This month marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures And The Scientific Revolution.” A half-century later, the term “two cultures” is still well remembered, but many of the details, both of the history and of the philosophical foundations of the dispute—and the contributions of my hero, the scientist, philosopher, and future television celebrity Jacob Bronowski—have largely been forgotten.
Charles Percy Snow was a novelist and a chemist who held a respectable position in the British civil service. A friendly, respectable man of 54, Snow had such a steady personality that one biographer saw his life as “a record of jobs held, novels written, and so on, the public record of a successful man.” He and Bronowski had been close for years, and he had published an impassioned review of Bronowski’s Science and Human Values in the New Republic a year before the “Two Cultures” lecture.
The “Two Cultures” lecture was written in a relaxed, almost spontaneous style, and although Snow indulged in occasional exaggerations, it was hardly a combative piece. Yet he was driven by concerns that he and Bronowski had long shared: the world of science and the world of literature were becoming increasingly alienated. Those whose intellectual interests lay primarily in science seemed to find great works of literature inaccessible or unimportant. Worse, the “literary intellectuals” regarded science as mundane or even vulgar, and sometimes even prided themselves on their own ignorance of scientific discoveries. The source of this dichotomy, Snow felt, was in the failure of writers and critics to come to terms with the Industrial Revolution, which they regarded either as historically trivial or, worse, as a disaster. Such “natural Luddites” tended to romanticize pre-industrial life, and to reject new discoveries as supercilious gadgetry. Few of them seriously understood recent discoveries in physics, and virtually none of them thought such discoveries worth describing.
This split would be of little intrinsic importance, Snow continued, if it weren’t for the political and social repercussions. Poverty and starvation still ravaged most of the world’s population, while modern technology made it possible to feed them. Yet England’s productive capacity was stifled by an educational system which was dominated by the literary culture and which therefore failed to train the nation’s students in ways that would help alleviate the suffering of the world’s peoples. Worse, because political leaders were mostly drawn from the literary culture, efforts at industrialization were handicapped by the western world’s own lack of nerve. “Industrialisation is the only hope of the poor,” Snow insisted.
I use the word ‘hope’ in a crude and prosaic sense. I have not much use for the moral sensibility of anyone who is too refined to use it so. It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don’t matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialization—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 chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.
Snow’s critique of the literary elite’s romanticism thus carried a political critique as well, one rooted in Snow’s experience as a student at Cambridge in the 1930s, at about the same time that Bronowski was studying there. Even then, Snow had admired the writings of H.G. Wells and praised them in an article in the Cambridge Review in 1934. But among Wells’ most outspoken detractors at the time was Professor Frank Raymond Leavis, one of the leading voices of Cambridge literary criticism. Leavis could not regard Wells as a serious novelist, but only as “a portent,” who indicated the soulless future of technocratic society.
Three years after Snow’s Rede Lecture, Leavis would turn on Snow in almost identical terms. Leavis may have been provoked in part by another work of Snow’s: his gushing review of Bronowski’s The Western Intellectual Tradition, which appeared in Scientific American in the fall of 1960. Snow praised the book as “a real public service,” but he also applauded the breadth and inclusiveness of the book. “Tradition is a dangerous term,” he wrote. “The classical recent example of Cutting Tradition to Fit One’s Cloth is that of F.R. Leavis, one of the ‘new critics,’ on the English novel. By eliminating Dickens and the rest, he proves to his own satisfaction that the great tradition of the English novel is Jane Austen—George Eliot—Henry James—Conrad—D.H. Lawrence. There is nothing so blinkered about the way in which Bronowski and Mazlish have set about selecting their tradition.”
On the last day of February, 1962, F.R. Leavis delivered a lecture at Downing College entitled “Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow.” It indicated a nasty second round in the debate, one marked by deep personal animosity as well as fundamentally differing views over the role of science in culture. Leavis spoke of Snow with pure, acidic contempt. As with H.G. Wells, Leavis could not take Snow seriously as a writer. “Snow is, of course, a—no, I can’t say that; he isn’t: Snow thinks of himself as a novelist…. [A]s a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.” Snow’s lecture revealed “an embarrassing vulgarity of style,” and “kinds of bad writing in such richness and so significant a way that there would, I grant, be some point in the schoolmaster’s using it as a text for elementary criticism.” Yet Snow was not merely a bad writer, he, too, was a “portent” of the hollow modern civilization, and thus deserved to be dealt with harshly. Snow was calling for improvement of such base concerns as “productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress,” instead of “the human future,” or “the full human problem,” or on the “religious depth of thought and feeling.”
This was the hot core of Leavis’ hostility: he considered Snow a materialist; one who sought a world in which “‘standard of living’ is the ultimate criterion, its raising an ultimate aim, a matter of wages and salaries and what you can buy with them, reduced hours of work and the technological resources that make your increasing leisure worth having, so that productivity—the supremely important thing—must be kept on the rise, at whatever cost to protesting conservative habit.” Material standards of living were certainly important, but focusing on them alone led to the sort of spiritual impoverishment and bored emptiness that one saw in such places as America. “Who will assert that the average member of modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvelous art and skills and vital intelligence?”
Snow got wind of the vitriolic attack before the lecture was given, and wrote to Leavis requesting for a copy, but was refused. A few days after Leavis spoke, Snow was finally allowed to read the lecture when an editor at Leavis’ journal The Spectator, fearing the possibility of a lawsuit if the lecture were published, brought him a copy and asked permission to print it. Snow decided to let the piece run, but the publication immediately brought an avalanche of articles and letters to the editor supporting or defending the two unlikely gladiators.
Ironically, the two cultures debate coincided with planning for the embryonic Salk Institute, which would be constructed in a few years in La Jolla, California. The Institute was the brainchild of Jonas Salk, Basil O’Connor, and atomic bomb inventor Leo Szilard, and its founders hoped that the Institute would become a place not only of scientific, but of humanist concerns as well—an idea Bronowski had cherished for more than a decade. Bronowski was quickly asked to join the Institute as one of its founding resident fellows. Snow was also asked to help organize and publicize the Institute. In June, 1962, he traveled to the United States, where he attended a meeting of the Institute’s board of trustees and met with Bronowski.
As the “two cultures debate” worsened, Snow took the criticisms hard. The personal attacks were compounded by a serious eye injury that required an operation in the late fall, so his spirits were lifted when Bronowski entered the controversy in a characteristic way: he wrote a radio drama, entitled “A New Dialogue on Two World Systems,” which aired on the BBC Third Programme on November 16, 1962. Later retitled “The Abacus And The Rose,” the dialogue was partly inspired by a book published a year earlier, entitled A Threefold Cord, which Bronowski had reviewed for Nature. That book attempted to reconcile science and philosophy through a written exchange of views between a philosopher and a scientist, but Bronowski considered it a failure because “each author virtually ignores the arguments of the other.” It may be, he wrote, that the Platonic dialogue was unsuited to modern philosophical exchanges. But at least, “if common ground is to be found between philosophy and science, then it must be looked for, not in one philosophy and not in one interpretation of science, but in the basic objectives of the two studies.” It was the “mode of inquiry” that lay the foundation for reconciliation and understanding between the two cultures. Thus in “A New Dialogue,” Bronowski tried to confine the discussion to these more abstract issues.
It consists of a conversation between Dr. Amos Harping—a “literary fury” based on Leavis—Sir Edward St. Ablish, the “urbane and maddeningly tolerant” character based on Snow—and Prof. Lionel Potts, a young molecular biologist modeled on Francis Crick. The conversation takes place in a restaurant in the Swiss Alps. The affable Sir Edward is eager to show Potts and Harping the sunset, but while Potts finds the sunset beautiful, the grumpy Harping is hesitant to agree. The word “beautiful” is not something that can readily be applied to sunsets, because it is an essentially subjective conclusion. “Beauty is not measured like splendor, by a comparison with the commonplace. It is felt in each of us by what is most individual in him.” Beauty is not a description, on which people can agree, but a judgment which is therefore inherently personal. While another person’s opinion about its beauty might help expand or enrich one’s own judgment, it cannot establish or demonstrate that beauty in any sense.
But while Potts accepts that the use of a term like “beauty” is an act of judgment, he rejects Harping’s assumption that science is a process of neutral descriptions. Every scientific observation is an act of judgment, he explains, because the scientist must decide which observations are relevant, and to what degree of precision an observation must be made. That act of judgment is an act of intellectual involvement with nature. Here Sir Edward interrupts. Surely Potts does not believe that this act of judgment is of the same order as the human observations in Shakespeare’s sonnets. “Of course it is,” Potts replies. “The vision that science presents of the physical world now, in the second half of the twentieth century, is, in its intellectual depth, its complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man.”
Harping scoffs. These are just empty phrases, and “not even his own fine phrases: C.P. Snows, I think, or else Bronowski’s.” Literary discourse fundamentally differs from that of literature, because writers construct a personal representation of life and the world. Readers do the same. When people enjoy literature, “what is on the page is only the beginning of their understanding. They do not simply accept the work of art; they re-create it.” But science, by contrast, simply accepts nature as it is found, and the scientist adds another datum to its ever more thorough description.
Potts responds to these charges with an analogy between the atomic physics of Ernest Rutherford and the paintings of Rembrandt. Rutherford’s model of the atom’s structure is as expressive and creative as Rembrandt’s paintings: both start with descriptions of nature, but gather what is to be described into a form of expression that is inherently personal and unique. “The painter’s portrait and the physicist’s explanation are both rooted in reality, but they have been changed by the painter and the physicist into something more subtly imagined than the photographic appearance of things.” Science, like art, is an expression of a personal vision of reality, and the great discoveries come when the scientist constructs a new vision, uniting previously unconnected details. In short, it is a work of imagination.
Yet science is destructive, Harping points out. The hydrogen bomb is a fitting symbol of the fundamentally destructive nature of scientific inquiry, and the antiwar protestors in the streets are a fitting symbol of man’s protest against mechanization. “They are not afraid that mankind will perish; they are afraid that humanity has perished already under the big wheel of scientific progress.” And the fact that the scientist himself may be creative and even morally innocent does not change the inhuman nature of the scientific worldview any more than Jesus’ gentle nature alleviated the oppressive nature of the Inquisition. “I would like to destroy the idol of technical advance,” says Harping, in an almost direct quotation of Leavis. “I would like to get rid of the preoccupation with productivity, with material standards, with hygiene and technology and progress. I would like human beings to stop worshipping the machine.” Material improvements may make living easier, but they do not make a life more fully human. “I will ask you both the question that Dr. Leavis asks,” Harping challenges Potts and Sir Edward. “Who will assert that the average member of modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvelous art and skills and vital intelligence?”
“Who will assert what?” Potts heatedly responds.
I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant…? They have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough—one that they can work with and live by beyond the level of the Stone Age.
Material standards of living are an essential part of human inquiry. It is only because they seek to better their material conditions that people have created a world that can sustain such intellectual elites as Harping himself. Science does produce bombs, but technological progress also gives people the opportunity to sharpen their talents and to express themselves. Harping’s scorn for the allegedly trivial entertainments of modern man is actually a form of Puritanism, a contempt for people who enjoy themselves in ways that he considers unimportant, and his pretended respect for primitive cultures are all a sham, designed to distract people from his basically reactionary outlook. “Indeed, in a heady moment, he says that modern man is less fully human, on the average, than the poignantly surviving primitive peoples. Very moving! Hitler used to say it, too. ‘Blood and Soil.’ But do the great works of man come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia? Of course not. Dr. Harping lectures on none of these.” The great literary works Harping teaches to his students are the works of cultures like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and Elizabethan England, which were the most technologically advanced cultures of their day—places where standards of living were relatively high, and where curious intellectuals were cracking nature’s secrets at the same time that they were producing great new works of art. And in those eras, the average Greek, Florentine, or Englishman was entertained by trivial pastimes just as in the modern day. “Those people saw life as one, the whole of intellectual life—numbers and pictures, the lever and The Iliad, the shapes of atoms and the great plays and the Socratic dialogues.” Harping silenced, the dialogue concludes with a poem on the unity of nature and of the artistic and scientific ways of interpreting it.
Snow did not hear the program when it aired, but read the script Bronowski sent in December. He was delighted, and considered it “gallant” and “generous.” It was, be believed, only a matter of chance that Bronowski himself had not been the focal point of the controversy. He urged Bronowski to publish it as quickly as possible, but Bronowski had trouble finding a journal willing to print it. It was finally accepted by The Nation in December, 1963, shortly before he was scheduled to depart for permanent residence at the Salk Institute.
In the meantime, Snow started work on a response to Leavis, published finally as “A Second Look” in the Times Literary Supplement in October of 1963. It was a hard-hitting refutation that punctured Leavis’ claims to “higher” wisdom in terms markedly similar to those Bronowski had used in the dialogue. The whole dispute, Snow recognized, was not a clash of literature and science at all, but a clash between different attitudes toward modernity itself. Literary scholars were by no means unanimous in their anti-rationalist hostility to the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, but in general they “represent, vocalise, and to some extent shape and predict the mood of the non-scientific culture.” And this culture shared a wildly unrealistic attitude toward pre-industrial society. A passing acquaintance with the actual historical standards of living—the life expectancy, the illiteracy, disease, and poverty—must demolish such attitudes. “No one should feel it seriously possible to talk about a pre-industrial Eden, from which our ancestors were, by the wicked machinations of applied science, brutally expelled.” And yet literary intellectuals continued to enjoy and to teach this illusion, thus leading to an indefensible hesitancy to harness the power of science to alleviate suffering in the world beyond the Western democracies.
The dispute over modernity that gave rise to “The Two Cultures” began, of course, in the Industrial Revolution itself, when Romantic writers like Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe led a reaction against the rational and systematic philosophy—as well as the technological progress—of the Enlightenment. That reaction had been carried forward into the literary culture in the works of D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and others. In one especially effective passage, Snow illustrated the brutal reality beneath romanticism by drawing from Lawrence, Leavis’ favorite writer. In a commentary on Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast, Lawrence defended the flogging of a seaman which Dana, firmly rooted in Enlightenment rationality, recalled with indignation. For Lawrence, Dana’s disgust revealed a failure to appreciate the spiritual value of the master-servant relationship, which, “like love,” is “essentially a polarized flow…a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium.” But for Snow, Lawrence’s attitude was a disgusting indulgence by a comfortable onlooker who did not feel the wrong end of the whip. “That illusion is open only to those who have climbed one step up and are hanging on by their fingernails.” Lawrence’s, and Leavis’, lyrical view of a social hierarchy based on force and servitude was the ultimate expression of anti-rationalism, the same anti-rationalism that looked upon poverty as charming and which retarded the progress of both material and spiritual growth.
Much has changed in the half century that has passed since the Snow-Leavis combat, and yet some of the basic themes remain the same. While Snow and Bronowski did not anticipate that the decade that followed would bring the rise of a romantic anti-technological movement on the left, they would not be surprised to see that anti-rationalism survives, or that Leavis’ reactionary attachment to political hierarchy and his romantic vision of a static, allegedly more “spiritual” world still plays an important part in the conservative movement in the United States. Today, these competing visions of the world—what Virginia Postrel not long ago renamed the “dynamic” and “static” attitudes—still contend for the soul of the technological west.
Bronowski, J. 1962. “A Modern Dialogue,” Nature 194(2) (May 19), p. 617.
Bronowski, J.  1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.
Collini, S. ed. 1993. The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow. Cambridge University Press.
Leavis, F.R. 1963. Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow. New York: Pantheon Books.
Snow, C.P. 1960. Book review, Scientific American, (Sept.) pp. 249-256.
Letter from C.P. Snow to Jacob Bronowski, Dec. 10, 1962, and Letter from Jacob Bronowski to C.P. Snow, Jan. 6, 1964, C.P. Snow Papers, Harry Ransom Research Center, UT Austin.
Snow, C.P. 1970. “The Case of Leavis And The Serious Case,” The Times Literary Supplement, July 9.
Thule, J. 1964. C.P. Snow. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
Update (Nov. 12, 2011): Robert Bud cites this blog post in this article; I should add that a 1999 interview with me, Francis Crick himself confirmed that he was "Potts."