Thursday, May 14, 2009

Two Cultures: 50 years on II

The 50 year anniversary of C.P. Snow's influential lecture has been marked by the publication of a new book, "From Two Cultures to No Culture", which argues the problems highlighted by Snow are now much worse.

I agree that the problem has gotten worse. I think contributing factors are:
  • the rise of postmodernism in humanities departments
  • a backlash from scientists against postmodernist excesses has further marginalised the humanities within universities,
  • the values of economic rationalism have led to universities being more focused on commercial outcomes and job training rather than scholarship,
  • the free exchange of ideas, and the intellectual and cultural development of students.
A measure of the disengagement between science and the humanities is well summarised in a perceptive book review in Physics Today. The author of the book, Alan Sokal, is a mathematical physicist who became quite famous in 1996 when he published a paper, "Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity," in the leading postmodern journal, Social Text, and then revealed the article was a hoax.
The book reviewer, Peter Saulson discusses how it is unfortunate Sokal has been unable to have any meaningful engagement with the failures of modernism or with the subtleties which more thougthful postmodernists wrestle.

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