No science like Snow’s science

I had the privilege this afternoon of attending a fascinating panel discussion run by several of my colleagues here at Wayne State entitled “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow — 50 Years Later sponsored by WSU’s Humanities Center and the Institute for Information Technology and Culture. Snow was a physicist, bureaucrat, and novelist whose Two Cultures lecture in 1959 postulated a grave gap in knowledge and interest between the sciences and the humanities. Specifically, he claimed that while the intellectual milieu of the time required all scientists to be at least somewhat familiar with some history and literature, humanists viewed scientific knowledge as the purview of scientists alone, something of which they could remain blissfully ignorant. This, Snow saw as a grave problem in a society whose technological complexity had grown to a point where policy-makers required scientific literacy to make informed decisions.

The debate today was lively and generally productive. For me, as a linguistic anthropologist who studies the history of mathematics, I was struck by the fact that all three of my disciplines are betwixt and between Snow’s two cultures (anthropology quite proudly so), and moreover, that the panelists today were two mathematicians, an anthropologist, a linguist, and a historian of science! My remarks below are based on an issue I raised at the end of the discussion, but which I feel deserves more of my attention now.

To the point: I do not believe there are any grounds at all to believe that there is such a thing as ‘science’ to be made clearly distinct from ‘the humanities’ – that at best these are used to designate semi-useful collocations of perspectives, and at worst, they are self-serving labels used to isolate oneself and to denigrate others. True, I have elsewhere here posted on linguistic anthropology as an integrated science, and I don’t retract anything I said there. Perhaps I would rephrase what I wrote to say that my belief is that too much linguistic anthropology self-identifies as purely or largely humanistic and thus defines itself out of some really interesting subject material, e.g. relating to the evolution of language.

Snow lived and worked at the height of modernism in the academy: for the social scientist, behaviorism, functionalism, and structuralism were all in full bloom. What he did not foresee, and could not possibly have foreseen, is the emergence of the ‘Science Wars’ or ‘Culture Wars’ in which two camps defined themselves in opposition to one another. Starting in the 1970s (or earlier or later, depending on who you ask), ‘science’ was severely criticized from various angles that we might generally label postmodern or poststructuralist. The response from ‘scientists’ (do people really call themselves ‘scientists’ unironically any more?) ranged from ignoring the new trend to bafflement to outright hostility. Certainly the response from the scientific community followed the initial criticisms of the humanists.

In fact, however, the label ‘war’ is quite inappropriate since very little of the academic discussion that we might now define under one of these terms actually involved academic debate between the two camps. Rather, the sides served as useful straw men to be marshalled in front of one’s fellow-travelers, serving as an emblem of clan identity (as a shibboleth). Moreover, drawing these boundaries allowed one to safely ignore that which lay beyond them as unnecessary, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. Just as we recognize that you can’t draw a line around ‘a culture’ without asking who is doing the defining and for what reason (and in whose interest), I believe that there is ultimately very little behind the distinction between Science and Humanities that cannot be explained in terms of a rather narrow set of interests, both internal and external.

In certain circles among Science, to deride social construction was to be seen as supporting empiricism against know-nothing relativism, and with it came suspicion of the totality of the humanities. They simply were not seen as relevant for anything most practitioners of “serious, empirical” disciplines would do. Conversely, Science was seen as the enemy by some humanists, or at least a subject about which they needed to know nothing in order to comment usefully. Few ethnographers, for instance, could admit publicly that they detested the people among whom they worked, but I would have no difficulty finding ethnographers and historians of science who have contempt for the people they study and the work they do. Still, many in the humanities, probably most, had nothing to do with these debates and continued to do sound empirical research using methodologies not so different from those of Snow’s day. And some disciplines, like anthropology and linguistics, have always been part of multiple traditions and have defied easy definition.

My question ultimately rests on how distinct the humanities and the sciences were as concepts, prior to World War II, and what explanation we might give if they have become increasingly distinct over time. I proposed, only half-jokingly, that to define the humanities as a bounded group of disciplines allows Science to define ‘those whom we do not have to fund’, and to define Science allows the humanities to define ‘the object of our newfound ire’. Snow shows that the labels were cognitively relevant to academics even in the late 50s remain so even in a vastly different social context and funding environment, and one in which both humanists and scientists are beholden to crass interests that emphasize applicability over insight and wealth over wisdom. But rather than suggesting that ‘sciences’ and ‘humanities’ are essential and timeless categories, I suggest that they remain useful to scholars because these definitions allow one to exclude huge swaths of knowledge from one’s purview. They tell us what we do not need to know to do our jobs, much to our ultimate loss.

For my own part, my research involves reading in fields such as semiotics, communication, epigraphy, history of science, historical sociology, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, mathematics, evolutionary theory, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. No, really. I admit that I’m only reading from cognate fields to the extent necessary to my own work on number systems, but these are not just pastimes – they are necessary ancillary reading in order for me to have a fuller grasp of the subject I’m most closely engaged with. I can’t possibly imagine how I could neglect the detailed historical studies that form the core of my book, and at the same time I can’t imagine what my work would look like if that was all I did. But I don’t think that I have a particularly broad training or that I am a particularly energetic reader – far from it! I’ve simply defined my areas of specialty in a way other than the grand dichotomy between Science and Humanities.

For me, the critical study of race and gender are impossible without some familiarity with human physiology and the variation in bodies that is really real. Similarly, however, it is inane to study religion solely from a cognitive neuroscience perspective without understanding the moral and metaphysical models that are honestly perceived as valid by believers. My case is that the study of academic topics will frequently – though not inevitably – require one to be familiar with the methods, concepts, and practitioners of several disciplines across the socially-defined ‘spectrum’ of humanities and sciences. This will particularly be true for any topic that involves human beings.

I do not intend the foregoing to be read as a sort of facile constructivism of the “oh, nothing is real, let’s all fall into a nihilist heap and abandon any interest in objectivity” school of thought which has always been more real ideologically than in practice, in any case. If someone has a definition of science that excludes all of the disciplines of history or philosophy or linguistics, and really wants to insist that this is Science, eternal and unchanging, they’re welcome to it. For my part I’ve often found that when the stakes are highest, definitions are little more than post facto rationalizations of what one wants to believe one is doing, and what one believes one’s rivals by definition could not have done.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

2 thoughts on “No science like Snow’s science”

  1. I agree with you, though in England there is another factor. We specialise early in the educational system, and that system is built to funnel students into Arts or Sciences. Students between 14 and 16 are supposed to study 8-10 subjects, but in reality you can drop science at this stage. Between 16-18 you study three or four subjects, usually often 3 Arts or 2 Sciences and Maths. At degree level you study just the one topic. There was no requirement on my BA Ancient History degree fulfil a science requirement. One of the advantages of the American system is you get a more more rounded education up to BA level.

    The division might be social, but it runs deep in the British system.

    Also, if you take the view that education is a zero-sum game, then being awful at one side must by default make you better at the other. Time spent by a Classicist learning Chemistry is time that could have been spent learning something in the Humanities and vice versa. So railing against the Others is an easy way of improving your standing on your own side, or at least a lot easier than actually learning something.

    Still, looking at a topic and investing a lot of effort into whether it belongs with Humanities or Science strikes me as being like paying more attention to the bookshelf than the book’s content.

    1. Alun – Indeed, and this structural difference was mentioned by one discussant on the panel. I come from a Canadian academic background, which is halfway between the UK early specialist model and the US liberal arts generalist model.

      Obviously neither of us takes a zero-sum model too seriously, given our research interests, but the prejudice against polymaths is pretty strong wherever one goes in academic life, geographically or disciplinarily.

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