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

From the Mises Blog, Aug. 2, 2006

Archived comments below.

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

TAGS Philosophy and Methodology

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 (12), 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.

Archived comments:

Comments (8)

  • quasibill
  • I don’t know about this.

    To me, “science” is the application of the scientific method. Hypothesize, formulate anti-hypothesis, test, compare results to predictions, rinse, repeat. Anything that doesn’t involve this process isn’t “science.”

    The important thing to note is that science does not equal truth. Science is merely one way to approach gaining knowledge, but nothing learned by science is unassailable. For example, if an alien landed tomorrow and demonstrated that, in fact, he controls gravity and that Einstein was all wet with general relativity, the science would be wrong, but the knowledge we gained from the alien would in fact be unscientific in nature.

    Even more important is to note that the scientific method does incorporate logic in the process – you formulate your hypotheses and anti-hypotheses using logic, based upon certain “facts” that you assume are true. So the scientific method is merely a subset of the use of logic to discover truth as we can perceive it.

  • Published: August 3, 2006 9:55 AM

  • Stephan Kinsella
  • Quasibill:

    To me, “science” is the application of the scientific method. Hypothesize, formulate anti-hypothesis, test, compare results to predictions, rinse, repeat. Anything that doesn’t involve this process isn’t “science.”


    Well, then it seems you are accepting the metaphysical dualism Machan criticizes. Look, in a way, it’s just semantics: depends on how you define science. If you want to define that word to refer only to the natural sciences–the systematic study of causal phenomenon–that is fine; but then we need a term for other systematic studies. What, then, are economics and ethics and politics? They can also be systematically studied. So then we have science, and other types of systematically-studied topics. What is the umbrella term for “systematically-studied topics”?

    Surely it should be science. There are difference sciences. Some sciences, like the sciences of ethics and politics and economics, concern non-causal phenomenon; they concern human action, teleology, and value. They can be studied systematically and rigorously, but in a way appropriate to their nature. The natural sciences have their own methods, e.g. empirical testing, etc.


    Incidentally, there some libertarians who adopt a Popperian methodology, where there is no such thing as proof or justification; there are only conjectures that can be tested. See, e.g., J.C. Lester, Escape from Leviathan. “Conjecturalism” and Popperian positivsm-empiricism is an incoherent, self-contradictory view, IMO; see, e.g., p. 188 of Hoppe’s article In Defense of Extreme Rationalism; and his A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, ch. 7. For more on lester, see the reviews by David Gordon and Rafe Champion; see also this quick summary of Roderick Long’s summary of Popper here, and note 113 et pass of Roderick Long’s working paper, Wittgenstein, Austrian Economics, and the Logic of Action.

  • Published: August 3, 2006 10:01 AM

  • TGGP
  • The real two cultures are Misesians and non-Misesians? Considering how much larger the latter category is than the former, it doesn’t seem to be an especially useful cultural distinction.
  • Published: August 3, 2006 10:02 AM

  • quasibill
  • “Well, then it seems you are accepting the metaphysical dualism Machan criticizes”

    No. What I’m doing is requiring a strict definition for the word “science”. I’ll grant you that there is nothing that says there needs to be a strict definition for it, or that my strict definition is the proper one – but in that direction lies dragons.

    My point, actually, is that even the scientific method is merely a subset of the larger effort to understand life through the application of reason. The scientific method was DEVELOPED through reason. And it assumes the use of reason in formulating hypotheses and comparing the data generated. Hence, science is not separate from the use of reason.

    However, it is important to note that science IS a subset, and therefore not the only way to gain knowledge through the application of reason. My alien example is one I’ve used repeatedly in arguments with technocrats: the knowledge gained from the alien is unscientific (to an extreme if only one person observed the alien, which then promptly disappeared forever), but nevertheless it is knowledge. It is knowledge even if the alien sticks around and continues to demonstrate it, but we puny humans don’t have the ability to test whether it is illusion or real by the scientific method. Just like Newton’s theories were solid science until we were able to perceive better and realize that his conception of absolute space didn’t mesh with our observations. Our subsequent observations did nothing to change the fact that science supported Newton’s theory.

    Not all knowledge can be discovered by the scientific method. However, it is helpful in the arenas it is suited for. In other arenas, we must fall back to the underlying method – the application of pure reason.

  • Published: August 3, 2006 11:12 AM

  • Stephan Kinsella
  • Quasi: Your science/alien example sounds a bit Randian, in the way they define knowledge as “contextual”. They way they define it, it’s reasonable to hold an incorrect view if you are incorrect simply because the context could not have it any other way; and if you happen to hold a correct view just be chance, then it is arbitrary and not contextually certain. Or something like this.

    In any event your appeal to “reason” as the overarching concept of which “the scientific method” is just one part, is just what I meant. Okay, so the systematic study of economics is not a science, by this definition, but it is an application of reason. We need a term for this. I say ti is a science. Of course it is. You want to say that natural science is the only science there is. THis is a way of disparaging other “domains of reason” by not granting them the term “science”.

  • Published: August 3, 2006 11:17 AM

  • Roger M
  • Anybody ever read the late Francis Schaeffer? He made a lot out of this duality, often calling it the dichotomy between faith and reason. I believe he placed the origin of it with Kierkegaard. He argued that such a dichotomy was artificial and intended to elevate science as the only method of actually knowing anything.

    Wasn’t it Mises who wrote that the real battle is one of epistemology? Once you get that battle won, the rest seems to fall into place fairly easily.

  • Published: August 3, 2006 11:30 AM

  • quasibill
  • Call me socialist if you must, just don’t call me a Randian! 🙂

    Seriously, it does appear we arguing past each other at this point – I think we agree on the concepts, we’re just arguing terminology.

    I just don’t believe we should muddy up the term “science” – it’s too loaded with connotations, especially by specialists. I don’t disparage “non-natural” fields, I just don’t think they belong in the realm of “science.” They belong in the realm of knowledge gained through reason, and the knowledge in them is just as valid as the knowledge in the “scientific” fields.

    Part of my reasoning for demanding a strict definition for “science”, and making it a subset of reason, is to get past the knee-jerk reaction of most science-types I know towards knowledge not gained through the scientific method. If you call it “science” they’ll shut down the reason center of their brain and begin a lecture on the scientific method. By granting them this initial definition, they remain open to learning about the validity of other methods of gaining knowledge. Of course, there is also the problem of many science types who don’t even understand the scientific method that they are beholden to, but that’s another issue altogether (if I had a dollar for every Ph.D. I had to teach the scientific method to in my old lab…)

  • Published: August 3, 2006 12:46 PM

  • Stephan Kinsella
  • Qbill– Yes, in a way it’s jus semantics… but first, I am not sure that the term “science” classically meant only natural sciene. I suspect it had a wider application origionally, and the “natural scientists” and positivists coopted it to give it its narrow meaning. Much like socialists did with the word “liberal.” Moreover, the term “science” is loaded now, so denying it to some fields is a way of disparaging them.
  • Published: August 3, 2006 1:02 PM

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