Two Cultures, today…


I was led to a discussion with Quentin Meillassoux (via Fabio at Hypertiling) wherein this passage caught my eye:

…the difficulty is to have the culture of the problem. People think that to be intelligent is to say there is no problem. But what is rare is a philosopher who tries to work in the direction of amazement, at what is right under their nose.

I’m certainly sympathetic with the final sentence, in fact I’d even go so far as to say I agree with Meillassoux.  However, the reference to the “culture of the problem” and the italicized sentence above caused me to raise my eyebrows.  Generally, this is the standard critique of  ‘analytic’ philosophy, isn’t it?  e.g. ‘they’ spend all their time coming up with counter-examples to undermine whatever claim is under their nose (this of course is something some have equated with ‘sneering’ or ‘trumpery’–yawn). A while back I chanced upon a comment by Rogers Albritton, which is probably what Meillassoux should have said instead of correlating attempts at dismantling theory with intelligence:

Philosophy, as he [Wittgenstein] means to be practicing it “simply puts everything before us, [it] neither explains nor deduces anything” and it “may not advance any kind of theory” (Philosophical Investigations I 126, 109). Its aim is, rather, “complete clarity,” which “simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (ibid., 133). I’d like nothing better. Moreover, I believe it: the problems (at any rate, those I care most about) should indeed, as he says, completely disappear. That’s how they look to me. I love metaphysical and epistemological theories, but I don’t believe in them, not even in the ones I like. And I don’t believe in the apparently straightforward problems to which they are addressed. However, not one of these problems has actually done me the kindness of vanishing, though some have receded. (I don’t have sense-data nearly as often as I used to.)And if there is anything I dislike more in philosophy than rotten theories, it’s pretenses of seeing through the “pseudoproblems” that evoked them when in fact one doesn’t know what’s wrong and just has a little rotten metatheory as to that.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about naturalism and phenomenology of late, and by extension, Snow’s (50 year old!) essay on the “two cultures,” which seems, at times, more severe than ever these days. Philosophers, working together with, not in opposition, to scientists, certainly have a role to play in fostering dialogue about science, that much should be clear, whether it’s criticizing or defending science.  Of course, there’s Wittgenstein, who famously declared Darwin had nothing to do with philosophy, insists:

In philosophy we do not draw conclusions. “But it must be like this!” is not a philosophical proposition. Philosophy only states what everyone admits (PI:599).

It’s no doubt true that some problems that initially seem like philosophical problems are best resolved by science. Perhaps problems about mind/brain interaction are like this. Certainly, philosophers can state the problem clearly, say why we feel it’s a real problem, and then, scientists solve it. Of course, some problems can be solved by, I don’t know, logicians and mathematicians (and not those dumpster diving continental philosophers!). Anyway, the real impetus for this post was to bring attention to this lecture by Onora O’Neill,  ‘The Two Cultures Fifty Years On’

In his 1959 Rede lecture The Two Cultures C.P. Snow contrasted what he called ‘the traditional culture’ of literary study with the culture of natural science, and judged them wholly different in approach and achievements. The scientific culture, as he saw it, was rigorous and productive; the literary culture was neither. However, if we consider the approaches and methods actually used by inquiry in the humanities and in the natural sciences we find many similarities. In both domains inquiry relies on interpretation and inference, makes and seeks to support empirical truth claims and deploys and defends normative assumptions. It is hardly surprising that no single or simple conception of ‘impact’ can do justice to the diversity of work undertaken in either culture.

You can listen to the lecture here via backdoor broadcasting

3 thoughts on “Two Cultures, today…

  1. The problem with the reduction to ultimate clarity is that it doesn’t work and having a “precise mental image” of something is useless. We do not want to grasp anything in complete isolation and build the world up from platonic bodies or atoms of meaning and this isn’t also necessary. Wittgenstein was one of the pioneers of this extreme form of modernism but in retrospect his work and style has remained rather unique but generic no matter how much others felt indebted to him.

    About the third culture. It is for real but it doesn’t express itself as such [1]. It isn’t some form of “interdisciplinary” research and it isn’t even academic. Architects, managers, designers, computer programmers and nowadays even political activists are examples of people who stay with one foot in both camps or simply ignore camps. They are not doing science or interpret literature. They derive from heterogeneous sources and acquire or become experts of mixed competence to accomplish their projects.

    [1] However, everyone talks about the economy and the decline or resurrection of the political and no one talks about culture unless “other cultures” are mentioned which have to be tolerated or defeated.

    • The problem with the reduction to ultimate clarity is that it doesn’t work and having a “precise mental image” of something is useless.

      I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’m not so sure I’d dismiss Wittgenstein so readily. Yes, he tends to be a weird sort of nominalist; e.g. general terms don’t stand for objects of their own, and therefore that general types are in a certain sense an illusion. However, Wittgenstein doesn’t take this position up because he thinks that there exist only particular things–I don’t even know what that would possibly mean–but instead, the point seems to be the use of the general term, like any other term, always only emerges in the application that is made of it. We may use a general term to stand for a variety of particulars; and which set of particulars is generally not determined, once and for all, in advance, but rather shown in the complex connections of the variety of cases in which we can use it.

      PS-I very much like the fact that you footnoted yourself above.

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