The Two Cultures

Charles Percy Snow
two cultures, art, science, Charles Percy Snow

“At the other pole, the spread of attitudes is wider. It is obvious that between the two, as one moves through intellectual society from the physicists to the literary intellectuals, there are all kinds of tones of feeling on the way. But I believe the pole of total incomprehension of science radiates in influence on all the rest. That total incomprehension gives, much more pervasively than we realise, living in it, an unscientific flavour to the whole ’traditional’ culture, and that unscientific flavour is often, much more than we admit, on the point of turning anti-scientific. The feeling of one pole become the anti-feelings of the other.”

(pages 10—11)

“Books very little, though perhaps not many would go so far as one hero, who perhaps I should admit was further down the scientific ladder than the people I’ve been talking about—who, when asked what books he read, replied firmly and confidently: ‘Books? I prefer to use my books as tools.’ It was very hard not to let the mind wander—what sort of tool would a book make? Perhaps a hammer? A primitive digging instrument? […] It is much more that the whole literature of traditional culture doesn’t seem to them relevant to those interests. They are, of course, dead wrong. As a result, their imaginative understanding is less than it could be. They are self-impoverished.”

(pages 13, 14)

“They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling.”

(pages 14)

“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 about the scientific equivalent of: Have your read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.”

(pages 14—15)

“In our society (that is, advanced western society) we have lost even the pretence of a common culture. Persons educated with the greatest intensity we know can no longer communicate with each other on the plane of their major intellectual concern. This is serious for our creative, intellectual and, above all, our normal life. It is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future. It is making it difficult or impossible for us to take good action.”

(page 60)

“To finish this précis. There is, of course, no complete solution. […] But we can do something. The chief means open to us is education—education mainly in primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universities. There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves.”

(page 61)


Snow, C. P.: The Two Cultures: and A Second Look An expanded version of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.