The “two cultures” debate, named after C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture and his worry over an intellectual, cultural, and social gap between scientists and humanists, involves many arguments that, though seldom distinguished, are distinguishable. First among these is Snow’s claim that there is in fact a gap between the sciences and the humanities, one not only present but large enough to justify the anthropological claim that science constitutes a culture distinct from that of those Snow terms the “literary intellectuals.” I think that this divide was and is a real problem.
There are major differences, though, between 1950s English academia as perceived by Snow (whether accurately or not) and contemporary American academia. The cultures that Snow identified still exist, and it seems an overstatement to claim that an entire third culture of literary scientists has grown up between them as John Brockman does, but there are also an increasing number of intellectuals who bridge the cultural divide. These include many of the scientists that Brockman identifies as “third-culture intellectuals” (and Brockman’s one non-scientist, the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett), historians and philosophers of science, and anthropologists. It is indeed in these recently developed fields, as well as developing interdisciplinary domains like cognitive studies and environmental studies, that the two cultures mix most.
There is still a strong cultural divide, though, and here the question of how many intellectual cultures there are becomes important. Snow made clear that he chose the two culture model primarily as a cognitive and rhetorical tool, an attempt to accurately depict a few aspects of a complex situation. Given that this situation has changed over time, it makes sense to amend the model. It will still be problematic to define many small cultures, though, for the same reasons as in Snow’s time.
In this spirit, then, there seem to me to be about four cultures that must be taken into account. One is that of “literary intellectualism,” or the humanities, including (perhaps unwisely) the arts, as well as the histories and studies of these arts. Another is that of science, including mathematics, computer science, engineering, and other fields that extend the sciences into areas of study expected to be more or less immediately practical. (Or, alternately, less or more “pure” areas.) The third is social science, which Snow himself identified as likely to become a third culture with time. The fourth culture, which I think is both distinct from the self-consciously intellectual cultures and equally important to our model, is popular culture.
There are, then, multiple cultures that define our society. It seems unlikely that any of them will go away or merge soon, so those who wish for a larger common vocabulary must instead hope for more communication between the cultures. Because each culture consists of many subcultures, this is a complex topic: there is a fair amount of communication between physicists and philosophers, less perhaps between geologists and literary critics. In general, though, it seems fair to say that there is less communication between scientists and members of the two other intellectual cultures than between humanists and social scientists.
I also include popular culture in this model because it seems that many arguments made in the two cultures debate involve popular culture on the same level that they involve intellectual cultures. Snow described the culture of literary intellectuals as closely linked with the “traditional culture” that “manages the western world.” The social conservative Roger Kimball argues that “pop culture” is destroying “the very idea of permanent cultural achievement,” an idea necessary for the survival of “art and high culture,” and the humanities. Finally, John Brockman’s claim of a new “third culture” can be reformed into a claim that scientists are doing a better job of communicating with the popular culture. The term used to describe those who focus on communicating scientific ideas to the masses is, after all, popularizer.
There are two sorts of intercultural connections that are prominently analyzed by participants in the two cultures debate: those between the intellectual cultures, and those between each of the intellectual cultures and the popular culture. The first link, which Snow focuses on explicitly, is still weak between science and the humanities, and still ought to be strengthened, largely so that conversations on the ethical uses of technology can be opened to informed intellectuals from more varied backgrounds. The second, though, is at least as important in a democratic society, as democracy relies on a discourse not only among professional intellectuals, but among the entire populace.
Snow perceived an extremely close connection between the literary and popular cultures of mid-century Britain; in today’s America it seems that these cultures are not so closely linked. Underlying Snow’s claim, though, is the accurate analysis that in order for an intellectual culture to influence all of a society it seems it must connect with the popular culture. (Here I equate “popular culture” with “the public” on the assumption that pop culture is in fact the culture of the people. This assumption seems open to question, but Snow and his critics have used enough ink redefining terms that my claim seems in the spirit of the debate.) The literary culture is less successful at this than it once was, while the scientific and social scientific cultures seem to be more so. In order for citizens of the United States and other countries to make intelligent decisions about our future and the future of humanity, it is still necessary for all to possess a basic understanding of the problems, explorations, solutions, and ideas that make up all fields of human knowledge.