The Two Cultures: A Psychedelic Solution?

The key point of C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture on The Two Cultures is an imperative to address a schism between the two cultures of science and literature (or at least, literary criticism). Snow accuses the latter of romanticising the pre-scientific era and in doing so undermining the vital progress of science that is needed to improve standards of living and alleviate human suffering.

Snow also concedes that scientific culture is not sufficiently concerned with the ends of humanity, that its disinterested detachment allows its discoveries to be abused, for example in the production of weapons of mass destruction.

The second accusation appears to me to be the most prescient, and the most serious (if F.R. Leavis was alive today, I imagine he’d be sat in his armchair cheerfully asking Alexa to play Beethoven’s pastoral symphony). Snow is arguing for greater mutual understanding between the two cultures. He does not explicitly propose a merging of the two, or suggest that this may be possible.

In an introduction to a 1998 edition of The Two Cultures, Stefan Collini observes that the controversy is entangled with ‘highly-changed matters of institutional status and social class’ (p.xvi). There are certainly egos and politics at play in Snow’s lecture and the ensuing debate, and the evidence of this peaks in Leavis’ response. In some ways I found the conflict interesting, but my overriding sense is that it is of little substance and distracts from the crucial point. If Leavis’ reaction does illustrate anything of importance it is that our life experiences affect the way we see the world, and narrow horizons and/or a lack of openness to experience are disastrous for mutual understanding.

Leavis was only secondarily objecting to Snow’s message. His primary objection was to the authority with which Snow delivered it. He felt that Snow was neither a good scientist nor a good novelist, and therefore he did not have the authority to pass comment on the two cultures in this way. Snow never responded directly to these criticisms, the manner and tone of which was widely disapproved of. Leavis was reported to have become ever more aggressive and antagonistic over the last two decades of his life, leading Stephen Fry (2011, p46) to describe him as ‘a sanctimonious prick of only parochial significance’, and, while this is equally rude, his use of the word ‘parochial’ is apt.

The ‘modest upbringing’ that is often attributed to Leavis was not a worldly one. By most people’s standards it wasn’t all that modest either. He attended an independent school in Cambridge where the teachers conversed with their pupils in Latin and Greek, and then went on to receive a scholarship to the University where (aside from the ‘great hiatus’ of World War 1 when he worked with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit) he remained for the rest of his life. Leavis was openly skeptical of the value of scientific thinking and progress, and was often criticised for his romantic notions about life in 17th and 18th century Britain that had little bearing in historical fact. He was, therefore, emblematic of the culture of literary criticism that Snow had in mind.

While Leavis’ father sold pianos in Cambridge, Snow’s gave piano lessons in Leicester. Snow’s experience at his local grammar school was very different to Leavis’ schooling; his Intermediate Examination in Science was not sufficient for him to start university directly, even at the rather humble-sounding Leicester University College. Snow had to spend a couple of years working as a lab assistant and catching up with classic literature that his contemporaries in ‘better’ schools (like Leavis, ten years earlier) were still being taught as a matter of course.

Reading Collini’s introduction, I initially wondered whether the whole contretemps between Leavis and Snow was little more than a personal spat, Leavis having disparaged not only Snow’s own novels, but the work of many writers he loved such as H.G.Wells. Leavis scorned Wells for believing that science could solve all our problems. I am very curious to know what Leavis believed these problems are, or were, given the rather one-dimensional life he appeared to have spent in Cambridge, a life lived second-hand through the experiences and imaginations of key literary figures. It is clear that Snow had a bee in his bonnet about Leavis and other literary critics, but as I said above, I don’t think this is the important message he needed to communicate. It didn’t take much googling to find out that there weren’t many writers who Leavis hadn’t disparaged, in any case.

Snow gave his Two Cultures lecture a few years after Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, the seminal account of his experience with mescaline in 1953, facilitated at Huxley’s request by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond. Having started out as a physical chemist, one would have thought that the explosion of scientific research on psychedelic compounds would have been on Snow’s radar throughout the 1950s, but I can’t find any evidence of this. I am eagerly awaiting delivery of Aldous Huxley’s book Literature and Science, which was published in 1963, four years after Snow’s original lecture and around the same time as his concluding response, A Second Look. There is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that psychedelic science does have the potential to address at least some of our problems – and particularly intractable ones at that (e.g. depression, addiction, trauma, openness to experience). The schism between science and the humanities is – as Snow highlights – a major world problem in itself, and it has been suggested (e.g. Grob 2009, Devenot 2015) that psychedelic experience confronts this. In Literature and Science Huxley presents the essence of the conflict as an opposition between the private experience and the public; something that Richard and I were discussing a few days ago with reference to the work of J.G. Ballard – the intractability of public ‘language’ and the stuff ‘on the inside’.

Novak (2004) describes the psychologist Sidney Cohen’s collaboration with Huxley – and his friend the historian and philosopher Gerald Heard – as an attempt to bridge Snow’s Two Cultures; an attempt to find a middle way between science and mysticism (p370). In Literature and Science Huxley imagines how a union between these seemingly incompatible aspects of humanity – reason and passion, clarity and sensitivity – might be forged. The book is currently making its way over to me from Portland, Oregon and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

Snow’s concern that the romantic notions of the literary critics are hampering scientific progress mirrors the tension Sessa (2017) speaks of in the field of psychedelic studies between scientific enquiry and the mysticism of the ‘bare-torsoed hippies’ among the psychedelic research community (p6). Sessa acknowledges the more spiritual factions as having ‘cultural validity’ but decries their ‘subjective claims and pseudo-scientific opinions’ (and, elsewhere, their conspiracy theories), suggesting that they weaken the scientific case for legalisation. In his original lecture Snow is similarly dismissive of literary culture, describing it not only as ‘behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining’ and defensively ‘standing on its precarious dignity’, but also as revelling in the drama of suffering. He infers that literary criticism is self-promoting, and that scientists, being concerned with ‘the collective welfare and future of humanity’ (p.xxvi) are morally superior. While most of the respondents to Snow’s lecture agreed that the pressing problem was to increase the scientific literacy of the non-scientists rather than the other way around, Collini explains how F.R. Leavis saw great literature as ‘the only possible antidote to the cheapening and corrupting of experience which the dominant forces of modern mass society conspired to promote’ (p.xxxii).

While I don’t subscribe to the idea that forces are conspiring to cheapen human experience, I do feel that too much of scientific culture is not sufficiently concerned with the ends of humanity. In his 2009 interview with Charles Grob, Stanislav Grof highlights how industrial civilisation has ‘lost spirituality and completely oriented itself on the pursuit of external goals’ (p1), threatening the future of life on Earth. But Grof is optimistic that a solution exists in the development of technologies (such as meditation, breathwork and psychedelics) that allow people to have spiritual experiences. Citing Aldous Huxley’s dramatically altered perspective of the Romantic poets in the years following his psychedelic initiation, informed by a newly integrated view of nature and humankind, Devenot (2015) argues for the ‘mutual dependence of science and poetry’ (p.v) in facilitating and documenting profound aesthetic experience. A particular example Huxley referenced many times to illustrate the educational capacities of psychedelics was William Blake’s ‘gratitude is heaven itself’, a phrase he claims he did not understand until he took LSD, after which it became ‘luminously comprehensible’ (1957, p130).

In 1962, coinciding with the publication of Huxley’s utopian final novel Island and Lord Robbins’ report on the future of higher education, C.P. Snow released his concluding remarks on the Two Cultures debate. In A Second Look, Snow refrains from reiterating his polemic on the culture of literary criticism, instead focusing on the capacity of technology to improve quality of life across the board, and commenting on what literature has made of the scientific revolution.

Snow describes George Orwell’s novel 1984 as communicating ‘the strongest possible wish that the future should not exist’ (p101). He contrasts this with the molecular biologist J.D. Bernal’s World Without War, of which the British surgeon Wilfred Le Gros Clark (1959) wrote a glowing review that treads lines so close to Snow’s, the two men must surely have been aware of one another. Like Snow, Le Gros Clark emphasises the special responsibility of scientists to solve ‘oppressive world problems’ (p1) due to these problems largely arising as a by-product of scientific advancement. The faculty Le Gros Clark calls our attention to is one of ‘scientific imagination’. (p1)

Snow confesses his love for the work of Dostoevsky, despite the latter’s fascist leanings. He points out that where great works are concerned, ‘posterity is forgiving’ (p91). He then turns his focus on those writing about modernism. Pro-modernists such as Trilling, whose perspective stemmed from Freudian psychology, claim the aim of literature is to free oneself from society, to ‘surrender oneself to experience without concerning oneself with morality of even one’s own interests’. Conversely, the philosophers Spender and Lukács both criticised modernism for its capacity to dissolve the personality. I see what Snow is getting at here; both camps appear to be pointing at the same phenomenon to prove their respective points. For Trilling modernism offers an escape from a static society, whereas Lukács seeks freedom from the relentless drive of change.

Snow urges his audience to accept that society and education will change, and that the pace of change will accelerate. He reiterates that it is dangerous to have – as we do – two cultures that can’t or don’t communicate. So what does he suggest? Is he claiming that he is helping the cause by writing his novels? That he can mediate across the divide? What is the source of the problem? Is it a failure of individual motivation, morality, the education system, the market economy, political infrastructure? I don’t think he is claiming any of the above, but in his original lecture he does of course draw attention to the privilege inherent in the liberal arts. The likes of F.R. Leavis were unlikely to have experienced poverty first hand, and that is a characteristic of literary culture that Snow was trying to elucidate; the back-slapping, self-serving community of those who enjoy their pleasant, intellectual lives.

Snow is optimistic about our capacity to circumvent the most threatening elements of scientific progress (e.g. nuclear war). He is not so confident that we will channel our scientific prowess into actual good deeds, and recognises that this will need ‘energy, self-knowledge and new skills… new perceptions into both closed and open politics’ (p99). He also believes that changes in education will not solve the issue by themselves, but they should help us realise what the problems are.

Snow did not of course forsee the huge advances in information technology, and while he may be correct that we will never again see individuals who ‘understand as much of our world as Piero della Francesca did of his’ (my emphasis), we now have a vast amount of knowledge literally at our fingertips. Transhumanism of some variety is already on the horizon; whether it is the individual cyborg, a greater awareness and use of collective consciousness, the extension of human longevity, or any combination of these, maybe one day we will know it all.

Snow is firm on his final word, which brings together what modern bioethicists are calling ‘cognitive’ and ‘moral’ enhancement; we must aim not only for imaginative and scientific progress but also for the awareness and alleviation of human suffering.


Devenot, N. 2015. Aldous Huxley’s New Romanticisms: Reading Blake and Wordsworth after mescaline. In Altered States/Other Worlds: Romanticism, Nitrous Oxide and the literary prehistory of psychedelia. PhD Thesis, University of Pennsylvania.

Grob, C. S. 2009. An Interview with Stan Grof.

Huxley, A. 1999. Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience. Park Street Press.

Leavis, F. R. 2013. The Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow. Cambridge University Press.

Le Gros Clark, F. 1959. World Without War. The New Reasoner (9), p113-122.

Fry, S. 2011. The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography. Penguin, London. page 46

Novak, S. J. 2004. LSD Before Leary, Sidney Cohen’s critic of 1950’s psychedelic research. In Acker, C. J. and Tracy, S.W. (Eds) Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000. University of Massachusetts Press.

Sessa, B. 2017. The 21st century psychedelic renaissance: heroic steps forward on the back of an elephant. Psychopharmacology. DOI 10.1007/s00213-017-4713-7

Snow, C.P. 1998. The Two Cultures. Cambridge University Press.


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