Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, July 17, 2014

my course on the "two cultures"

FOTB (Friends Of This Blog), I have a request for you. This fall I’m teaching a first-year seminar for incoming Honors College students, and our topic is the Two Cultures of the sciences and the humanities. We’ll begin by exploring the lecture by C. P. Snow that kicked off the whole debate — or rather, highlighted and intensified a debate had already been going on for some time — and the key responses Snow generated (F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, Loren Eiseley). We’ll also read the too-neglected book that raised many of the same issues in more forceful ways, and a few years before Snow, Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values.

Then we’ll go back to try to understand the history of the controversy before moving forward to consider the forms it is taking today. Most of the essays I’ll assign may be found by checking out the “twocultures” tag of my Pinboard bookmarks, but we’ll also be taking a detour into science/religion issues by considering Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria and some of the responses to it.

What other readings should I consider? I am a bit concerned that I am presenting this whole debate as one conducted by white Western men — Are there ways of approaching these questions by women or people from other parts of the world that might put the issues in a different light? Please make your recommendations in the comments below or on Twitter.



  • Do you know the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley? I've been reading her this summer, and she has an interesting critique of the non-overlapping-magisteria argument that is making me rethink my position on that. Her Gifford Lectures are here, for free, both as video files and .pdfs: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/gifford/about/2012-giff/

    IIRC, her critique has to do with the fact that it's hard to fully separate facts and interpretations, so that a division of labor where science handles "facts" and we handle "interpretations" gets dicey.

    I also commend her whole theological project and "overall...thingness," as Wooster said of Jeeves.

    I need to reread those lectures anyway for a piece I'm doing, so I will try to comment again within the next few days on which one might be most helpful. You can't dump the whole thing on first-years. But you might want to go looking around yourself.

  • For a wonderful book, I'd go with Barbara Herrnstein-Smith's Natural Reflections. Best book on S-R I've ever read and it's one I recommend endlessly. I can recommend chapters as well.

    I like Dan Sarewitz's 'Lies We Must Live With' as well. It's a very short essay that's more science, religion and democracy rather than S-R strictly. But I found it thought-provoking.

    Could also be interesting to explore other aspects of "science" as well (see you're doing that already). A few dimensions that could be interesting: feminist critiques of science, science in international development, relationship between science and technology, regulatory science.

    For feminism, Londa S.'s 'Has Feminism Changed Science' is great. The chapters on biology and medicine are especially instructive. Would have to look up references for science and development. The reason that's interesting is that those scientists tend to critique the idea of "science as truth." For them, science is mostly a tool to help lessen human suffering.

    For technology angle, my students really liked Chapter 7 of Nathan Rosenber's 'Inside the Black Box.' I have a PDF of that if you want.

    In general, I think it could be helpful to not only critique or analyze what we mean when we say science v. religion, but also the term "science" itself. "Science" is a lot more complicated than you think it is. That's where some of the research on regulatory science can be illuminating. If you want to go down that route, I would recommend Sheila Jasanoff. Some of her writing can be dense, however.

    I'll pass on other recommendations as I think of them. It might help if you put up the syllabus.

  • For feminist perspectives you might consider investigating work by Sandra Harding, Helen Longino, and Kathleen Okruhlik.

    You also might get some ideas from this series of podcasts that the CBC did about five years ago on "How to Think About Science":


    What came to mind initially as I read your post was Bruno Latour's 1993 book 'We Have Never Been Modern', which is covered in episode 5.

  • Have you read Eva Brann's 'Paradoxes of Education in a Republic' ? It would be interesting to include something that calls into question the validity of the category "humanities" in the first place. (Maybe Bronowski does this?)

  • Marilynne Robinson's essays come immediately to mind. The essay "Darwinism" from _The Death of Adam_, as well as much of _Absence of Mind_. Here is an excerpt that was in the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jun/05/marilynne-robinson-science-religion

  • Thanks for the suggestions, folks! Just a reminder, the course is not in science and religion but rather the sciences and the humanities. Gould's NOMA will be there largely to raise some questions about the limits of science. The science/religion thing would be a whole 'nother course — though I should probably do that one day as well....

  • Many of the suggestions here in the comments are excellent. I'd just add a few more, with an emphasis on shilling for our own New Atlantis material.

    Much of Yuval Levin's 2008 book that we published, Imagining the Future, may be relevant to the course you're planning. Chapter Three deals with the "two cultures" debate explicitly. "The culture of humanist intellectuals, and particularly literary intellectuals, has changed dramatically since Snow's observations, and generally not for the better," Levin writes. "The affair demonstrated above all the utter lack of seriousness in the contemporary humanist engagement with science." (The chapter is adapted from Levin's 2003 Public Interest essay "Snow's Two Cultures — and Ours.")

    Our contributing editor Ray Tallis, who has lived his life at the intersection of science and the humanities — he's a neuroscientist and physician and novelist and poet — has addressed the "two cultures" debate and broader questions about science and the humanities in several of his books, including Newton's Sleep: Two Cultures and Two Kingdoms and a short essay in the slim collection From Two Cultures to No Culture.

    Leon Kass's Jefferson Lecture, published in the first issue of National Affairs as "Looking for an Honest Man," offers a reflection on science and the humanities from his own personal experience: "Although formally trained in medicine and biochemistry — fields in which I no longer teach or practice — I have been engaged with liberal education for nearly forty years, teaching philosophical and literary texts as an untrained amateur, practicing the humanities without a license."

    I'm sure you already have in mind the Sokal hoax and maybe some of the essays that have flowed from the recent "scientism" debates (including, in our own pages, essays by Austin Hughes and Roger Scruton).

    You will not be surprised to hear that Ari suggests two essays from Walker Percy's Message in a Bottle ("The Loss of the Creature" and "Culture: The Antinomy of the Scientific Method"). And Brendan thinks there are several sections of The Man without Qualities that might be helpful.

  • This sounds like it will be a fascinating course, Alan. For what it’s worth, I think by far the best book on the two cultures controversy itself is Guy Ortolano's, _The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain_. You can find plenty of reviews online, including an insightful one by Peter Mandler (H-Net, I think). The book is particularly good at illuminating the cultural politics of that particular moment. As you suggest in your original post, the key issues in the two cultures controversy had long been debated. So why did such an acrimonious controversy erupt suddenly in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s? Ortolano is really good on this question, and he shows how--in the British context at least--the debate was about much more than just science vs. the humanities. It provided an opportunity for anxious postwar Brits to hash out other issues, such as the trajectory of English social history, what form of liberalism to favor, the nature of British decline and what to do about it, and so forth. Full disclosure: I know Ortolano, and I also know that several years ago he taught a course at Washington University on “Science, Religion, and the Humanities since Darwin.” You might be able to find the syllabus online. If not, I’m sure Guy would be happy to share it with you. He’s a good egg.

    Mandler, of course, is also a heavy hitter in this area of cultural and intellectual history. He has an essay forthcoming on the two cultures, though his website doesn’t say where it will appear.

    Best of luck designing and teaching the course!

  • Snow's "Science and Government" is also helpful for framing his motivations in discussing "The Two Cultures". He talks about how Churchill's wartime cabinet was misled by a single minister with scientific training who botched the statistical analysis of bombing strategies, leading to more casualties for both the RAF and German civilians. Snow basically thought that humanists should understand some science so that they would not be misled by intimidating scientists wielding equations (and computers, today). This is also incorporated somewhat in Snow's Strangers and Brothers series.

  • Three suggestions from a historian of science:

    First, for excellent supplements to Ortolano's 20th century history, read Roy Porter on "The Two Cultures Revisited" in boundary 2 (1996) and Graham Burnett on "The View From the Bridge" in Daedalus (1996).

    Second, the Huxley/Arnold debate drew much of its force from debates on the Continent. To oversimplify this enormously, Comte's Positivism inspired Buckle's criticism of traditional history, which in turn provoked a rejoinder by Droysen and Dilthey in Germany—thus the origin of the methodological division between Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften. Further complicating the story is the fact that both Huxley and Arnold (and Victorian counterparts like Tyndall and Lewes) were fans of German popular scholarship—Huxley of the essays of du Bois-Reymond and Helmholtz, and Arnold of critics like Heine—all of whom drew their inspiration from French models like Sainte-Beuve. (For this story, see Ian Hesketh's biography of Henry Thomas Buckle, my biography of Emil du Bois-Reymond, and the enormous literature on the popularization of science in the 19th century.)

    Finally, the Two Cultures is too simple an analysis. The idea of culture engendered several debates in the 19th century: the debate between traditional and cultural history, for example (see Roger Chickering's biography of Karl Lamprecht), or the debate between French and German versions of the idea (see Isaiah Berlin), or the debate over whether culture deserved its own field of study—thus the rise of the human or social sciences (see Roger Smith's Norton History).

    Just as you realized that there was more to Snow's lecture than most readers assume, the basic plan of Bronowski's "Ascent of Man" was prefigured in du Bois-Reymond's essay "Science and Civilization" (see ch. 10 of my biography). Moreover, the debates over the limits of rationality are very old, as you know from Popkin's history of skepticism.

    If you, or anyone else, wants to discuss all this, please do so. I'm working on a book on Buckle, Taine, and du Bois-Reymond's historiography.

  • Martin Green's "Science and the Shabby Curate of Poetry" (Norton 1965) is still worth a look.

  • Again, a little late in the game, but Wendell Berry's "Life is a Miracle" is one of my favorite books on the subject. Changed much of how I think really. The passage about the ways that the humanities know things vs. materialist ways of knowing is incredible. King Lear, Job, and 2 Samuel, used to incredible effect over-against the empirical knowledge of the experiment. Not a science vs. religion take either, although that theme does emerge once in a bit. Sorry it is not by a woman or a non-westerner, but that is what came to mind. Excellent book.

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