Jerome Kagan


On his book The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century

Cover Interview of September 17, 2009

The wide angle

The birth of this manuscript was the need for a summer writing project married to the accidental spotting of C.  P.  Snow’s Two Cultures near the shelf where I was searching for a book in Harvard’s Widener Library.  After reading Snow’s 1959 essay the following weekend, it became clear that revisiting Snow’s thesis 50 years later allowed me to organize my thoughts about the state of scholarship in the American academy and to synthesize my unhappiness with the dramatic ascent of the natural sciences in the years following World War 2, which intimidated the other two scholarly communities.

A deep theme in The Three Cultures centers on the different meanings of truth; that is, what does an individual point to when he or she declares, “I believe that idea to be true.”  The correspondence between a statement and a reliable observation is the usual meaning of truth for both scientists and the public.  However, mathematicians and some physicists accept the logical consistency of a mathematical argument as a second, different definition.  The physicists who call themselves string theorists believe that their equations are true, even though many phenomena assumed by the equations have never been observed.

Many humanists accept the semantic coherence of a text and its correspondence with the readers’ intuitions as a related, but distinctive, definition.  Readers of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice or Richard Dawkins’s book on selfish genes regard the texts as capturing the truth, even though many statements lack correspondence with observations and do not use formal arguments.  William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real have the ring of truth for those whose semantic networks are in accord with those of the authors.

The related concept of “ethically right” belongs to another meaning network that shares the semantic node correct with the concept true.  All who are certain that no human should harm or torture an innocent are convinced of the correctness of this belief which, unlike truth, involves a contrast between good and bad.

The final chapter of The Three Cultures is penetrated with personal ethical evaluations of the changes in the ambience of the research university, including the epidemic of a naked seeking of celebrity, the erosion of faculty loyalty to the university or the student body, the surrender by both administration and faculty to the seduction of political correctness, and the faculty acquiescence to demands to account for their time,  to publish enough papers to announce that they possess a work ethic and, if possible, to bring overhead money to the college treasurer.  Alfred North Whitehead, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Marie Curie would have been puzzled by this new breed of academic scholar.