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C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” and Misesian Dualism

C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” and Misesian Dualism

I’ve long been fascinated by C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures“ (excerpts) thesis, which concerns misunderstandings between the sciences, and the humanities. But it always seemed ... incomplete. To be missing something. In part, this was its triteness: engineers don’t read Dickens; humanities and artsy types don’t understand math and science. Yawn. But mainly I think it is a lack of rigor; a failure to appreciate the problems with scientism and positivism.

It always seemed to me that Snow’s thesis ought to be re-cast with the benefit of Misesian insights into the nature of science. In The Moral Case for the Free Market Economy, Tibor Machan touches on these issues. Machan rejects the type of dualism that says anything other than the natural sciences must be relegated the the unscientific realms of mysticism. As Machan notes, if one holds that some aspects of reality can be understood scientifically and systematically, and others cannot, this is a type of metaphysical dualism. “Indeed, that was the theme of British author C. P. Snow’s famous article about the ‘two cultures’: the arts, the humanities, the human sciences are left to one dimension of inquiry. The others, the hard sciences, natural sciences, are the most organized and orderly fields, are left to another dimension.”

Machan rejects this metaphysical dualism and believes that ethics and politics, for example, can be understood scientifically—albeit not by the methods appropriate to the natural sciences (predictability, etc.). I take this as compatible with Misesian epistemological dualism, which sees economics as a teleological field of study and the natural sciences as engaged in the study of causal phenomenon. Different methods of study are appropriate to each. See, e.g., Hoppe’s Economic Science and the Austrian Method (1995); Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science.

As Hoppe notes,

In view of the recognition of the praxeological character of knowledge, these insights regarding the nature of logic, arithmetic and geometry become integrated and embedded into a system of epistemological dualism. The ultimate justification for this dualist position, i.e., the claim that there are two realms of intellectual inquiry that can be understood a priori as requiring categorically distinct methods of treatment and analysis, also lies in the praxeological nature of knowledge. It explains why we must differentiate between a realm of objects which is categorized causally and a realm that is categorized teleologically instead.

Nor is the scientific approach limited only to non-normative fields like physics, or economics. A science of ethics is also possible; witness Hoppe’s extension of Misesian type epistemology and scientific methodology to ethics. Note Hoppe’s interesting statement about his proof of libertarian ethics:

Here the praxeological proof of libertarianism has the advantage of offering a completely value-free justification of private property. It remains entirely in the realm of is-statements, and nowhere tries to derive an ought from an is. The structure of the argument is this: (a) justification is propositional justification—a priori true is-statement; (b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle—a priori true is- statement; and (c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified—a priori true is-statement. [Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p. 208]

So, are there “two cultures”? Well, certainly it remains true that arts and humanities types often do not appreciate natural science. But that takes no special thesis to understand. There are differences in aptitudes, and there is a division of labor and specialization, after all. But the natural scientists, as well as many humanities types, seem to have accepted the scientism-positivism of our age. This is rampant among engineers, for example (1, 2), who cynically dismiss philosophy, economics, ethics, as being loosey-goosey and non-scientific. Economics, of course, has conceded this and adopted positivism a long time ago.

The real two cultures are the mainstream natural scientists and artists and intellectuals, on the one hand—those who have accepted scientism, the view that only causal fields are truly scientific; and, on the other hand, Misesians and others who recognize that fields outside the natural sciences can be true sciences but need not ape the method of the sciences.

To unite or provide a bridge between the “two cultures” of natural science and the humanities, both “sides” need a little bit of epistemological education.

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