Blogs > Cliopatria > Labcoats and tweed jackets

Jun 8, 2009 3:28 pm


Labcoats and tweed jackets



In a couple of places, not least here, I have seen it noted recently that C. P. Snow's famous essay on `the Two Cultures' is now fifty, and reflections on how things have or haven't changed. I don't have anything much to say about that especially, although I stand by a notion that history is only defensible as an art, not a social science, and that one of the reasons for that is that `social science' as a category is useless and unhelpful. There's really very few definitions of that phrase that couldn't be included under either of `social engineering' or `humanity', except possibly using scientific tools to do arts stuff with but in that case it's an art dammit Janet etc. (N. B. no real Janets implicated in this condemnation.) Instead I wanted to point out something that has repeatedly nagged me about this question, which is that the whole debate between Arts and Sciences only really works in an Anglophone or Anglolexic sphere...

View of ceiling above the lectern in the ÖAW's old lecture hall

This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what's the French or German for science? `Science', `Wissenschaft', respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge'. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia', which likewise means just `knowledge'. And that's what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge. The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It's slowly being enforced on other languages' academies, but it's not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all havetheirAkademiederWissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don't know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. Elsewhere we don't have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow's piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it's pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don't, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.

Cross-validating map of academic research (Social sciences and humanities journals yellow, natural sciences journals blue)

I spoke about this with an Austrian colleague at that same Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften when there a while back, and he was quite surprised by the English usage, which, though his English is very good, he hadn't fully taken on board. I had to differentiate the `two cultures' for him by using the image of the title: for English-speakers, I said, `science' is labcoats, test-tubes, moon-shots and cures for cancer, and what he and I do is tweed jackets and dusty chalkboards. (We actually both have our living in applying computing to numismatics, but that's not important right now; we work in museums...) His opinion was that the way that the locals saw the Akademie der Wissenschaften was definitely tweeds, pipes, absurd beards, not labcoats, and wondered if he should start presenting in a labcoat so as to attract more press attention. There's all kinds of questions one could then ask about that, but the first one it brings to my mind is, why did we, do we, let this divorce of fields by method happen? and secondly, please, people in my field, what is it with the tweeds and corduroy? Don't you feel the clammy clasp of stereotype about your shoulders every time you don them? I think we need a Third Way. Maybe I'll start lecturing in evening dress. At least it's a different stereotype...




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Jonathan Jarrett - 6/11/2009

It's a good post, and the first of the crop I've seen to mention a Leavis reply of which I was shamefully unaware. What it does do, or rather, does by failing to do it in the author's own post, is indicate that although it lacks some of the foundation in fact that we might desire, Snow's summation has obviously met many people's perceptions and confirmed their observations and prejudices; it couldn't be so popular and so much quoted if it wasn't a powerful thing to think with (or perhaps to avoid thinking with). So I don't think saying it isn't useful is enough: it clearly is useful, but we may have good reason to mislike the use to which it is commonly put...


Sage Ross - 6/9/2009

I found another post on the C.P. Snow anniversary that's worth mentioning:
http://etherwave.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/the-two-cultures-at-fifty/

Incidentally, Will Thomas (author of that post) would make a great addition to Cliopatria.


Jonathan Jarrett - 6/9/2009

Good enough to dispute, certainly :-) The problem with that account is that Britain also lost vast amounts of academic capital in the Great War, in terms of manpower at least. And both sides had invested similarly in research and development for the war effort, though possibly with rather odder focuses in the Habsburg Empire. So is what you're arguing for here not so much the capital as the continuing ability to spend on science <em>after</em> the war? Or are you principally telling an American story? In either case I would say that the early date of the British Academy's foundation means that you are looking too late. It seems to me more as if, chronologically at least, it should be a narrative of the Empire.


Sage Ross - 6/8/2009

Tweeds and corduroy is a symbol of a life with no clear distinction between work and leisure; one expects to find the (humanist) professor dressed like that whether in class, at home reading, out on the town, or on vacation.

The labcoat, of course, is a symbol of the laboratory, the privileged place for making placeless knowledge (that is, knowledge unsullied by the petty human concerns that consume the tweed and cords crowds).

But as for your question--why did Wissenschaft split into sciences and humanities in the Anglophone world?--I offer a tentative story:

Because of the rapid rise Anglophone science in the first half of the 20th century, particularly from WWI through the early Cold War, and the simultaneous decimation of much of Europe's academic capital in the World Wars. The expansion of universities (and the strong ties that developed between the scholarly sphere and the geopoltical and industrial spheres) brought specialization in the sciences, while European science was treading water. Without access to the types of scientific capital necessary to compete with British and, especially, American scientists, Europeans had plenty of time for maintaining their ties with historians, philosophers, and other colleagues.

Meanwhile Anglophone scientists had enough trouble keeping up with work in neighboring scientific sub-disciplines while also running their own well-funded but time-intensive experiments. They drifted apart from their fellow professors from different buildings, and soon found that they no longer understood the kinds of things those humanists were doing. You call this art?!? And what they didn't understand they came to despise.

Not only that, they thought they could do it better. Hence fracturing of terminology: [secular] humanism has only tenuous connection to humanities, and "humanist" has very different meanings in scientific-political contexts versus academic contexts.