Bora Fezga



On the state of scholarship in the American academy, and on the state of humanity

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

The Three Cultures compares the premises, vocabulary, sources of evidence, contributions, and limitations of the research, scholarship, and theories of natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists. The concepts of physicists, chemists, and biologists refer to things with material features, such as particles, molecules, cells, and neurons. Most social scientists and humanists rely on concepts for events, such as behavior, thought, and emotion, that occur at the end of a cascade of processes that originated in a material brain, but require a special vocabulary that cannot be replaced with biological terms.

One group of social scientists avoids phenomena and explanations that have any ethical component. These scholars typically study sensory and perceptual phenomena, some aspects of memory, and motor skills and often try to find correlations of these events with activity in brain circuits. The larger group, more interested in human variation and adaptation to the local society, finds it hard avoiding an ethical preference—the judgment that a person is or is not psychologically adjusted usually requires an evaluation of the qualities that are better or worse than others with respect to some ethical ideal. Furthermore, these scholars rely heavily on words as the primary source of evidence because they frequently use questionnaires and interviews. This practice poses serious problems because words and sentences have unique properties that are not possessed by behaviors, mental images, or private feelings.

Scholars in the humanities have most specific missions. One group tries to detect an important change in the ideology of a society or in the meanings of popular concepts and communicates this information to a public that has not yet recognized these new ideas. Others are primarily motivated to generate an aesthetic response in their audiences. Unlike natural and social scientists, humanists cannot perform experiments that can evaluate the validity of their insights. Only the roll of history can perform this judgment.

The contributions of the natural sciences, which include better health, longevity, and labor-saving devices, have persuaded the public and the media that natural scientists are entitled to a special status and that judicial, legislative, and even some personal decisions, should be based on factual evidence affirmed by the studies of these intellectuals. This view is seriously flawed. Biologists have established beyond doubt that all male primates, including humans, are naturally sexually promiscuous. But few communities are ready to remove moral and legal sanctions on a man who impregnates a woman who is not his legal spouse. That decision rests on a moral belief – and it is not foolish though it flouts the scientific facts.

The dominant premise in evolution and economics is that a person is being loyal to natural law if he or she attends to self’s interest and welfare before being concerned with the needs and demands of family or community. The public does not realize that this statement is not an established scientific principle but an ethical preference. Nonetheless, this belief has created a moral confusion among North Americans and Europeans because the evolution of our species was accompanied by the disposition to worry about kin and the collectives to which one belongs.

“The dominant premise in evolution and economics is that a person is being loyal to natural law if he or she attends to self’s interest and welfare before being concerned with the needs and demands of family or community. The public does not realize that this statement is not an established scientific principle but an ethical preference.”

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.

September 18, 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.

“The most significant assignment each of us must meet, which other animals can ignore, is to make up a purpose and commit to it as if we were certain it was the reason for our existence.”


I do not harbor the illusion that this book will have any effect on the current historical narrative and will be very happy if it clarifies for some readers issues that had been cloudy. I suspect this is the aim of most who write about an unfamiliar culture, historical era, or intellectual effort.

Americans, even more than Europeans, are too friendly to a pragmatism that demands that every effort have some constructive purpose that might produce a benevolent change. I was never attracted to the pragmatic philosophy of Peirce, Dewey, or James because of my skeptical view, resembling that of Stephen Gould, that all forms of life are accidents with no hidden purpose, as much a product of chance as the distances from the sun of Mars or Jupiter.

The most significant assignment each of us must meet, which other animals can ignore, is to make up a purpose and commit to it as if we were certain it was the reason for our existence. I am frustrated by the morally arrogant who assert that the premise they selected is wiser, purer, or more reasonable than the one chosen by others. I am in agreement with the poet Wallace Stevens who wrote, “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

A posture of loyalty to some unquestioned premises has the advantage of requiring rituals that must be performed during the waking hours. Humans require rituals, whether going to work, shopping, caring for children, weekend recreations, prayers, writing books, checking the stock prices, or conversations with the family at dinner. None can claim a rational foundation that is more secure than the others, but each dilutes the threat of uncertainty and imposes a form on what would otherwise be a shapeless, endlessly flat expanse of time.

I am troubled by the fact that, even though we live longer and enjoy more leisure, many species and cultures are not better off today than they were two centuries ago. Many animals have been harmed or extinguished; cultures have vanished; densely crowded urban neighborhoods of strangers have replaced the villages of the countryside; the earth’s air and water are seriously polluted; and the number of Africans living in abject poverty today is close to the total population of the United States. Humans are happy when their lives are improving, when they sense they can cope with whatever uncertainties arise, and when they are able to gratify strong desires if they make the effort. If deprived of these conditions, they are unhappy. Thus, it is appropriate to ask whether more contemporary adults are in the former or the latter category, compared with those who were alive in 1800.

A New Yorker cartoon reflects the inability of many to understand why, despite adequate material comforts, a sustained state of joy seems unattainable. The scene is a living room with a woman, a cat, and a man saying, “It’s odd that you’re so dull, I’m so boring and our cat is, for all we know, plaster of Paris.” I confess with sadness to a nod of agreement with Garrett Hardin’s critique of the hubris of experts who are confident that human ingenuity can defeat the combined forces of nature and history.

Imagine a hypothetical new species that is sentient, long-lived, omnipotent, and resting comfortably a hundred miles above the earth reflecting on the events of the past 200 years. As they brood over the fact that modern humans, who have been around for only 100,000 years, have killed more living things, consumed more biomass, destroyed more forests, polluted more water supplies, and added more toxins to the atmosphere than all their primate relatives who have been roaming the planet for millions of years, this new species might wonder about the dangers modern humans pose to the integrity of the earth. They might even decide that Homo sapiens had become such a serious threat to all forms of life, it might be time to have this species restrained, culled, or, perhaps, eliminated.

Although the current script cannot be rewritten, each of us should try to improve the current unhappy arrangements as much as we can. The book ends by asking scholars in and out of the Academy to adopt a posture of greater humility. It is time for the members of all three cultures to recognize that, like tigers, sharks, and hawks, each is potent in its own territory but impotent in the territory of the other.

© 2009 Jerome Kagan
Jerome Kagan The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century | Revisiting C. P. Snow Cambridge University Press 324 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0521518420 ISBN 978 0521732307
Bora Fezga

Jerome Kagan is an Emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has devoted his career of 55 years to the study of the development of children, with an emphasis on early intellectual development, the growth of a moral sense, and, over the past 25 years, the role of temperament. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded Distinguished Scientist Awards from the American Psychological Association and the Society for Research in Child Development. His most recent books include The Long Shadow of Temperament (with Nancy Snidman), A Young Mind in a Growing Brain (with Norbert Hershkowitz), Three Seductive Ideas, What Is Emotion?, An Argument For Mind, and, forthcoming in 2010, The Temperamental Thread.

Cover Interview of
September 18, 2009