Annual Report Finds Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Remains Largely White, Male
Harvard Square Celebrates Oktoberfest
Harvard Corporation Members Donated Big to Democrats in 2020 Elections
City Council Candidates Propose Strategies for Supporting Low-Income Residents at Virtual Forum
FAS Dean Gay Hopes to Update Affiliates on Ethnic Studies Search by Semester’s End
Here are three commentaries on the relation of science to the humanities. All are different; none supports the thesis of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution."
F. R. Leavis' Richmond Lecture, delivered in the spring of 1962, is perhaps the least important of the three critiques. Though Leavis claims in his preface "no personal animus" against Snow, his criticism is too emotional, too insulting to be anything but a personal attack. "The Two Cultures exhibits an utter lack of distinction, and an embarrassing vulgarity of style...if his lecture has any value...it is a document for the study of cliche." Such statements are unmistakable in their tone, their emphasis, their unnecessary sharpness. They make interesting reading, but convince no one. His motives remain highly suspicious.
Michael Yudkin, a Harkness Fellow now in Lowell House, was a student at Cambridge when he wrote his Essay on Snow. It remains on of the finest critiques of the Two-Culture thesis produced so far; unfortunately, in demolishing Snow, Yudkin falls to suggest satisfactory alternatives to a dilemma which all observers agree is both real and critical.
Yudkin finds fault with Snow for his method of argument by anecdote, for his vague definition of crucial terms, and for his apparent equation of scientific knowledge with artistic experience. This latter is in reference to the now-famous passage where Snow likens an understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the experience of reading a Shakespeare play.
Huxley's approach, while not directed toward the Two Cultures, has relevance to the problem. His book discusses the differences between science and literature, particularly the aims and subject matter of each. He is unquestionably qualified to carry on such a discussion, and his book is marked by flashes of real brilliance--as well as dismal organization.
It is interesting to observe that, in the five years since Snow gave the Rede Lecture, no one has produced a prolonged discussion on the same theme. Probably this failure reflects both the essential vagueness of the problem, and the immense difficulties involved in any attempted solution. For what Snow is getting at, the breakdown of communication among specialists, is a situation which exists in every aspect of academic life, and forms a major problem of universities today. It certainly extends beyond the simple scientist-humanist dichotomy.
Yet this particular dichotomy is in some respects the most interesting, partly for its social relevance, and partly because it is the best example of the difficulties encountered when two entirely different disciplines meet, or try to meet.
If it is agreed that scientists and non-scientists should communicate, one must determine at what level this communication should take place. Snow would like to see conversations on a rather high plane; he would like, for instance, to have seen the overthrow of parity discussed at Cambridge High Tables. His example is unfortunate. Parity is a most sophisticated concept, and full understanding of it requires considerable grounding in physics and mathematics. As Yudkin points out, such training would be worthless for the average non-scientist, and for many scientists working outside the field of atomic physics.
But Yudkin is probably wrong in his assertion that the only value of science to non-scientists is an understanding of the scientific method. In the first place, the method varies enormously with the discipline and the specific problem; in the second, its general approach so pervades our lives that few men grow up ignorant of its essential methodology.
Yudkin asserts that specific concepts, such as mass or acceleration are useless to the non-scientist. Such a statement contradicts the most common definition of education, as the explication and understanding of the structure of human knowledge. Without these elementary concepts, it is impossible to have any notion of the scientists' view of the world. This does not mean that every man must rigorously understand the most advanced concepts; that is surely a waste of time. But some kind of general conceptual scheme would seem to be valuable.
Admittedly, it is impossible logically to prove that such knowledge is necessary to the non-scientist. A classics professor may ride an airplane, watch leaves turn color, skid in his car--and have no idea why these things happen. He may not care, and it is hard to show that he needs to care.
One can argue that, in extreme cases, ignorance of science results in proliferation of undesirable folklore explanations of the world. As a general rule, it seems true that what science cannot explain automatically enters the domain of superstition and religion, since both serve as terminal suppositories for the rationally inexplicable. But this is not a strong argument; there have been witchhunts in the most enlightened societies.
Training outside one's special field is useful for communication with others, but what exactly is the value of communication between scientists and non-scientists? Snow hedges, and hints at sociological dangers if communications remain broken. Huxley is more outspoken. He sees in the breach a loss to literature, which in the past has incorporated scientific concepts as they have been developed. It may be that a more scientific poem about nightingales must await a change in the attitudes of the readers as well as the poet; it is a mistake, to believe that such an attitude change does not take place at all. The great advances of Galileo, Newton and Darwin have altered concepts not only in art but in religion and politics as well.
Nor, says Huxley, is the advantage of communication one-sided. Scientists can learn from the humanists, and Huxley has a fine example--the relation of personality to body form. A matter of artistic convention for centuries, science has only recently begun to investigate the relationship.
Huxley is clearly advocating a kind of hybridization of concepts, a fruitful interchange and assimilation of ideas. It requires, on both sides, some solid general education--the kind which could easily be taught in a decent secondary school. The limited communication possible with such a background must be recognized for what it is, but certainly should not be deplored. It can be useful, while somewhat deeper (higher level) communication might not necessarily be more valuable. There does seem to be a point of diminishing returns for a general education program, and we must accept as inevitable the fact that two specialists from different disciplines cannot often carry on an expert discussion in the field of either. Both science and the humanities are expanding explosively; the volume of knowledge in some areas is doubling nearly every decade, and there is really no hope for the non-specialist.
Surely no one would advocate surrendder before this avalanche of information. More than anything else, what must be fought is narrow-mindedness, the unwillingness of specialists to examine and explore different disciplines. It is important to realize that while science and humanism are different, they are not necessarily incompatible or mutually incomprehensible. Half the battle will be won when men are convinced of this fact.
Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.