C.P.Snow’s Two Cultures & the Scientific Revolution revisited

Finding a copy of the June 1959 issue of Encounter Encounter June 1959 cover 001among a pile of papers at Jot HQ your Jotter  alighted on the first part of the Rede Lecture which novelist and government scientist C. P. Snow had delivered in Cambridge two weeks earlier. Entitled ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’, it was to unleash the most momentous cultural debate of the early sixties when F. R. Leavis delivered his riposte in the form of the Richmond Lecture in 1962.

Snow’s thesis in 1959—that the ‘two cultures’ of science on one hand and the ‘traditional’ culture of the humanities (though Snow doesn’t actually use this term) on the other don’t engage with one another seems a reasonable theory based on demonstrable facts. Snow’s famous example of this schism —that a literary critic  would not be able to define the Second Law of Thermodynamics—is surely just as true in 2018 as it was in 1959—while his contention that  a scientist would possibly have read Shakespeare or Dickens, or know the significance of Eliot and Yeats—is surely also true today. Snow’s main point– that though a scientist would be optimistic about the future based on their knowledge of the physical world, a spokesman for the traditional culture would not share this optimism, simply because they knew nothing of science and indeed were wary or even frightened of its destructive potential must also be equally true in 2018. Snow scores well by showing that non-scientists (he cites poets) often show this ignorance by their misuse of scientific terms in their work. This cultural divide is still  more pronounced in England (Snow doesn’t use the terms Britain or UK as we tend to do nowadays), where early specialisation is encouraged in students, than in it is in the USA or Europe, where a much broader curriculum is taught.

How could any reasonable commentator deny that all of this is true? But of course we are not dealing with a reasonable person. We are talking about F. R. Leavis—a man almost totally ignorant of science and technology , whose mission was to elevate the study of English Literature, and particularly a narrow group of ‘ life-enhancing ‘ writers, above all the other established disciplines in the humanities. Was Leavis one of those ‘ intellectuals ‘ described by Snow who gave

‘…a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature ….’

Moreover, according to Snow:

‘Except for those involved in the scientific culture, the western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand, the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites’

Whether Leavis saw himself as an ‘intellectual ‘is not the point. To Snow he was a representative of those involved in the teaching of the humanities. Snow went on to attack these ‘Luddites‘ by identifying some of their heroes—people like William Morris and D. H. Lawrence, among others, who he saw as opposed to the notion of progress.

‘Almost everywhere intellectual persons did not comprehend what was happening. Certainly the writers didn’t. Many shuddered away, as though the right course for a man of feeling was to contract out; some, like Ruskin and William Morris and Thoreau and Emerson and Lawrence, tried various kinds of fancies which were not in effect more than screams of horror.’

This was doubtless too much for Leavis. ‘Various kinds of fancies’ indeed!  And D.H.Lawrence was a hero. If Snow had attacked George Sturt it would have been even worse—for Sturt, author of Change in the Village was a pivotal figure in the development of Leavis’s ideas. To him and to his henchman Denys Thompson Sturt was a sort of prophet.

Snow then proceeds to his main theme—that ‘industrialisation is the only hope of the poor’ and that those ‘intellectuals‘ who oppose it are invariably doing so from the relative comfort of their ivory tower. To illustrate his point he recalled the examples of his grandfather, who was ‘highly intelligent’, and devoted to lifelong learning, but who never went beyond the post of maintenance foreman in a tramway depot. But, Snow notes, his father achieved more than his grandfather, who Snow supposes was an agricultural labourer in the eighteenth century.

‘ It was no fun being an agricultural labourer in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, in the time that we, snobs that we are, think of only as the time of the Enlightenment and Jane Austen.’

In the eyes of Leavis here this was this jumped-up minor Government scientist and self-styled novelist who didn’t even know that his beloved Jane was a product of Regency England rather than the Enlightenment.

In his riposte three years later Leavis used every available ad hominem insult in his attempt to degrade the arguments put forward by Snow. Today, only the fiercest Leavisite would dare defend these attacks, and thankfully the theories that made Leavis such a literary celebrity are so opposed to the zeitgeist  in this age of technology and diversity that few of his adherents dare show their faces— which makes it all the more perplexing that a pocket of them still carry the flame as members of the Leavis Society. [R.M.Healey]


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