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The Two Cultures is the title of the first part of an influential 1959 Rede Lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow. Its thesis was that "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into the titular two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.
The talk was delivered 7 May 1959 in the Senate House, Cambridge, and subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. The lecture and book expanded upon an article by Snow published in the New Statesman of 6 October 1956, also entitled The Two Cultures. Published in book form, Snow's lecture was widely read and discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, leading him to write a 1963 follow-up, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.
Snow's position can be summed up by an often-repeated part of the essay:
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 the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. 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.
In 2008, The Times Literary Supplement included The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in its list of the 100 books that most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War.
Snow's Rede Lecture condemned the British educational system as having, since the Victorian era, over-rewarded the humanities (especially Latin and Greek) at the expense of scientific and engineering education, despite such achievements having been so decisive in winning the Second World War for the Allies. This in practice deprived British elites (in politics, administration, and industry) of adequate preparation to manage the modern scientific world. By contrast, Snow said, German and American schools sought to prepare their citizens equally in the sciences and humanities, and better scientific teaching enabled these countries' rulers to compete more effectively in a scientific age. Later discussion of The Two Cultures tended to obscure Snow's initial focus on differences between British systems (of both schooling and social class) and those of competing countries.
The term two cultures has become a shorthand in certain academic circles for differences between two attitudes;
The phrase has lived on as a vague popular shorthand for the rift—a matter of incomprehension tinged with hostility—that has grown up between scientists and literary intellectuals in the modern world.
Snow himself, in his reconsideration, backed off some way from his dichotomized declarations. In his 1963 book he talked more optimistically about the potential of a mediating third culture[disambiguation needed]. This concept was later picked up in Brockman, John (1995), The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. Introducing the reprinted The Two Cultures, 1993, Stefan Collini has argued that the passage of time has done much to reduce the cultural divide Snow noticed; but has not removed it entirely.
The literary critic F. R. Leavis was critical of this work, calling Snow a "public relations man" for the scientific establishment in an essay published in The Spectator, which was widely decried in the British press.
Gould, Stephen Jay (2003), The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox provides a different perspective. Assuming the dialectical interpretation, it argues that Snow's concept of "two cultures" is not only off the mark, it is a damaging and short-sighted viewpoint; and that it has perhaps led to decades of unnecessary fence-building.
[Snow] diagnosed the loss of a common culture and the emergence of two distinct cultures: those represented by scientists on the one hand and those Snow termed 'literary intellectuals' on the other. If the former are in favour of social reform and progress through science, technology and industry, then intellectuals are what Snow terms 'natural Luddites' in their understanding of and sympathy for advanced industrial society. In Mill's terms, the division is between Benthamites and Coleridgeans.—Simon Critchley
That is, Critchley argues that what Snow said represents a resurfacing of a discussion current in the mid-nineteenth century. Critchley describes the Leavis contribution to the making of a controversy as 'a vicious ad hominem attack'; going on to describe the debate as a familiar clash in English cultural history citing also T. H. Huxley and Matthew Arnold.
Contrasting scientific and humanistic knowledge is a repetition of the Methodenstreit of 1890 German universities. In the social sciences it is also commonly proposed as the quarrel of positivism versus interpretivism.