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Revisiting C.P. Snow, this is what the second subtitle states and what perfectly encapsulates the program of this book by the American developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. By sheer accident, Kagan tells us in his Introductory notes, he found a copy of Snow's The Two Cultures (based on Snow's Rede Lecture held in 1959 at the University of Cambridge) and the idea of The Three Cultures was born.
Contrary to what one would expect (and probably for the best), Kagan's book is neither a point-by-point refutation nor a defense of Snow's claims. Refusing or accepting Snow's blind faith in the salvation forces of the natural sciences, the industrial and scientific revolutions, in combination with his denunciation of humanists is not at stake in this book. In fact, not only have the humanities lost much of their appeal, according to Kagan also the natural sciences have lost their hegemony. Furthermore, the same negative destiny has befallen the one culture Snow did not mention: the social sciences.
What remains of Snow's claims, and why Kagan is able to call this book a revisitation of Snow, is precisely the lack of communication between the different scientific cultures a lack of communication that has only grown since Snow's time. In fact, the basic premise of this book is, in accordance with the 'power-loss' of all three cultures, that all three different scientific cultures share one fundamental characteristic: their scientific claims are only valid and coherent within their own scientific community, once the borders are crossed they have become impotent. This might seem a trivial statement, but it is definitely not intended nor to be considered as such.
The reason for this incomprehension between the different cultures is, according to Kagan, strictly correlated to 9 fundamental dimensions that differentiate the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. (1. the primary concerns, 2. the sources of evidence, 3. the used vocabulary, 4. the importance of social conditions, 5. the importance of ethical values, 6. the reliance of external funding, 7. the working conditions, 8. the contribution to national economy, 9. the judging criteria towards elegance and beauty. [2-3]) In fact, the three cultures differ, according to the author, almost completely regarding the importance or the interpretation given to these dimensions. But, and this is an important aspect of the relevance of Kagan's book, even though these differences make it difficult for the three cultures to communicate seriously, Kagan's attitude is not one of complete despair.
The main core of the book consists of Kagan's description and comments of the conquests and limits of the three cultures. Natural sciences' preference for controllable and mathematically based explanations of natural phenomena outside the historical or ethical context has made of these sciences the unquestionable example of what science 'is all about'. However, progress has come with a price. The lack of humanistic values and ethical criteria in the natural sciences, together with the problems raised by the state of the planet and the nuclear threat, has made the trust in these sciences diminish. Almost exactly the same story holds for the social sciences. The social scientists' dream of understanding criminality, personal development and psychiatric illness through rather strictly controlled observations of human behavior showed to be unrealistic. The hope to explain human behavior and its variations together with cultural change was not reachable. The downfall of the humanities on the other hand is, according to our author, mainly due to internal factors. Their mainly book-based attempts to understand humanity within the boundaries of history and morality – seemingly without any constructive contributions to humanity itself – proved to be their own 'grave'. When humanists started professing equality of all value and interpretation schemes, the humanities fragmented into different 'sects' losing their 'power'. All three cultures, however, also continue to contribute to our knowledge and this notwithstanding the fact that trust in them has decreased. According to our author, the natural sciences contribute to our material comfort, our health and help us understand nature while the humanities add to our understanding of cultural and historical changes, and the social sciences help us evaluate the claims of both the other sciences.
But how admirable and provocative the imposition of this book is, what is offered is basically an avalanche of examples that underwrite the conquests and limitations based on the above mentioned 9 dimensions. The pages that individually treat the three cultures are, unfortunately, almost nothing more than a compendium of examples of what the three cultures state, how they state it, and what the limitations of these statements are with respect to the other cultures. The knowledge demonstrated by the author, with the enumerable demonstrations (instructive and at times funny, as they are), of all three scientific cultures is very impressive and admirable, it however doesn't facilitate the reading of this book. Furthermore, dedicating 120 pages to social sciences, 50 to the natural sciences, and a mere 20 to the humanities doesn't seem to be an un-biased choice by a social scientist.
Even though at times it is somewhat of a struggle to continue the reading, the importance of the message sent by the author should not be denied (in fact, once the author leaves behind the demonstrative part of this book also his language returns fluent again). All three cultures have their flaws and limitations (even natural science), but, in one way or another, they all contribute fundamentally to our understanding of the world we live in. Narrow mindedness of scientists, of whatever culture, poses the real danger and is the cause of the fact that communication between the three cultures doesn't improve. As Kagan concludes: "It is time for the members of the three cultures to adopt a posture of greater humility" . Just for this reason alone this book should be widely read by scholars, but especially by students of every possible discipline.
© 2009 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D., Rome