C.P. Snow Post # 3: In Which the Literary Intellectuals Become the Bad Guys

By Chris Mooney | April 28, 2009 10:51 am

two-cultures.jpg[This is the third in a series of posts written in anticipation of the May 9 "Two Cultures" conference at the New York Academy of Sciences, which we helped organize.]

Let me apologize for not having done another Snow post since last Tuesday. I did, of course, publish my weekly Science Progress piece on the Snow vs. Leavis battle, and did a Bloggingheads session about Snow with D. Graham Burnett–but I also left us hanging on around p. 12 of the lecture itself. This post is to redress that lapse and get us back on schedule.

I’m only going to do one more post about the first section of the lecture; we also have to deal with sections 2 and 3 this week, which I’ll probably do on Weds and Thurs. But note how this is the point in the analysis where the distinction Snow is making really becomes invidious; where we learn that Snow, far from being even-handed, really sees the literary intellectuals as the bad guys.

This is the stuff that made F.R. Leavis open a can of Whup-Ass.

Oh, sure, Snow fully admits the scientists are “self-impoverished” because they don’t read enough Dickens. They’re not perfect. But they’re white as snow (heh) compared with the decadent literary intellectuals:

They are impoverished too–perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture,’ as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if they want to have it, they can’t. It is rather as though, over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group was tone-deaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn’t come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training. (p. 14)

There then follows the insanely famous passage, which I won’t even bother quoting, about how the literary intellectuals, even as they mock scientists for illiteracy, can’t describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Been there, done that.

Snow’s analysis of the literary intellectuals is going to get even harsher from here–but let’s peer back on where we’ve come so far. In our first post, we noticed that Snow stepped to the podium and cast himself as a unique expert on experts, due to his particular life circumstances–because he was a scientifically trained novelist. In our second post, we noted that Snow cleverly (and perhaps ultimately defensibly) redefined the word “culture” so that it wasn’t merely a small set of intellectuals, but all of Britain, that he was worried about.

Now, we find out just how decadent Snow thinks the literary culture is–how a-scientific or even anti-scientific. How clueless. And how much of a tragedy this is, given the problems now facing the world; and how deeply rooted such a culture is in the British educational system. Whew.

Snow has given up his stance of even-handedness; he has performed some rhetorical tricks along the way–but by God, he has also now engaged in a very stunning act of intellectual provocation. He’s essentially said that his whole society is anti-scientific in a tragic way, and that literary intellectuals are fiddling and pipe-smoking, fixated on irrelevancies, while the future comes apace.

So here’s my question: Are we still with Snow at this point, or has he gone too far for our sensibilities? And moreover, if he were pointing the finger today, would it still be at the literary intellectuals–or somewhere else?

Comments (8)

  1. David Bruggeman

    So you won’t be pointing fingers at literary intellectuals next month? I’m a wee bit surprised. If you dodge the two-culture divide as outlined by Snow, the framing of the conference next month under Snow’s rubric doesn’t make so much sense to me.

    While I suspect Snow would point a finger somewhere else these days, I’m not at all sure at whom he would point. This is in part because of my point from an earlier post that literary intellectuals aren’t as influential as they were. I also think that the increased specialization of science makes it possible that the number of folks who couldn’t identify/describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics would include a number of scientists.

  2. In my experience, the literary intellectuals definitely shoulder more of the Two Cultures burden and so Snow is right in a way; I think there was a good reason for him to be slightly biased towards the side of scientists, and we say this without any condescension towards the literary intellectuals (except the post-modernist ones) whose work we admire and respect. I know several scientists who appreciate great literature and poetry but very few literary intellectuals who know the details of even relatively simple science.

    By the way in the blogginheads diavlog, Prof. D. Graham Burnett referred to “usable energy” in the context of the Second Law. The Second Law talks about entropy which is completely different from “usable energy” or “free energy”.

  3. Snow goes a bit overboard.

    However, I have noticed that while it’s completely socially acceptable for a literature professor to say “I can’t do math” than it is for a science professor to say “I can’t write a complete paragraph.” The literature professor might turn around and indicate that this is evidence that writing is more fundamental to intellectual discourse. I would, however, then turn back and point to a comment you made in the “Obama” post about the gulf of science literacy in society at large and how much of a problem it is….

    Scientists — probably Physicists worst of all — suffer from the arrogance of thinking that because they are experts in their field, they are experts at everything. That attitude is part of the problem. But the attitude that basic math and science understanding isn’t part of being educated that goes to the very highest levels of academia is a bigger part of the problem.

  4. Aidan Hailes

    Snow’s flailed helplessly out the window with this one, but it’s not really his fault. Giving this lecture in 1959 means scientific education really was a joke by both the wider “traditional” culture, as well as the literati who were mostly offspring of that culture, with little aptitude or incentive to know about science. A lot of them were quite hopeless. The Cold War changed that, and I don’t think it applies anymore.

    Having just graduated with an English degree, I can only think of one or two professors who seemed truly scientifically inept, while many others were the complete opposite (one worked on UNIX in the 80′s and another was the chair of the Humanities-Computing program that specifically went out of their way to bridge these kinds of gaps). I know I, along with many others in both my generation (Y, or millenials), and the previous one, are scientifically literate, understand and appreciate what science does, how it works and where it is likely taking us. Scienctists like Snow seem to have the viewpoint that practitioners of the Humanities look backwards at all times, and to some extent that’s true. But since post-modernism, the humanities are keenly aware of the massive ramifications science can have on, well, humans, and all their social constructs. While the focus is more on the consequences things like altered media (originally printing press, then radio, then television, now internet) have on society, you have to understand the science to understand the consequences.

    Also interesting to me is the explosion of science fiction following Snow’s lecture. And that’s a two-way street, with the science informing the literature, and the literature helping to generate a greater understanding (or at least imagining) of the science. I know my parents became scientifically imbued because of the original Star Trek, and I was driven to understand it by The Next Generation.

    I don’t think he’d be pointing his finger at the literary elite any more, he might find them allies compared to the religious few who do more to harm the common-place understanding of science.

  5. Jon

    If he were pointing the finger today, would it still be at the literary intellectuals–or somewhere else?

    Tou probably know my theory by now, Chris. At a certain point, the conservatives called out what they felt to be a “liberal verbalist elite” who included all sorts of “statist” people in the professions, who were out to grow government, including scientists and educators.

    These arguments and attitudes were kind of handed down, and their intellectual underpinnings half forgotten, but the institutions that they built using these manifestos are still with us, and the manifestos still live on, repeated on cable news, in George Will columns, and in think tank activities. So conservatives really built their own “verbalist elite.”

    The conservatives around now aren’t really “literary intellectuals.” But they repeat their forbearers ideas in the manner of the old Keynes quote:

    The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

    Also part of the problem as well is that the political and media establishment people aren’t very empirical either, so they can get a bit like the blind leading the blind sometimes, and they can be insufferably trivial.

    So anyway, I think he would point the biggest finger at infotainment and the managers who are running that. But the literary intellectuals aren’t out of the picture either. Some of them are in the past, and some of them, perhaps, have been sleeping on the job in the present.

  6. Jon

    A couple more things on the conservative movement and populism. It’s interesting to follow Bush’s old speechwriters David Frum and Michael Gerson on this. Here’s Sam Tanenhaus in the NYT:

    “The issues that have provided conservatives with victories in the past — particularly welfare and crime — have been rendered irrelevant by success,” Michael Gerson, the Bush speechwriter turned columnist, wrote last week. “The issues of the moment — income stagnation, climate disruption, massive demographic shifts and health care access — seem strange, unexplored land for many in the movement.”

    In fact these “issues of the moment” have been with us for years now, decades in some instances, but until recently they were either ignored by conservatives or dismissed as the hobby-horses of alarmist liberals or entrenched “special interests.”

    The key word in Mr. Gerson’s analysis is “movement,” a term more applicable to moral or spiritual crusades than to the practical matters of governance, particularly governance in a two-party system, where success almost invariably requires compromise, consensus and a mind open to all manner of workable solutions.

    These have not been, historically, the strength of “movement conservatives,” who prefer arguments built on first principles often expressed in supercharged rhetoric. “Conservatives seem to have a genius for winning the all-important semantic battles,” the policy thinker and journalist Richard N. Goodwin wrote in 1967.

    I’ve heard Gerson say in other occasions that they “need to find a new populism.” But their populism has been an anti-intellectual populism. Someone actually wrote a paper on this:

    “Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency: A Republican Populism”


    Their kind of populism doesn’t do science, at least not very well. And since their institutional infrastructure is focused on defeating liberals, and not on “all manner of workable [government] solutions,” the penalties for overlooking science, for them, can appear not very high.

  7. Jon

    Anyway, I know I keep harping on it, but there is just so much packed into this Sam Tanenhaus talk with its references to a “Ceasarist presidency”:


    I think he elevates Nixon too much, but other than that, it’s highly recommended listen for your iPod some time…

  8. Jon

    Notice toward the end of the talk where Tanenhaus practically breaks into a chuckle when he talks about references in some of the old conservatives writing about a class of “intellectuals” having power in the American executive. And remember, he’s giving a talk at the American Enterprise Institute, the supposed powerhouse of respectable conservative thought.

    Here is David Frum recently talking about the intellectual state of the conservative infrastructure:

    Among those I would have picked out in say 1990 as likely to become the most important conservative intellectuals of the year 2010, some have shifted left (Fareed Zakaria, Brink Lindsey, Mark Lilla), some have turned away from public policy to history (Anne Applebaum, Jay Winick, Richard Brookhiser), and many others have drifted out of political life altogether, to business or academia.

    As a result, much of what passes for intellectual life on the right is a product for local consumption only, like those Argentine-made television sets that could exist only behind the old Peronist tariff walls.

    It’s no wonder. Apparently, the people with the independent analysis and ideas were treated terribly. The Bush presidency preferred “hacks”, who could help him consolidate and amass power, to “wonks,” who could help him steer the ship of state responsibly. Even the Bush-era bureaucratic “intellectuals” had to be an extension of the anti-intellectual, populist presidency.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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