Charles P. Snow

I do not expect that the name above jumps into your consciousness creating lots of “aaaahhh”s and “oooohhh”s. In the academic circle I am still allowed to attend to, his name made no bells ring – but everybody knew the word from “The two cultures”. Lord Snow coined it.

Charles Percy Snow (1905-1980) became a scientist and abandoned his possible career in the thirties of the 20th century to start writing novels. During the war he worked for the government, afterwards he picked up his writing activities again and held some positions in the industry. 1959 he gave a Rede-lecture in Cambridge that was published: “The two cultures and the scientific revolution”. The small publication saw some reprints and 1968 an enlarged second edition followed. This lecture started a heated discussion.
Snow saied in a nutshell, that the natural scientists on one side and the humanists on the other side are unable to communicate in a proper way and stay incomprehensible, unconnected aside. He talks about a “cultural divide”. Later he uses the term “Third culture” and it’s iminent that he has the idea of a kind of unifiying, new “culture” to come.

The reviews were mixed from reserved to harsh and the most vivid attack was brought by F.R. Leavis, an artcritic. His critic was straight to the man and terribly overdrawn. The central part of the review is justified and important: Snow’s idea of “culture” is pretty simple and not too reflected. To put it simple and exaggerated: He sees “culture” as electricity, enough to eat and knowing what to do.
The goal of all science is – according to Snow – to solve the world’s problems (hunger, energy, education) by progress. This progress is achieved by the work of the applied sciences, the natural sciences. The “humanists” play no role in this understanding. Even by the standards of the 1990ties (a very “un-cultural” time in my opinion) and of course his own lifetime, as the critic showed, this is a pretty simple idea of the sciences and of the “old culture”, as he likes to call it. Well, Leavis thundered and some others did as well.

So this lecture from nearly 50 years ago could be simply forgotten. It could, if not from time to time this word (“Two cultures”) would be thrown into the discussion and everybody would nod the head in knowing consent. Back to the sources – ad fontes! The two cultures came back from the grave in the 80ties and 90ties in connection with the so-called new sciences and the “Third culture“. Snow had no idea what “culture” would be and he did not try to think over this, but he coined a phrase that stuck and that gained a life of its own.

For further reading on Snow’s two cultures, look here – but not all links are still working.
Recommended reading is this article in the New Criterion.

In the next seminar-session we will have a referate about the Sokal-Hoax.