From Inert Insight to Incendiary Indictment: The Rhetorical History and Future of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”

By Bryce Christensen.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Many students of the humanities are surprised to learn that C.P. Snow borrowed the thesis for his highly controversial lecture on “The Two Cultures” from an earlier little-noted lecture by physicist I.I. Rabi. Careful analysis reveals that the reason for the sharp difference in public response to these two statements inheres not in the substance of the two speakers’ primary thesis (both men deplored the wide cultural gap separating the humanities from the sciences and called for bridges across this gap) but rather in the rhetorical framing of this thesis. Unlike Rabi, who framed his desiderata merely within the needs of the age, Snow framed his desiderata within a sharp indictment of literary intellectuals, accusing them of being especially slow to move outside their speciality by learning about science. But at the very time that indictment served a rhetorical purpose by drawing widespread attention to the two-cultures problem it also intensified the problem by putting humanists on the defensive and fostering ill will between them and their colleagues in the sciences. Fifty years later, if humanists wish to overcome the cultural bifurcation lamented by both Rabi and Snow, they will need to recover the central insight that Rabi initially articulated and separate it from the rhetorical strategies Snow used to bring it into the public limelight. Although perhaps once necessary in order to overcome public indifference, those strategies have now actually exacerbated the problem and must be excised by those seeking to unify humanistic and scientific modes of understanding.

Keywords: Science, “Two Cultures”, Rhetoric, Synthesis

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp.87-96. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 751.854KB).

Dr. Bryce Christensen

Associate Professor, Department of English, Southern Utah University, Cedar City, UT, USA

Bryce Christensen, associate professor and Interim Department Chair in English at Southern Utah University, received his Ph. D. in English literature from Marquette University. His current research interests include the ethics of science, utopian literature, and the politics of the family. He focuses especially on the problem of preserving human values in a world increasingly de-mystified and de-sacralized by science. Also central to his critical investigations is the difficulty of establishing a community of trust in a culture increasingly skeptical of any and all non-scientific truth claims. Dr. Christensen has published poetry and critical articles in a number of scholarly journals. His novel “Winner!” (Whiskey Creek Press) examines the psychological consequences of the failure of the Promethean project of modern science.


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