[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?