The Two Cultures

The two cultures: what have we learned so far?

In 1959, an English writer CP Snow instigated a fierce academic debate by arguing that scientists in the UK would benefit from a closer understanding of the work of their colleagues in the humanities, and vice versa. Snow believed that the technological age was dawning and Britain was languishing in the past. Not enough scientists were being trained.

This became known as the Two Cultures debate. To place this into a broader context, in 1959, the Russians were exploring space, the microchip had been invented in the US and China was in the second year of its ill-fated Great Leap Forward. The academic journal Technology and Culture was published for the first time. In October of that year, a ground-breaking TV series called the Twilight Zone launched on the CBS network in the US (it wasn’t the first time that science fiction was televised but it was the first time that stories about the paranormal appeared. Modern viewers will be more familiar with the X-Files).   

In Snow’s mind, literary intellectuals were elitist. A pragmatist, with a foot in both camps, Snow saw failures in the education system. He felt that the brightest children were pushed towards the traditional literary disciplines in Britain. Snow was critical of what he saw as ‘useless knowledge’, much of which in his opinion was bound up with tradition. A predictable backlash came from the literary establishment in the form of F.R. Leavis, a prominent literary critic who used his skills to denigrate Snow.

Snow suffered personally from these attacks on his integrity. While Snow’s intervention did little to bring the two cultures together, it stands as a landmark moment. The Two Cultures debate played out over the ensuing decades.

The division between culture and technology, the two cultures, was not new, however. It is worth considering some precedents.

A similar contest of ideas had played out in the UK in 1882 between the scientist T.H. Huxley, a supporter of the theory of evolution and Matthew Arnold, the son of the great cultural luminary. Although this was a civilised debate, the line of argument was similar. Huxley believed that science should have a higher role in the educational curriculum. Arnold contended that science was useful in its ‘practical application’, but in his view a good education required an understanding of fine literature.

About the same time a distinction was being drawn between technology and culture far away in China.  The circumstances again involved tradition. The tiyong relationship, as it is called, is usually translated as ‘Chinese learning for essence, western learning as method’ (or pragmatic application).  The Opium Wars, beginning in 1842, allowed the western powers to enter China. Some reformers believed that China was in need of modern technology, which could be borrowed or copied from the west. In fact, as it turned out, the west offered more than just technology. In the New Culture Movement that followed in the early 1900s, western culture offered a template for modernisation.

Today the gap between the two cultures still exists in some parts of the academy but there is an increasing recognition of inter-disciplinarity, as well as discussion of the post-human condition, which reflects the co-evolutionary trajectory of humans and machines. As the eminent social scientist Helga Nowotny writes, ‘Never before have we had the technological instruments and the scientific knowledge to see so far back into the past and ahead into the future, nor the techno-scientific capabilities for action.’ (In AI We Trust p. 2)

By the mid-2000s in China, the long-standing division between humanities and the sciences had started to break down. The idea of the integration of technological innovation and cultural creativity became popular. It was a result of convergence. The internet had changed communication practices. Suddenly everything was online, or could be distributed online, so you didn’t have the separation of the factory where things were made by workers and the market where goods were sold. The Chinese government then moved to legitimise the entrepreneurial spirit of start-up culture, which required people with both skill sets, technological and creative.

Many people have added to the division between the arts and sciences, with varying degrees of rhetoric, and it has become more relevant as the humanities loses its impact. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. The biologist EO Wilson believes that the creative process in science and the arts have some similarities, even though the two fields use different approaches. Wilson says:

In works of literature and science alike, any part can be changed, causing a ripple among the other parts, some of which are discarded and new ones added. The surviving fragments are variously joined and separated, and moved about as the story forms. One scenario emerges, then another. The scenarios, whether literary or scientific in nature, compete (p. 275)