Waiting for a third culture

Ten years ago, I published a column in which I worried about the existence of the humanities in the midst of a big academic hullabaloo. The point was to defend traditional humanistic research against the then utilitarian trends of the turbocharged society. The task seemed impossible then, and remains difficult to this day. It is tricky because the differentiation between the humanities and natural sciences, basic and applied sciences, cultural studies and social sciences, is still so rigorous. When you glance around the academic field, you can observe borderlines, mental walls, barriers to inspiration and collaboration.

The world is going through a period of simplified utilitarianism and, consequently, the traditional humanities, their values and goals are not in great demand. The media constantly points out humanists’ problems in finding employment, along with the decreasing numbers of students choosing the humanities. It is often pictured as a futile discipline. However, the public debate rarely brings up issues that are meaningful in these disciplines from the point of view of societies and human existence. The media seldom ask what the humanities have to offer, although the answer is very simple: understanding.  

Now, as truly massive global challenges have surprised humankind, it is self-evident that the world needs understanding more than ever before, as global warming, new migrations of people, overpopulation, increasing inequality, etc., are causing anxiety and confusion. Of course, humanities can’t solve these massive problems alone, but they can collaborate with other disciplines.  

Soon after the Second World War, the British scientist and humanist (or humanscientist) C. P. Snow bravely got stuck into the problem of divided knowledge in his Rede Lecture “The Two Cultures” (1959). His main idea was that the biggest barrier to solving the major problems of humankind is that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups”: scientists on one hand, and literary scholars, humanists, on the other. According to Snow and many scholars after him, the way out of this annoying contradiction is the possibility of a third culture: collaboration over the barriers of different disciplines.

Risto Turunen

Professor of Literature

Head of the School of Humanities

UEF Bulletin 2018