Snow noted a growing divide between "the two cultures" in Western society, scientists and "literary intellectuals", who became increasingly self-absorbed and incomprehensible to each other. One of philosophy's traditional roles was providing a unified picture of the world and person's place in it. In this case however philosophy itself split along the same fault line into analytic and continental parts. Michael Friedman in A Parting of the Ways traces the split to an exchange between Carnap and Heidegger in 1930-s. Carnap called metaphysics a collection of "meaningless pseudo-sentences" and Heidegger responded in kind by characterizing methodology of science as "conclusive degeneration of logic into logistic". More recently, there were equally "productive" exchanges between Derrida and some leading physicists, who puzzled over and/or mocked his writings.

Snow himself attributed the divide to the flaws of British education system, but it seems to be too deep, lasting and pervasive for that. Are there philosophical investigations into this divide, its root causes, consequences and implications for the role of philosophy? Is it just a social backlash against the increasing influence of science, or is there something in the nature of intellectual discourse itself that forces such a split at some point? Are there philosophical figures/schools of thought that try to bridge it and on what grounds? Are there signs of emerging synthesis or will it grow deeper?

EDIT: Isn't there common ground even on methodology? Creative side of science, that is creation of new conjectures, models and theories by a scientist, is still very poorly understood. It is commonly referred to as "more art than science". Proofs in mathematics rarely reveal how they are arrived at, and Einstein did not deduce relativity from experiments alone. In mathematics there was some work on heuristics by Polya elaborated on philosophically by Lakatos, but there isn't much of that. Continental philosophy, on the other hand, naturally focuses on creation and discovery, but after Husserl there was little willingness to cross over, or even to make yourself understandable to the other side (Derrida for example). Why? Similarly, there are analytic and empirical aspects to the work of an artist, and especially a writer, that are more science than art. The intellectual processes at work seem to have the same underlying structure, but with different emphases on different aspects. Isn't that a natural subject for philosophy?

EDIT 2: Here is Friedman's diagnosis of the philosophical split.

"It is no longer possible, in particular, to view pure formal logic, as the most clearly and uncontroversially universal form of human thinking... We can either, with Carnap, hold fast to formal logic as the ideal of universal validity and confine ourselves, accordingly, to the philosophy of the mathematical exact sciences, or we can, with Heidegger, cut ourselves off from logic and "exact thinking" generally, with the result that we ultimately renounce the ideal of truly universal validity itself. If I am not mistaken, it is precisely this dilemma that lies at the heart of the twentieth-century opposition between "analytic" and "continental" philosophical traditions... But the thoroughgoing intellectual estrangement of these two traditions, their almost total lack of mutual comprehension, is a product of the National Socialist seizure of power in 1933 and the resulting intellectual migration."

He then suggests Cassirer as a starting point for reconciliation, the only major philosopher who wrote treatises on both mythical thought and general relativity.

  • This could easily and irreversibly be attributed to growth in the body of knowledge which also accounts to specialization; it's why a modern day Da Vinci is inconceivable. A jack-of-all trades "Renaissance man" today is either really a specialist with some hobbies or else an amateur on many fronts. Likewise, once-upon-a-time a professional scientist might practice all conceivable kinds of science, but today they are split not just into biologists, physicists, etc., but further divided into specific sub-specialties... Oct 24, 2014 at 14:24
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    ...You don't just have an issue of increasing distance between scientists and intellectuals, you have an increasing distance between scientists, which again seems inevitable and irreversible. Oct 24, 2014 at 14:26
  • @goldilocks I am not sure that a dialogue requires Renaissence type universalists. Kant wasn't an expert in Newtonian mechanics when he wrote the Critique, and Kuhn wasn't an expert in philosophy or history when he wrote Scientific Revolutions, he was just assigned to teach a course in the history of science. Specialization of knowledge is also accompanied by its integration, "interdisciplinary" being the buzz word. So I don't see how that alone makes the split irreversible, or even unavoidable.
    – Conifold
    Oct 24, 2014 at 23:45
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    I did not say that caused the split, I said that was symptomatic of the same cause. Your question hangs on the premise that this is not an irreversible consequence resulting from growth in the body of knowledge (just as specialization is also a consequence) but upon the voluntary "increasing self-absorption" of participants, which seems blind to the screamingly obvious. You've (or Snow and Friedman have) also made too much of bickering. There's always been bickering. And, I think, there's a false nostalgia for an idealized mythic past. Oct 25, 2014 at 7:48
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    It is easy to look back at works of a canon (Kant, Newton, Kuhn) and say, "Oh where are such people now?" -- when of course people said exactly the same thing in Kant and Kuhn's day extolling an older canon. The past was always better than the present ;) The real issue is that Kuhn's contemporary parallel has not been handed to you on a plate, because there is a historical process that is not complete. This is a chimeric problem born of misinterpreting disparate modern social phenomenon. Oct 25, 2014 at 8:07

5 Answers 5


I would suggest that our salvation from this dilemma may come from exactly the sciences it deprives of a decent footing. Classical psychology contains places where it is still possible to study humanities from a skeptical and systematizing perspective with testable implications. The leading light in this kind of endeavor was Jung, who clearly saw his work on such literary content as archetypes and alchemical history as science that would eventually reach a clarity where they could be tested medically on his patients. And there are still Jungians.

I would like to inject the idea that we have competing definitions of science, one basically the translation of "Wissenschaft" from German, and the other a more English phenomenon centered on the example of Newton. I would like to call them "Kuhnian science" and "Popperian science", at the risk of overstating those authors allegiance to each form. We want to imagine they are the same thing, but they aren't. Jung was clearly doing the former, and had no real vision of the latter.

The question is not whether Popperian science works, but whether that means other means work less well in general including fields like psychology, which comments seem to just decide is a bad Popperian science, instead of something that needs different rules.

There are excellent reasons that some sciences, like psychology and anthropology, will have a very hard row to hoe, if they choose to be exclusively Popperian sciences, verifying results against null hypotheses with clear numerical definitions of falsification. Even with the deep elaboration of statistics they have made, the notion of experimentation and falsification are too strong to apply most of the time. Psychologists themselves refer to this notion as 'physics envy'. But they are well on their way to being sciences in the Kuhnian sense -- their squabbling about basic principles is becoming an underlying understanding with various different emphases.

If we decide that science itself is this one thing, where all paradigmatically-based disciplines have value only to the degree they pay homage to a specific kind of reality testing, we are avoiding progress in those disciplines, and discarding useful information. As Feyerabend keeps mentioning throughout 'Against Method', the educational programme that basically shut down the teaching of classical Chinese medicine in the name of systematizing it scientifically was not productive, and was eventually reversed.

Widening our notion of science back to its older sense cuts across the disparagement that scientists automatically have that any discipline that cannot proceed with a specific methodology must simply be doing it wrong, or things would work. They would become accustomed to the idea that the places where their ideas really come from are the cultural accumulation of the arts, and there might be detente.

EDIT: Source of perspective.

I totally buy the idea that our own internal processes work by generate-and-test cycles, from Chomsky to fMRI research, this seems predictive. (Dennett has laid this data out very well a couple times in "Kinds of Minds" and in "Consciousness, Explained".) So, as I see it, science of this form is natural to us. And it is a validated approach -- evolution approves -- it is hugely successful. Its larger-scale, more conscious, application works even better for our whole society.

But saying, "This is what science really is" and following up with "Science works" (with open quantification) implies this version of science will work in general, everywhere, for all problems, or at least a significant majority.

But we have a forebrain that seems to work really hard to deny that projective testing is what is going on 'under the hood'. Therefore most of us hold a model of mind other than the one most consistent with physiology. So much so the one that fits observations was hard to get to because it is hard to hold. To me, this indicates that this way is good for much of our data, but something more deeply constructed is needed for more abstract stuff like understanding other people.

  • "We are avoiding progress [...] and discarding useful information" -> Probably a psychology of science (as opposed to a philosophy of) would be interesting here; that no one can deny the hard scientist but the hard scientist can deny everyone else is a psychological problem. It's a real cliche in documentaries about physicists for them to describe part of their motivation being that disciplines which do not allow for "a specific kind of reality testing" drive them bonkers, or that ideas without a route to empirical verification are potentially unpleasant for them to consider. Oct 24, 2014 at 16:51
  • Why should we believe that non-Popperian science works? In every endeavor there is going to be some portion that will be verifications and tests of models with some metric of reliability (perhaps not explicit), and some portion that is not; and we see that those with lots of good tests and precise models advance very fast and those without maybe not so much. None of Feyerabend's examples (that I recall) seem very compelling to me: you have the sociology of Popperians shutting things down on a whim before evaluating how rigorous one can be, and others getting things right for wrong reasons.
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 24, 2014 at 23:08
  • @Rex Kerr The science that works is not Popperian in the first place, as he himself admitted after Kuhn pointed out that "Sir Karl mistook what happens during scientific revolutions for the normal practice of scientists". Lakatos developed scientific programmes to fix Popper's falsificationism in response to such criticisms.
    – Conifold
    Oct 24, 2014 at 23:35
  • @Conifold - Revolutions bring into clear focus the force of evidence that is always at play and which underlies the reason why science works. Lakatos does a pretty good job at highlighting the key steps, but I wouldn't call it "non-Popperian" but "Popperian in principle". Didn't Lakatos himself consider himself basically a non-naive Popperian?
    – Rex Kerr
    Oct 24, 2014 at 23:45
  • @Rex Kerr He did call himself "sophisticated falsificationist", but his description of scientific progress owes as much to Kuhn (and also Feyerabend in discarding universal methodology) as to Popper. In particular, he focuses much more on the genesis of new theories which is the harder part than verification/falsification.
    – Conifold
    Oct 24, 2014 at 23:57

I am not terribly optimistic that the division will be overcome in any sort of principled way. After all, the analytic and continental divide is still alive and well, and to mend that one there isn't even a need to be versed in a second field.

One problem is that science works. Scientists don't, therefore, have much incentive to mend anything with "literary intellectuals". If I can make a tomato mold-resistant and can send a spacecraft to Europa and can see a million molecules dancing around in a cell--who cares what they say? Indeed, that attitude is a large part of why science works sociologically: what do I care what other people think?

Another problem is that philosophers tend to disdain strong reliance on empirical matters, so the scientists don't have much to offer. It doesn't matter how much data you've got, a contradiction is still a contradiction; an ill-founded conceptual framework is still ill-founded. So I don't think philosophers are, on the whole, overly eager to mend any splits either.

Of course there are real problems to be answered: just because science does work it does not follow that scientists know precisely why it does. Nor is it guaranteed that philosophers tackling the problem will figure it out either, especially if they take a bird's-eye view of the scientific method instead of digging into the details and asking--like a scientist!--what things, when changed, will make this endeavor fail? What is the minimum required to succeed (and how much)?

The way out, if there is one, I think will come with new generations who are heavily versed in science yet are drawn to philosophical questions. Whether this mends the divide or ends up with yet another divide, I cannot yet say. But the growth of neurophilosophy as a field is an indication that those with dual interests are not letting the divide between fields stop them from having a foot in each.


It might be useful to align this with another 'two cultures' paradigm in science which to most layman are very similar: that of physics and mathematics.

Physics has been inspired by mathematics - Newtonian physics would be unimaginable without the differential calculus; Einsteins General Relativity would have been still-born without the technology of tensor calculus developed by Riemann and Ricci.

Mathematics has been inspired by physics - non-commutative algebra were a curiousity (the quaternions of Hamilton) until Quantum Mechanics gave it new impetus. Heisenberg for example knew nothing about matrices before he developed matrix mechanics (along with Dirac).

But given all this, they have different goals, languages & cultures. The same theory is studied in different angles. A mathematician talking about GR in the language of (coordinate-free) Differential Geometry is (almost) incomprehensible to a physicist brought up in (exceedingly coordinate heavy) Tensor Calculus.

In the very long view physics began without mathematics: for example the early cosmologists and atomists in Miletus.

There are physicists and mathematicians that straddle the divide. A famous one who does is Witten, another is Borcherds.

Similarly there are philosophers who also cross the continental and analytic bridge. Nussbaum for example writes on the philosophy of law and the emotions in the analytic mode; but her choice of subject is continental; Jessica Frazier write on Indian Metaphysics drawing on the continental heritage ie Heidegger and Gadamer, but her style has the clarity of analytic school rather than the obscurity of Heidegger. Climate change was discovered by a whole of scientists but forms a thread in eco-philosophy; for example in the short works of the Norwegian Arne Naess, for example in his essay A Plea for Pluralism in Physics and Philosophy he writes as you have put:

It has been predicted that it will be difficult to build bridges, for instance between discussions among logicians where “existence” is a key term, and discussions involving the same key term among scientists and philosophers influenced by Heidegger, Sartre, or Marcel.

But he notes that

Such bridges will be and are today built in environments where admirers of Sartre, Heidegger, and others take advanced courses in symbolic logic, empirical semantics and read with steady delight and occasional approval the works of Sir Karl Popper—environments where, too, some representatives of the toughest sciences have successfully mastered the labyrinth of Heideggerian terminology.


It is, after all, not so bad when helped along by friends who are very well acquainted with empirical and rational approaches.

Its worth noting that Naess was a participant of the Vienna Circle, the exemplary root of the analytic tradition.

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    Thanks for the interesting references. But non-commutative algebra was a subject of extensive research by Cayley, Lie, Dickson, Wedderburn, Frobenius, etc. long before QM, and many physicists and mathematicians I met are well versed in both coordinate and coordinate free notations. Physics/mathematics seems to me more like a working partnership as opposed to the dysfunctional analytic/continental split.
    – Conifold
    Oct 26, 2014 at 21:56
  • Sure but those are big names, how widely spread was it amongst working mathematicians? Like I said Heisenberg was unacquainted with matrices (whereas now school-children are introduced to them). Though coordinate & coordinate-free methods are well known now its taken a century or so to do so: from Weyls announcement in the 1920s 'the introduction of coordinates is an act of violence' to Yang (one half of the Yangs-Mills theory doublet) who was unacquainted with fibre-bundles in the 70s when they came up with the said theory. Oct 26, 2014 at 23:06
  • As for the Derrida & Physicists exchange I'm supposing that you're referring to Sokal, who wrote a book to debunk continental philosophy; on which this question & answer might prove useful. In fact the same or roughly similar critique is made within continental philosophy if the introduction of Badious Being & Event is anything to go by. Oct 26, 2014 at 23:18
  • Having said that the divide in philosophy goes deeper possibly because it involves politics & thus ethics; thus wider dimensions of significance ie Heidegger and National Socialism; but one ought to note his friendship with Hannah Arendt here. Oct 26, 2014 at 23:26

This has put me in mind of Jonathan Haidt's argument in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Through surveys and research his group identified 6 motivating dynamics, that different political groupings prioritise differently: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. The left place higher priority on care/harm and lower on sancitity/degredation, the right vice versa. The left like evidence & observations based reasoning, the right values and purity based reasoning. Those labels are of course very suspect for comparing eg. USA & France who use them very differently. Pragmatism & idealism or many other terms might be better.

You might link this to Tamler Sommers' 'Why Honour Matters, which distinguishes between more honour based cultures founded in herding, vs more collective cultures based in agrarian planting and harvesting cycles.

Beteen analytic and continental philosophy, I would identify the core dynamic as between: evidence and rules based reasoning; and values and motivations based reasoning. Nietzsche and Foucault share a diagnosis that structures of thought come down to strengths of motivation. In contrast, Popper jumps to an idea of scientific culture that is constantly approaching it's ideal, dispassionately. Wittgenstein also abstracts motivations, considering evidence and observation as having ontic priority, the practice of language games not the motivations for them. They cannot accept the other perspectives view, whether or not motivation is essential.

Another way to view it is

"A top-down view of value implies that we can simply create new reasons for living, that the ideology itself is its own proof. But if values come bottom-up, then man’s quest for meaning cannot be separated from his labour. They are the same." from

We might note how influential Ghandi and Martin Luther King have been in shaping ideas, through appeal to lived values. And of course Marx. While appeals to observation and evidence only slowly percolate into a new 'metis' for society - safer, but perhaps less likely to be timely.

Settled agrarians developed deep hostilities to nomadic people and cultures. It may be in the long run, that honour-based cultures are too violent and unstable, and collective cultures similarly come to dominate. More likely, a dynamic mixing will give rise within each, to developments which challenge the other. We need the rare figures who can translate between cultures, mindsets and traditions, and show each their hidden assumptions, towards building new ways to be.

Edit to add: Another criteria is to demarcate the continental tradition as dealing with the paradoxes of self-reference and reflexivity - towards postmodernity, the critique of the modern. Following Hilary Lawson's Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament. This would view the continental tradition as involving the philosopher in their work, them not being able to stand outside of it.

In this view we might see Wittgenstein and Godel as bridging figures. It has to be noted their thought has been more respected than integrated, into the analytic tradition.


Lakatos vindicated "science" where possible falsehood (of some postulate) is legitimately perpetuated by a "protective belt". Such "science" is incomprehensible to scientists, let alone "literary intellectuals". Here is a nice relevant paper:

http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00000313/ Jos Uffink, Bluff your Way in the Second Law of Thermodynamics

  • At the risk of seeming obsessive (I put this like five places last week) -- human memory is an exothermic process, so there is a clear link between the second law of thermodynamics and perceived, if not 'real' time. Time may very well go backward, often, if not very far, and we would never know.
    – user9166
    Oct 25, 2014 at 15:48
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    @Pentcho Valev Protective belt doesn't perpetuate, it is intended to be transient and help build new theories in place of failing ones. For example, Lorentz introduced contraction of rulers and retardation of clocks to explain Michelson-Morley experiments. In doing so he "perpetuated" ether but also derived transformation formulas that in part led Einstein to special relativity.
    – Conifold
    Oct 26, 2014 at 22:01

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