Two or More Cultures?

My earlier entry on Clarification and Definition is one of many which reflect my long standing interest in philosophy, particularly how my own major discipline, experimental psychology, has been influenced by ideas of Western philosophy.

Now that I am retired and have no laboratory to retreat to and no white-coated laboratory associates to hang out with, I spend much of my time writing about issues which have always interested me, yet which are often broader than those dealt with in a research setting. These interests stretch over a wide range: art, theatre, music, cultural history, as well as the natural and the human and behavioral sciences. I have never been a “one culture” person, as outlined in C. P. Snow’s celebrated BBC Reid Lectures of 1959 on “The Two Cultures,” but like so many others of my generation I combined a strong dominant interest in my profession as well as in aspects of the general culture of which I am a part. I see no conflict between being intensely interested in modern technology and its sister, contemporary science, and retaining a healthy passion for traditional cultural activities and its wondrous artifacts.

Image: Matt Collins, see below for credit

A strong interest in both cultures therefore seems to me to be perfectly compatible with living in the 21st century. One can keep in step with both worlds and accommodate to the extent that is possible with the rapid changes in the world of science and the increasing pace in all aspects of our culture. I often feel like a child in a toy-shop waiting for the toy-maker to bring out more from his presumably messy workshop. The old is being eroded and the face of the new barely distinguishable through the dust of our old demolished Europeanized world. We face not one or two cultures in the future, but a multiverse. It may be something to look forward to for those brave enough to face the choices.*

C. P. Snow, whose novel The Masters was a brilliantly vivid portrait of the life of Oxonian an Cambrian academics and its students before “the Fall” shows how significantly changed we have become since the collapse of Europe. Our universities are in disarray and our vertical culture, too. “Downton Abbey” is down, shabby, and condemned to extinction as are all who lived in it. A terrible culture when looked at through the naked eye, a monster when viewed through critical eyes. Is this the culture which I see before me whose virtues are praised in much of the literature during the rule of the last century? Are we not misguided to hanker after a culture whose greatest achievements for three hundred years was nationalism and colonialism and endless wars? Undoubtedly Science, Literature and the Arts emerged in splendour out of this troubled sea – like a Botticellian Venus — but did so with heavy price.

We need a better understanding of ourselves and our world to get to the other side of this great divide between our past and our future. Can we do so by learning from past errors? I evidently think so. It involves clarification, analysis and criticism and this in turn requires us to hanker after brave new worlds, not dilapidated chintz. One cannot predict visions of the future: children’s comics do so but combine fascinating possibilities with monstrous visions of barely imaginable mayhem. The comics for adults only increase the mayhem but also reveal the vivid blend of the imaginable with the real. We are remarkably good at creating monsters, at depicting the faces of evil — but we also have an aptitude for implying what is wholesome, what should be selected from all the visions we have created of the future. We define future possibilities, as Hieronymous Bosch, Jules Verne, or Mary Shelley did, but we also clarify which of these options are desirable and achievable. That is the job we will always have to do; it is the price of being creative and inventive.

* These lectures were later published in book form under the title The Two Cultures and a few years later in 1963 in revised form as A Second Look: An Expanded Version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1963).

**The image of C. P. Snow atop a bridge between the cultures is from a 2009 Scientific American article, An Update on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”, by Lawrence M. Krauss.