The story of two cultures
If we abide by the casual definition of culture, it would be explained as an umbrella term that covers the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Often tacit and not expressly defined, this set of customs and beliefs has been however given a broader meaning in recent years. Industry’s evolution has given rise to a variety of terms such as corporate, organizational, innovative, customer-focused, and many more, the meaning of which does not exclusively adhere to the general civilization values. Hard sciences and the humanities, too, have oftentimes been described as cultures in their own right – generally perceived as being disconnected from each other due to their assumed profound differences. We devote this Insight to intellectually connecting once more the cultures of the hard sciences and the humanities, after the distinctive differences between them were drawn.
Historically, the state of “disconnection” we’re touching on here did not emerge until the recent centuries. No clear borderlines had been drawn, originally, between art, philosophy, science and technology. Even if a number of reflective minds did consider contrasts between some disciplines of knowledge, William Blake being one of the most significant authors drawing a distinction between science and art, those still connecting cultures were generally perceived as one.
A clear divide started to appear in the 17th century during the “the scientific revolution”, between what would be regarded, from then onwards, as the two pre-eminent fields of knowledge: the “sciences” on one side, and the “humanities”, including the arts, on the other. But even at this point, the threat was still not necessarily to be identified as an incapacity to connect across a divide separating the cultures. Insofar a more general cultural worry was expressed. It was that calculation and measurement generally might be displacing cultivation and compassion. As a result, in many quarters, the overriding issue was the presumed threat which secular knowledge of all kinds posed to religious belief and practical piety.
That situation faced a significant turn in 1959. Over 60 years ago and long after the scientific revolution, Charles Percy Snow, an English novelist and physical chemist, has climbed the podium of the Senate House, Cambridge, delivering one of the most passionate and controversial speech distinguishing the world of science and art in a talk called “The Two Cultures”. “I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups.”, he stated at the very beginning of his speech. In the hours that followed, C.P. Snow had planted a concept and controversy that was bound to endure for years and decades to come, continuing to preoccupy and provoke the thoughts of contemporary authors.
The Two Cultures were identified by Snow as the one consisting of the literary intellectuals, and another of the natural scientists, between whom he was finding a deep distance, incomprehension and even antagonistic feelings:
“Literary intellectuals at one pole-at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension – sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike. But most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”
Beyond ferociously demonstrating their rivalry and miscomprehension, Snow was also making a powerful case of claimed disconnection of cultures and prompted the education to be re-arranged in a way to ensure people’s intellectual “bilingualism” in those two worlds – he promoted connecting cultures, so they can profit from one another.
« This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss, and I repeat that it is false to imagine that those three considerations are dearly separable. »
Over the time that passed from this fierce speech, it has been cleared out that the very reason was not to assert the superiority of any culture over another. There was also no doubt that the map of disciplines in an emerging economy and the future world would become far more complex and multidimensional than only two cultures. The whole body of human knowledge has branched and sprawled out into a kaleidoscope of academic and professional fields, with interactions consistently happening between them all. The contours of Snow’s two cultures have become to gradually lose the high definition they had been at first attributed – being blended into hundreds, if not a dozen varied cultures. But in some sense, the distinctive thought pattern of the speech has persevered over the years and in some dimensions, resonates until today.
The misconnection of cultures often seems to endure between the disciplines which mainly hinge on logical thinking and practicality, and those which above all seek to convey meaning and expression. And although the controversy of the 1959 Snow’s lecture and many criticisms it has rendered during the time, it is still important to see the question of transversal thinking and connecting cultures any less urgent or important than back then.
The question of the usability of art cultures in the sciences and vice versa remains an important voice of the century. At Vadviam, we strive to encourage connecting cultures of arts and science – the growth of the intellectual equivalent of bilingualism – and capacity not only to exercise the language for the sake of its expertise, but also to attend, learn from, and contribute to wider cultural conversations.