriented perspective that is geared toward improving the conditions of their fellow man. In other words, if the humanities are all about unpacking statements of value, then they have a decidedly poor track record.  By contrast, Snow asserted, science has an entirely different set of values, which are positive, forward-looking, and globally transformative.

The forward-looking characterization of science is especially evident in another one of the reasons that Snow puts forward as to why science should take the lead both in terms of curricula and public policy – the improvement of conditions in the third world (what we today often call the developing world). Snow was confident that scientific know-how would do wonders to lift the pre-industrial masses of the non-Western world out of poverty and alleviate a number of negative social indicators by raising their standards of living. Connected to this are several key arguments having to do with economics and the history of technology. Snow excoriated the racist and imperialist attitudes which concluded that the non-Western world would take a number of centuries to catch up. Furthermore, he had no patience for condescending romanticism on the part of Westerners toward non-industrialized people. Everyone wants a better life, they no more than we. And they will push, he argued, to industrialize their societies just like masses of individuals in Britain migrated to the cities in the 1800s in search of work and a better life. And that search, ultimately, bore fruit in terms of more food, better medical care, and a higher standard of living. It will do the same, he said, for the rest of the world.

In contrast to the patronizing, racist views of the third world on the part of many in the first, Snow indicated that the history of technology and the industrial revolution indicated that exactly the opposite would occur. The later nations industrialized, the faster they underwent the process. This meant that the developing world would industrialize much faster than had established Western nations. This in turn meant for Snow (in 1959) that the halcyon days of Western dominance would soon come under substantial economic pressure and that nations like Britain had to prepare for this by revamping their educational systems and teaching more science, since the entire modern world was built on it due to the Industrial Revolution.

Although much of the institutional context in which Snow delivered his famous lecture is now past, the ongoing quarrel between the sciences and humanities continues. Whether in terms of the “Science Wars” of the 1990’s or more recent contretemps such as that between Stephen Pinker and Leon Wieseltier, or the periodic dismissals of philosophy by prominent physicists, the debate is still very much alive and unresolved. In contrast, Snow’s less well-known diagnosis of future economic pressures on the West given the speed of industrialization has proven remarkably accurate.





6 responses to “This Week’s Special: C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959)”

  1. davidlduffy

    “Snow excoriated the humanities and valorized the sciences” – specifically in 1950s Britain. Note the emphasis on the low social class origins of many of the scientists, engineers and industrialists, the implied lack of scientific literacy in the Oxbridge educated ruling classes. And also the comparison with a slightly better rounded US educational system (avoiding over early specialisation). He hopes in a later work for a third (blended) culture.

    Dale Jamieson (the philosopher) seems to suggest in “Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed” that part of that failure is persisting difficulty in communications between the political class, who self-select into law etc after failing Organic Chemistry 101, and the scientists – I remain to be convinced. The U.S. Congress would be an easy target to attack, but they are ~4% with a “technical background”, compared to ~5% U.S. workforce in science/engineering.

  2. Still reading. I am a little boggled by his colleagues and him interviewing 30,000 – 40,000 scientists and engineers over a 20 year period. That works out to about 6-7 interviews per day, each and every working day over the entire 20 years. Presumably he does not intend to say that he was involved in all or even most of those. So did they all really get together and share notes about the information they had all gleaned about the literary inclinations of the interviewees?

    All the engineers of that period that I have known must have been very atypical, because they were all into literature and art in a big way. I used to think that it must have been part of engineering education to be able to quote a couple of lines from a poem to suit each and any subject.

    Also, I am wondering how many biologists or psychologists would pass Snow’s test and be able to give a reasonable account of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (which is hardly trivial) or mass and acceleration.

    In fact I was reading a piece from a well known physicist on the 2LTD, he said that thermodynamics was one of his favourite subjects. Then he was corrected on the basic definition by another physicist who had written a textbook on thermodynamics.

    So I don’t think that it is much of a criticism of literary types that they couldn’t give an account of it.

  3. There is a common debating tactic, which goes something like “It would be ill advised for anyone to bring up my opponent’s long record of drink driving offences, because they are not relevant to the current topic”.

    He manages to say something discreditable about his opponent while virtuously decrying the tactic.

    Snow seems to be playing the same double game with the fascist leanings of some of the literary establishment. He says that it is ill-considered for scientists to judge writers on the period 1914-1950, having spent the last page and a half doing just that.

    That Pound, Yeats, Wyndham Lewis were fascists does reflect very badly on the literary establishment (D H Lawrence was another such).

    But he seems to want to tar writers of that period in general with the same brush. I don’t think that Auden, Isherwood, Spender, Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Brecht, Camus, Sartre and many others were in that mold.

    Nine out of ten writers like Yeats and Pound? I would like to see the figures on that.

    I guess that it would be equally ill-considered to point out that scientists like Oberth, Von Braun and Heisenberg enthusiastically set about trying to bring Nazism to the world, while Fritz Lang, Hitlers first choice to head up his government film unit, fled to America.

  4. mpboyle56

    @ Robin Herbert:

    Yes, this is probably the low point of his lecture, and yes, his omission of people like Von Braun is telling.

  5. Snow has two arguments he thinks are intertwined: 1, the *elite* need to be scientifically trained to determine appropriate social policy; 2, this training should be extended beyond the elite, and will be (somehow), allowing ‘Third World’ nations to catch up with the ‘West’ economically.

    These arguments do not interlock the way Snow believes; the realization since has undercut all the prophecy – explicit or implicit – embedded within it.

    The underpinnings of science and technology are mere commerce; failing to realize this has bewildered all too many scientists and philosophers.

  6. mpboyle56


    To my mind at least, the fact that the reality differed from the details is less important than that Snow was right in terms of his central contention re: the Third World and technology- industrialization will happen, and will happen much more quickly than anticipated. This, broadly speaking, is what has occurred/is occurring. For decades, the basic underpinnings of much of (American at least) economic policy has been Human Capital Theory and a Theory of Comparative Demand, whereby the logic is that (as long as we focus on cranking out college grads) we will remain as a “head” nation (i.e., with top tier jobs/wages) while the developing world follows an evolutionary path and remains for some time in the position of “body” nations (doing lower-skilled work). This is being quickly eroded by any number of factors (including a massive surge in the global college-educated workforce, digital Taylorization -i.e., scientific management techniques increasingly applied to knowledge work-, and global pressures in terms of quality/cost). Public policy debates in the US regarding these things are fragmented and incomplete, partly because we’re still wedded to that older, imperialist model, as Snow warned. Other nations, most notably dirigiste Asian nations like China, are very well aware of such things (although they have their own very substantial problems).