C. P. Snow - Rede Lecture, 1959
On 7th May 1959, the physicist and author C. P. Snow
( Charles Percy Snow 1905-1980 ), then fifty-three years old and a former research chemist and more recently
a top civil servant and best-selling novelist, delivered
the annual Rede Lecture in the Senate House of the University of Cambridge.
The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
Its title - "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" - referred to a gulf of mutual incomprehension and a
mutual lack of sympathy and appreciation that Snow identified as having grown up between "literary intellectuals" on the one hand and "natural
scientists" on the other.
Snow's lecture, which set out to show that this gulf between two cultures was not merely an obstacle to
scientific progress but even represented a threat to the survival of western civilisation,
elaborated themes he had already mentioned in the influential political
magazine, New Statesman, three years earlier.
Snow suggested that western societies typically
had ruling classes composed principally of humanities graduates who were effectively ill-equipped to
appreciate what science had to offer. Snow identified three key menaces arising from the existence of nuclear
weapons, over-population, and the gap between rich and poor nations as pressing instances of where "literary
intellectuals" who in Snow's view were "natural luddites" failed to see that solutions might come
from "natural scientists" who, again in Snow's view, held "the future in their bones".
In his - The Two Cultures - Snow observed that:-
"If scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist".
there was an urgent need for the spreading of scientific innovation to poorer countries.
Snow tried to make the case that the once powerful Venetian Republic, for all its accomplishment,
wealth and influence nevertheless dwindled into relative obscurity dues to failures to adapt.
He compared Britain with Venice in its decadence:
"Like us, [the Venetians] had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident…
They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many
of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern
into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never
found the will to break it."
"For the sake of the intellectual life, for the sake of this country's special danger, for the
sake of the western society living precariously rich among the poor, for the sake of the poor who needn't be
poor if there is intelligence in the world, it is obligatory for us and the Americans and the whole West to look
at our education with fresh eyes."
C. P. Snow subsequently published an expanded version of his Rede Lecture
The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.
"The intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into
two polar groups...literary intellectuals at one pole - at the other scientists, and as the most representative,
the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of incomprehension."
"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the
traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity
at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could
describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something
which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
In his lecture Snow said:
"So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority
of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it
as their Neolithic ancestors would have had ... As though the scientific edifice
of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and
articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of
Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if
they want to, they can't. It is rather as though, over an immense range of
intellectual experience, a whole group was tone deaf. Except that this
tone-deafness doesn't come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of
Initial reactions to the lecture were overwhelmingly favourable. But the real
storm came three years later, in 1962, when the literary critic F. R. Leavis, a
reader of English at Cambridge, ferociously attacked Snow's thesis
in another high profile Cambridge lecture, the Richmond lecture, taking as his theme
Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow.
Leavis described Snow as "intellectually as
undistinguished as it is possible to be", adding that his lecture "exhibits an
utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style".
The Rede lecture, complained Leavis, showed no evidence of any scientific
training or rigorous scientific habits. Nor, moreover, did Snow know anything
about history. Leavis's lecture provoked an outcry.
In 1963 Snow revisited the controversy in The Two Cultures: A Second Look.
Here he restated his position. Advanced western society, he said, has lost even
the pretence of a common culture. Education is the means to salvation:
"Education, mainly in primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and
universities. There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly
ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves."
Two - possible - recent examples
of C. P. Snow's ~ Two cultures
We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the
whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this
vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have
always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find
ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come
from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about
these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept
up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers
of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the
answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances. They lead us to a new
picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and
different even from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago. …
From Stephen Hawking's - "The Grand Design" (2011)
Charles Darwin is my greatest scientific hero. Philosophers are fond of saying that all philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. I sincerely hope that is not
the case, because it doesn't say much for philosophy. A far better case could be made that all of modern biology is a series of footnotes to Darwin. And that would
be a genuine compliment to the science of biology. Every biologist treads in Darwin's footsteps and, in all humility, none of us could do better than to follow his example.
From Richard Dawkins' - "An Appetite for Wonder" (2013)
An earlier Richard Dawkins quote has some considerable relevance in relation to Snow's view of The Two Cultures:-
It has become almost a cliché to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of
literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science and proudly claim incompetence in mathematics.
From Richard Dawkins' - The Richard Dimbleby Lecture: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1996)
Human Being seems
It is widely known that Plato, pupil of and close friend to Socrates, accepted that Human
Beings have a " Tripartite Soul " where the individual Human Psyche is noticeably composed of three aspects -
Wisdom-Rationality, Spirited-Will and Appetite-Desire.
to be rather "Tripartite"
What is less widely appreciated is that such major World Faiths as Christianity, Islam,
Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism see "Spirituality" as being relative to "Desire" and to "Wrath".
Could such Materialistic?, Spiritual? and Social-group? related tendencies as those "Tripartite" ones just mentioned all tend to be aspects of that 'Knot of Roots' which Emerson
suggests that ~ "Man Is"
Human Societies often seem
to be rather "Tripartite"
Although there have been, and are, "Doctrinaire" forms of society organised "According to an Ideology" (e.g. Marxism), in other cases we can probably state that
Human Beings are "Social Beings" and it seems actually possible that individual Human-innate "bundles of relations and knots of roots" tend to give "spontaneous" direction
to the development, and continuance, of "Humanly Natural?" Societies!!!