According to many, and popularized by C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture Two Cultures (reissued by Cambridge in 1993), there are two broad types of people, literary intellectuals and scientists, and a university is a place largely made up of persons drawn from one of these two lots. But a typical individual of each type is barely able, if able at all, to communicate with his counterpart, which goes some way to explaining the two distinct cultures one hears referred to as the humanities and the sciences and accounting for the difficulties university administrators have administrating such a group.
Being a scientist and a philosopher, I can testify that there is a grain of truth to Snow’s two-cultures idea. (For instance, a “serious” philosopher would never say ‘a grain of truth’ about anything, while a “serious” scientist would roll his eyes over my bothering to even make this parenthetical remark.) Nevertheless, I have found the experience of working and moving between these two cultures intellectually rewarding, even if also at times maddeningly frustrating. It is very much like living and working abroad, come to think of it.
But while there is something to this two cultures-within-one description of a university, it appears that Snow is wrong about it being due to two different types of people, or even due to two different types of subject matter. Much of what makes the two groups different is simply a consequence of how we organize and fund universities. The difference, in short, is a bureacratic one. Or so is an underlying assumption of Harvard’s governing board of trustees who have, to the best of my knowledge, not backed off one bit from their original goal of reconfiguring the university since the announced resignation of their president. The board wants to move Harvard away from Snow’s picture to something more integrated. It is an exciting proposition to think about, in the way that Plato’s Republic is exciting to think about, but not in the way that Soviet tanks rumbling into Prague is exciting to think about.
Suppose Harvard’s right about Snow being wrong, and that changing from a two-worlds bureaucracy to something less fragmented doesn’t entail a highhanded crackdown. What, then, should one think about changing to? Interdisciplinary is a vague and often maligned term because the distance between claiming to be do it and doing it well is considerably farther than the typical distances between these two points within a single field, and it is also often very difficult for a single department to police or evaluate work that stretches outside of its own boundaries. (But, again, these are bureaucratic concerns.)
An important underlying question is this: if one is to stop following Snow, what would then be helpful to discussions about how to organize a university, particularly if one would like it counter the natural forces of fragmentation that come from building a career within a discipline?
One idea is to find a set of features, each of which is shared to a varying degree by all (or nearly all) areas of study, and then group areas under these features-headings, where membership to each feature-heading is assigned to all and only those areas that strictly prefer the corresponding feature to all others. This would be unwieldy for a large parameter space, but one can get pretty far by using just 3 that Henry Kyburg mentions in Science and Reason (1990, p.16):
One of the difficulties in assessing the relation between science and philosophy stems from construing philosophy as one of the humanities, and therefore as a kind of opposite pole from experimentally based science. One way to alleviate the polar effect is to introduce a three-way distinction to replace the polar distinction. In fact, I think that the following distinction does more, and I commend it to the attention of university administrators.
Let us distinguish academically among formal disciplines, empirical disciplines, and interpretative disciplines. Mathematics is a formal discipline, biology and psychology are empirical disciplines, and literature is an interpretative discipline. It should be immediately clear that every actual discipline embodies aspects of all three types; biology is concerned with formal structures on occasion, and psychology involves interpretation; literary criticism deals with both the formal structure of the poem and the facts about the society that produced it.
In this framework, philosophy, like mathematics, is essentially a formal discipline, and the sciences we are primarily concerned with, like biology and physics, are largely empirical. [Within the philosophy of science -gw] our formal concerns have to do with the structure of scientific knowledge and of scientific theories, the formal relation between experimental or observational results and the acceptance of scientific theories, the formal development of theories of measurement and error, and the like.
We could also attend to an interpretative aspect of both science and philosophy. Scientific theories arise in a certain milieu and against a certain background of philosophical thought. Understanding a unique event in the history of science is a very different matter from analyzing the formal relations that obtain between a newly emerged theory and the experimental data by which it is alleged to be supported.
Both approaches are of interest, and each may well be, in some sense, essential to the success of the other.