Saturday, May 16, 2009

[Yasmin_discussions] One two Three More Cultures


I noted alan blackwells comment that Cambridge U isnt engaged in the
anniversary= and that much
of the 'heat' at the time had to do with the nature of Leavi's
response to Snow's essay ( and attack on Snow's
standing as a literary author).

And also points out that a lot of Snow's essay has to do not so much
with the two cultures debate, but
a plea for a scientifically educated political class, as one way to
deal with the problems of development in
third world countries.

Snow's plea reflects a technoscientific optimism of scientists at that
time that 'scientific management'
of the world would bring about world peace, justice in economic
development etc ( although we find this
also in the enthusiasts claim for the internet as a democratising and
force for human justice).

Yesterday I was at Futuresonic in Manchester in a session for the
environment 2.0 workshop, the
session was on Mass Observation and Citizen science. Brian Wynne ( who
works in sociology and
philosophy of science). He was discussing the public controversies
around genetically modified food,
climate change etc, and one of the questions came up is that often we
find the argument that
the science is 'pure' but its when you get into the political or
economic area that things get corrupted.
Indeed the very words 'pure science' embed a cultural ideology in
science between pure science
to applied science to non-science or personally motivated political
and economic reasoning.

Sundar Sarukkai in his Science and the Ethics of Curiosity text
attacks strongly this idea of
pure science (based on un biased curiosity), and points out that this
idea of pure curiosity is very
much of western judeo christian tradition ( and that curiosity itself
has evolved from a vice to
a virtue between saint augustine and today).

One way of challenging Snow's reliance on a 'trustworthy and pure
science' versus the messy humanities
is Roy Ascotts challenge "ask not what the sciences can do for the
arts, ask what the arts can do for the

Indeed compared to 1950 one could almost argue that it is science that
is in trouble today as well
as the humanities ( after all our banking and stock market systems
have been developed using
the best scientists and engineers of our time !! some of my best
astrophysics colleagues became
"rocket scientists" on wall street )

Sundar makes a plea for making explicit the ethical grounding of pure
science, and redirecting
our curiosity to reflect an overt ethical grounding. I suspect that he
and Snow would have had
a good argument


As a person doing work between the cultures of art and science in the
University of Cambridge, Snow's characterisation of my own University
is naturally interesting to me.

I should say that within Cambridge, there appears to be little
interest in revisiting the controversy, and I've seen no mention of
the anniversary locally despite this being the birthplace of the term.
There is still substantial pain around Leavis's legacy in our English
faculty, and it is arguably Leavis's intemperate response to Snow's
public talk that made the Two Cultures such big news.

As I understand it, the greatest point of contention was the disdain
shown by Leavis for Snow's popular novels. Leavis believed that Snow
had overestimated his own abilities as an artist, and that the rest of
his argument foundered on this point.

Since then, the popular interpretation of the debate has been that
Snow was arguing for public life in England to take better account of
scientific knowledge. However, it was really the claim of a scientist
to artistic authority that seems to have been problematic, not the
other way around.

Alan Blackwell
Reader in Interdisciplinary Design, University of Cambridge
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