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Response to Review no. 849

Patricia Waugh’s review illustrates the allure, but also the limitations, of an interpretation of the ‘two cultures’ controversy as a conflict between two disciplinary cultures. Even so learned a telling of that conventional story betrays assumptions and confusions that testify to the advantages of my book’s approach. The differences between our respective interpretations matter, in turn, because the ‘two cultures’ controversy is a part of larger histories as well: the history of postwar Britain, and the tradition discussing the relationship between different forms of knowledge. I am grateful to Reviews in History for this opportunity to continue the conversation, first by identifying the areas of agreement between Waugh and myself, then by explaining why I think she is mistaken to adhere to a ‘two cultures’ framework, and finally by indicating why I remain convinced of the importance of understanding ideas (such as the ‘two cultures’) in their contexts.

When Waugh unkindly compares me to a stranger ‘who comes to vandalise and buy out the property’, I wonder what the ‘property’ is in her metaphor, why she feels such ownership over it, and why she worries that it is threatened by scholarly inquiry. The Two Cultures Controversy examines the notorious argument between the scientist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow and the literary critic F. R. Leavis during the 1960s. Rather than beginning with the assumption that their quarrel represented a conflict between disciplines, I consider their public arguments, and recover their private efforts, so as to recover the broader positions into which their ideas about science and literature fit. More than a dispute between disciplines, I depict a conflict between liberalisms, and the book’s chapters reveal how this ideological conflict structured simultaneous arguments about the mission of the university, the methodology of social history, the causes of national ‘decline’, the future of the former empire, and the meaning of the 1960s. Ultimately I argue that, while the ‘two cultures’ controversy figures as a particular installment within a longer tradition, the ‘two cultures’ dichotomy offers a misleading way of understanding either that controversy or that tradition.

I am pleased that, while her review focuses intently (or, in her idiom, obsessively) upon the last of these contentions, Waugh nevertheless endorses the majority of the book’s arguments: that the ‘two cultures’ controversy was informed by specific ideological commitments; that these commitments represented competing versions of a meritocratic liberalism; that these rival versions of liberalism are best understood as a technocratic liberalism in Snow’s case and a radical liberalism in Leavis’s case; and that the conflict between these positions took place not only in the ‘two cultures’ debate, but in simultaneous disputes over such issues education, economic decline, and decolonization. It is regrettable that, in a review extending to more than 6,000 words, Waugh did not find the space to discuss any of the book’s chapters, since readers of Reviews in History might be interested in its treatment of such topics as the postwar effort to refashion the historical discipline along social scientific lines, the origins and context of Harold Wilson’s rhetoric about the ‘white heat’, the Cold War dimensions of American discussions of the controversy, the ways that ideas about the retreating British Empire figured in these arguments, and the shifting relationship between these ideological positions and the concerns of the New Left and New Right. Instead, Waugh focuses on my contention that the controversy should be understood as an ideological conflict, if that would deny its disciplinary dimensions, and she rejects my conclusion that the ‘two cultures’ dichotomy offers a problematic way of characterizing either this episode or this tradition. For the most part, however, Waugh does not dispute my arguments, but rather seeks to incorporate them within her own account: one that locates the controversy within a history of epistemological and disciplinary developments (hence the history of ideas that opens the review), while also attending to the disciplinary dimensions of this episode in particular (hence the close reading that concludes the review).

Waugh wants to contrast the ‘ferocious exclusivity’ of my argument against the ‘multi-perspectival understanding’ that she embraces, but in truth my approach is not so exclusive and hers not so capacious. Crucially, she misunderstands my argument against the adoption of the ‘two cultures’ framework, believing it to deny the disciplinary dimensions of the episode entirely. She writes that I want ‘to “dislodge” or demolish the category of “the two cultures” as a disciplinary contest’, thus conflating my argument against the ‘two cultures’ (a reductive and misleading phrase) with my understanding of this controversy (a disciplinary contest, but much more than that). These positions are not identical, and my argument aims at the former: ‘[T]his book . . . seeks to dislodge the “two cultures” as a category of analysis’ (26, emphasis added), an ambition that is reiterated in the final paragraph: ‘This book has . . . challenged ahistorical invocations of the “two cultures” as a category of analysis’ (p. 258–9). This distinction between a two cultures interpretation and a disciplinary interpretation explains why, contra the impression that Waugh gives, I repeatedly acknowledge the disciplinary dimensions of the controversy. ‘The goal’, I explain, ‘is not to deny the disciplinary dimensions of their argument by simply substituting political commitments for disciplinary loyalties, but rather to recover the complicated positions in which ideas about science and literature, individuals and society, and the past and the present all had a place’ (p. 22). Indeed, not only do I acknowledge the disciplinary stakes of the debate, but I situate Snow and Leavis within a longer such history: ‘[T]he encounter between Snow and Leavis is part of a longer tradition discussing the relationship between the arts and the sciences – a tradition that also includes the exchange between Arnold and Huxley in the 1880s, and the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s’ (p. 25). Rather than denying or debunking that history, the very next sentence endorses its examination: ‘My challenge to a disciplinary interpretation of the “two cultures” controversy does not deny that it was somehow situated within this tradition – a tradition that is undoubtedly recurrent, and an object of study in its own right’ (p. 25). Waugh knows that I frame my approach in this way, quoting my contention that these dimensions exist but are not the whole story (p. 6), but she nevertheless devotes the majority of her review to rehearsing positions that my book begins by acknowledging. These positions, it has to be said, are already extremely well-represented in the scholarly literature, for instance by the valuable and various work of John Guillory, Wolf Lepenies, Roy Porter, Jean Starobinski, and Frank Miller Turner, which is by no means to imply that Waugh’s wide-ranging history of ideas and insightful close readings cannot add to that scholarship. But she is correct that, rather than offering still another version of this history, I instead relate my approach to the work of Stefan Collini, David Edgerton, and David Hollinger, and focus on how this inherited tradition became invested with the politics of the postwar moment.

Waugh, for her part, acknowledges the ideological stakes of the controversy, but her analysis treats them as secondary to its epistemological and disciplinary dimensions. I agree with her that ‘[i]deological lines are almost never entirely congruent with simple disciplinary boundaries’, and also that ‘[i]n each case there are complex ties between practices and epistemologies and social visions and concepts of the Good’. But in the narrative that she presents, those visions and concepts repeatedly assume places within disciplinary formations. ‘[T]heir controversy . . . was an extension of their underlying differences and social visions as much as it was a battle between disciplines’, she allows, before adding, ‘but those visions were embedded in the specific practices, epistemologies and self-conceptions of the disciplines of the natural sciences and of English literary studies’. Visions within disciplines: this is a reasonable position, but it is a position, despite Waugh’s satisfaction that she entertains disciplinary practices, epistemological commitments, and ideological positions as simultaneously and irreducibly present. Elsewhere she endorses my depictions of Snow’s technocratic liberalism and Leavis’s radical liberalism, and she gestures to the significance of these distinctions in their dispute, but part of the originality she has such trouble discerning in my book lies in the ways that it identifiesthese positions, characterizes their content, explains their origins and fates, and shows their connection to a wide range of issues. Instead of explaining, or even acknowledging, the development and implications of these arguments, Waugh simply endorses them parenthetically before restating her assurance that science and literature were ‘at the heart of the debate’. Again, this is not an uncommon interpretation, but it is an interpretation: one that acknowledges the ideological, but grants priority to the disciplinary. This choice structures the long history that opens her review, as well as its concluding close reading, and it partly explains the intended force of her title (‘Some Disciplinary Perspectives’). Waugh might respond that this emphasis was necessary to counter the imbalance in my book, but the fact that 11 of her 15 paragraphs advance this reading, while my careful elaboration of these positions is endorsed but not explained, undermines her pretensions to be offering an interpretation that is equally attentive to the disciplinary and the ideological. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any instance that Waugh would not read as a disciplinary contest first: she locates Snow and Leavis within a history of struggles between ‘rival paradigms of knowledge’ dating back to antiquity, and confidently pronounces that ‘every culture has staged its own version of the debate’. I confess that I am less certain as to what ‘every’ culture has ‘always’ done, which is why I attend closely to one culture in particular, but these assertions suggest that Waugh’s mind was made up well before the unwelcome stranger appeared and invited us to think again.

While I have been discussing our differences in terms of interpretive choices, Waugh tries to explain them a product of disciplinary allegiances – or, more precisely, of my allegiance to the discipline of history. She claims that my book overreaches, partly because of its ‘assumption that the skills and perspectives of his own discipline (neither Snow’s nor Leavis’s) might “trump” or correct all others and hold the key to final understanding of what was really going on between them and why it caused such a long-lasting fuss’. That curious aside about my own disciplinary background suggests that Waugh is the one policing boundaries here, but she is nevertheless correct that, now that a half-century has passed since Snow’s original lecture, I do believe that an archival and contextualized history offers welcome perspective on the controversy. However, neither my approach nor my argument denies the contributions of other disciplines, and as I explain what I mean readers might be forgiven for sensing that Waugh and I are beginning to fall into type: with her prone to explaining disagreements by referring to disciplinary differences, whereas I want to question the explanatory power of those distinctions. She thus interprets our disagreement through a disciplinary lens, accusing me of advancing a historical approach at the expense of other contributions, but in response I would call attention to the many ways that explanation fails to hold up, for instance by noting that my book repeatedly and gratefully acknowledges the work of literary scholars, while most of its arguments are actually directed against my fellow historians. If I am a disciplinary warrior, I’m a rather disloyal one, but it would make more sense to understand my arguments as directed against interpretations than disciplines. Sensitivity to that distinction might have enabled Waugh to avoid this egregious conflation: ‘Ortolano’s statement . . . might be read instead as a testimony to the persistent and unignorable potency of the very entity of which [he] claims to have ridden us: the significance of rival or divergent disciplinary perspectives in any complex cultural analysis, the very thing, indeed, that he claims to have “dislodged”.’ Waugh has misread my challenge to a disciplinary reading of the Snow-Leavis controversy (that is, of this 1960s dispute as fundamentally a contest between the humanities and sciences) as a challenge to the value of different disciplinary approaches altogether (for instance, of literary studies in the early twenty-first century). This casual slippage between such different senses of the ‘disciplinary’ itself makes my point: I question the adequacy of a ‘disciplinary’ interpretation of the Snow-Leavis debate because it too readily obscures not only other differences between them, but now even differences between an interpretation of their argument, and an approach to interpretation altogether. While Waugh tries to pack ever more meaning into her sense of the ‘disciplinary’, I would suggest that the category should be analyzed rather than adopted.

Waugh thus reads the ‘two cultures’ controversy as an argument between disciplinary commitments that was informed by ideological visions, whereas I read the controversy as an argument between ideological visions that was informed by disciplinary commitments. The difference is one of interpretation and argument, which is why it is unfortunate that Waugh devoted her review to presenting her own narrative rather than engaging with my evidence. For one thing, though I may be a vandal, as she asserts and then repeats, I’m a careful sort of vandal: I try to get the date of the Rede Lecture right (7 May, not 9 March), and I don’t misquote Lionel Trilling (‘miasma’, not ‘morass’). Moreover, the evidence that I marshal in support of my argument is substantial, as indeed it must be in order to recast an episode that is so seemingly familiar. Waugh does not believe that this apparent familiarity poses an interpretive problem: ‘Ortolano seems to imply’, she writes, ‘that the “two cultures” controversy as a “two cultures” controversy never really happened and that generations of commentators have been bamboozled by the phrase ever since’. I do not believe they have been bamboozled exactly, but I am surprised that she does not recognize a difference between participating in a discussion in the terms of its predecessors, and analyzing those terms as our objects of study. Waugh locates herself in the former camp, as attested to by her breezy assurance that the ‘two cultures’ controversy happened as a ‘two cultures’ controversy, and she is satisfied with the terms of the dispute as Snow defined them, twice stating that subsequent discussions take place within the ‘conceptual space’ that he established. Let me close by indicating why I am more wary than Waugh of taking Snow as my guide through intellectual history.

While the ‘two cultures’ might provide a useful touchstone, alerting potential readers to the topic under discussion, rather than defining a ‘conceptual space’, the term was developed and deployed to advance a polemical vision. Snow honed the ‘two cultures’ thesis for three years before the Rede Lecture, developing it in tandem with efforts to advance domestic modernization and global industrialization. He believed (as did many others at the time) that industrial society should be extended through technocratic direction, against the opposition of conservatives on the right and radicals on the left, and he developed the ‘two cultures’ dichotomy to distinguish supporters of this vision from their opponents. The ‘two cultures’ did offer a sort of conceptual space, then: one that packaged this audacious ideological vision within a banal lament about disciplinary separation – in other words, if there seems to be something reductive and polemical in ‘two cultures’ discussions, that is partly because a reductive polemic was built into the concept. Leavis recognized the stakes of the argument, and by refusing to enter the discussion on Snow’s terms – part of the reason for that question mark in his title, Two Cultures? – he sought to pre-empt readings of his lecture as either a defense of literary studies or an indictment of science. As the controversy spiraled beyond Snow and Leavis, commentators engaged with different parts of these arguments, but a consistent feature of these discussions was how poorly they mapped onto the supposed ‘two cultures’ dichotomy: for instance, the biochemist Michael Yudkin, one of Snow’s earliest and sharpest critics, could hardly be understood as having opposed either scientific practice or positivist epistemology, but that did not prevent him from disputing nearly every premise of The Two Cultures. Indeed, most chapters of my book begin by relating a dispute that might initially appear disciplinary, only to show how those differences were themselves part of more complicated conflicts. Waugh, determined to sustain the integrity of the ‘two cultures’ framework, concedes that the disciplinary alignments in such cases were ‘blurring’ or ‘blurred’, but as the evidence accumulates I would suggest that it points to the need for better explanations altogether.

In the end, for both Waugh and myself, the way that we understand the ‘two cultures’ controversy matters because it is bound up with much larger issues. For Waugh, the ‘two cultures’ offers a useful way of explaining the Snow-Leavis episode, but it also defines the conceptual space in a longer tradition. Her review offers a spirited survey of that tradition, and anyone with an interest in these important issues will certainly look forward to her forthcoming book on the subject. Yet I remain convinced, along with scholars across the disciplines (including Waugh’s), that ideas are best understood in their contexts, and for this reason I find the ‘two cultures’ less enlightening than misleading: not only in discussions of this episode, and of this tradition, but of modern British history. Snow argued that intellectual life was divided between two cultures, and that these divisions were contributing to Britain’s economic and national decline. The ensuing controversy intersected with debates over a number of issues, including the mission of the university, the methodology of social history, and the future of the former empire, and Snow’s critique of British society and culture later found echoes in declinist historiography. Snow fashioned the ‘two cultures’ not to describe these arguments, but rather to shape them, which is why my book emphasizes the need to historicize (rather than adopt) that inherited framework. I have no desire to speak the last word in this conversation, but I do hope to advance it in a particular direction: one that establishes analytical distance not only from the ‘two cultures’ framework, but also – and more importantly – from the larger interpretations of British and intellectual history that framework sustains.