The Two Cultures by C.P. Snow


A lecture called The Two Cultures had been referenced several times in discussions that I've found interesting, so I snagged a modern print of the essay to spend some time with. I've read the print from 1959 instead of the follow up print from 1963. This text is based on a talk, so its delivery is conversational. I feel that it can be summarized, maybe in too much of a reductionist sense, with this quote from the text:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

This to me seemed quite exciting because it seems to explore a common rift in society/academia that apparently began to grow long before the American educational system was in its relatively modern form. I was surprised at how many more interesting cultural topics were discussed in the text. It may be shameful to admit that I sort of expected a diatribe from a scientist about the luddites of literary/cultural academia... but it was even keel and more focused on generally how this rift impacts all of society.


For each set of text(s) I'll try to pull out the themes that most interested me, sometimes I'll fixate on more conventional literary theme while other times I'll fixate on a specific technology (generally preferring science fiction). The hope is to keep around a list of the impactful elements of the text and use those as jumping boards to other texts when in conversation or recommending something to a colleague. There are always far more themes in the text than I feel like I should catalog, so please if any one of these strikes you as interesting dive in to the texts. There is also a risk in reading too much into these as I'm not being entirely careful not to spoil parts of the story that you should experience through self discovery.

Optimism, Problem Solving, and the Human Condition: Emotionally I've always struggled with observing hardship, and my nature is to immediately attempt/suggest a "solution". This passage resonated with me as it couches the human condition in terms of which parties are most receptive to it through optimism.

...But nearly all of them--and this is where the colour of hope genuinely comes in--would see no reason why, just because the individual condition is tragic, so must the social condition be. Each of us is solitary: each of us dies alone: all right, that's a fate against we can't struggle--but there is plenty in our condition which is not fate, and against which we are less than human unless we do struggle.

Most of our fellow human beings, for instance, are underfed and die before their time. In the crudest terms, that is the social condition. There is a moral trap which comes through he insight into man's loneliness: it tempts one to sit back, complacent in one's unique tragedy, and let others go without a meal.

As a group, the scientists fall into that trap less than others. They are inclined to be impatient to see if something can be done: and inclined to think that it can be done, until it's proved otherwise. That is their real optimism, and it's an optimism that the rest of us badly need.

Economic Inequality: This might not be a properly selected title for this theme, apologies. As the text goes onward it begins to talk more and more about the inequality among skills, eventually moving to inequality among states.

For, of course, one truth is straitforward. Industrialization is the only hope of the poor. I use the word 'hope' in a crude and prosaic sense. I have not much use for the moral sensibility of anyone who is too refined to use it so. It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don't matter all that much. It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialization--do a modern Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I do not respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.

In a later section:

Among the rich are the U.S., the white commonwealth countries, Great Britian, most of Europe, and the U.S.S.R. China is betwixt and between, not yet over the industrial hump, but probably getting there. The poor are all the rest. In the rich countries people are living longer, eating better, working less.

Education Tactics: He discusses becoming crystalized, or set in our ways and contrasts the major educational forces of the time (e.g. America, Scandinavia, Russia, Europe, and UK).

I don't pretend that any country has got its education perfect. In some ways, as I said before, the Russians and Americans are both more actively dissatisfied with theirs than we are: that is, they are taking more drastic steps to change it. But that is because they are more sensitive to the world they are living in. For myself, I have no doubt that, through neither of them have got the answer right, they are a good deal nearer than we are. We do some things much better than either of them. In educational tactics, we are often more gifted than they are. In educational strategy, by their side we are only playing at it.

Rate of Social Change: Remember this was written/spoke in the mid 1950s in the post war climate where things were picking up in many ways.

Earlier I said that few non-scientists really understand the scientific concept of acceleration. I meant that as a gibe. But in social terms, it is a little more than a gibe. During all human history until this century, the rate of social change has been very slow. So slow, that it would pass unnoticed in one person's lifetime. That is no longer so. The rate of change has increased so much that our imagination can't keep up. There is bound to be more social change, affecting more people, in the next decade than in any before. There is bound to be more change again in the 1970's. In the poor countries, people have caught on to this simple concept. Men are no longer prepared to wait for periods longer than one person's lifetime.


  • If you liked the initial gist of the text, then you'd probably really enjoy the documentary Particle Fever as it contrasts experimentalists and theoreticians, which shows up in Snow's text quite a bit once he digs into more nuance of the science side of the house he's building.
  • If you're thinking that Optimism and Inequality are interesting from this text then you should consider immersing yourself in Adam Curtis's Pandoras Box
  • One of the interesting things in our current culture that is influencing rates of social change is the idea of Massively Online Open Courses, Daphne Koller gave an interesting talk where she couched graduate level studies as a productivity problem (student to professor ratio) to exemplify how many more professors would be required if we stayed at current productivity and a country like India wanted to have 20% of its population trained soon.