Two Cultures

I was reminded by an essay in the Times Sunday Book Review that it was almost 50 years ago that the English physicist and writer C.P Snow delivered his famous Two Cultures lecture at Cambridge. Peter Dizikes, the essay’s author writes that Snow’s lament was that:

“…the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups, consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other."

There may be little disagreement about this once it is recognized that literary and scientific accounts have entirely different goals and methods. In my view the so-called two cultures actually have more in common than Snow would have us believe. At least they have both found a comfortable place in my own experience.

In a recent interview Daniel Gilbert, an experimental social psychologist, comments that “most of what science has to tell us about human behavior already has been divined by writers with great insight.”

In response to a later question Gilbert admits that there’s nothing about “human behavior or the experience of the mind that you cannot find in literature. But on the other hand you can also find the opposite in literature. Everything that can be said about the human condition has been said by some writer.”

Gilbert notes that after reading his most recent book, Stumbling on Happiness where he liberally quotes Shakespeare, a literature professor said, “Given that Shakespeare saw all this stuff, had these insights, why do we need science?” Gilbert replies “Well I could also find ten places where he said exactly the opposite. If you say everything, some of it winds up being right.”

Gilbert claims science “helps us confirm which writers were right and which were wrong, but it rarely tells us something that a writer of Shakespeare’s caliber didn’t come up with first.” But even science, at least the science of human behavior, is stuck with considerable empirical uncertainty. Facts and theories come and go with further research; what is held to be true today will in due course shown to be false or incomplete or require revision tomorrow. As Gilbert later admits, he always begins his freshman course, Introduction to Psychology, by telling the students “that half of what I teach them will turn out to be wrong; the problem is I don’t know which half.”

This is precisely what he said about Shakespeare. Indeed, in the psychological sciences the level of inconsistency and disagreement between accounts is scarcely distinguishable from literary accounts. A literary truth is always right, right for its fictional depiction, and right for a reader who finds it expresses something true for them. It may not be true for another reader, let alone many others. But a writer has no designs on formulating general truths as a scientist does.

In writing to me about this topic Audrey Borenstein quotes the following passage from her book Redeeming the Sin: Social Science and Literature:

“The social scientist, too, needs experience, observation, and imagination; and the best of social science, the works that will endure, are those in which all three are interwoven. Yet, while the risk for the social scientist is that he may miss seeing the detail—the trees, the risk of the writer is that he may miss seeing the forest. It would seem that the social scientist and the writer work from different directions toward the same achievement, the discovery of the universal. Ultimately, however, the distinction between artistic and scientific endeavor is arbitrary and spurious…The crystal and the molecule, the spinning earth, the leaf moving in the wind are rightful subjects for both poet and naturalist: artist and scientist are not two beings, but one.”