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

A close-up

The most important pages begin on the bottom of page 265.

Snow did not dwell on the useful social functions of the trio of intellectual communities.  Each culture, like the branches of American government, represents a potential source of restraint when one, in a move to dominate the others, advocates ideological excesses that stray too far from evidence or violate the community’s ethical sense.  The natural scientists contribute to our material comforts and health and clarify puzzling natural phenomena.  The humanities articulate changes in the public mood produced by historical change and implicitly defend the ethical posture that seems appropriate for their society and historical era.  The social scientists try to evaluate the claims of both groups.

Every democracy requires an opposition party to prevent one temporarily in power from becoming despotic.  And every society needs a cohort of intellectuals to check the dominance of a single perspective when its ideological hand becomes too heavy.  The first cohort of natural scientists, especially Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, and Newton, assumed this responsibility when Christian philosophy dominated European thought and their work catalyzed the Enlightenment.  However, following three centuries of increasing secular power, natural scientists have become members of the entrenched establishment.  This new arrangement leaves writers, poets, philosophers, historians, and social scientists as the loyal opposition against a materialistic determinism that exaggerates the influence of genes and neurochemistry on human behavior and minimizes the influence of culture, values, and the historical moment on the meanings of words, the sources of uncertainty, and each person’s attempt to render their life coherent.

The obvious need for greater mutuality of understanding among the members of the three cultures could be partially met through collaborations, both in and out of the academy, and college courses co-taught and books co-authored by representatives from two or all three groups.  An undergraduate offering called “Nineteenth-Century Europe” taught collaboratively by a natural scientist who described the discoveries of Boltzmann, Mendel, and Pasteur; a social scientist who presented the cultural settings of these discoveries and the backgrounds of the scientists; and a historian who placed these events in the context of the industrialization of democracies holding an optimistic mood of progress could weave the separateness of the events into a coherent tapestry.