The Two Cultures

The Research Group

In modernity, it is a basic assumption about science that it is divided into “two cultures” – facing one another almost speechless: the humanities and the (natural) sciences. What is not commonly reflected upon, however, is the fact that this division has arisen rather recently – it dates back only to the nineteenth century. Moreover, it is arguably much less self-evident in the scientific practice itself than otherwise suggested by outward appearances.



The research group (RG) Two Cultures concerns itself with the history and presence of the “two cultures”. It investigates how the distinction is affecting the self-image of the actors involved, which social and field-strategic functions it fulfills and in what relationship it stands to the scientific practice. In this way, the RG also contributes to a more thorough understanding of the interdisciplinary endeavor. In the face of the ubiquitous call for interdisciplinary research, a discussion of its foundations seems highly desirable. What kind of challenges do different disciplinary constellations imply? Is it more difficult to find a common language for collaboration when scientists from both the humanities and natural sciences are involved? Such questions are critically reflected here and discussed in various forms of dialogue.


2019: Workshop “IAS – Challenges and Potential from an Early Career Perspective”

On 11th–12th November 2019, the research group “The Two Cultures” meets in Munich for a workshop on the topic “Institutes of Advanced Study – Challenges and Potential from an Early Career Parspective”, organised by Sebastian Matzner and Fabian Krämer.

During a previous workshop in Amsterdam (click here for a full report), the question arose how Institutes of Advanced Study ought be structured in architectural and organizational terms in order to achieve their particular goals, above all to facilitate and promote interdisciplinary exchange. In this second, follow-up workshop, the focus will shift to a detailed analysis of how the institutional format of Institutes of Advanced Study in international academic research relates to the career path dynamics of early-career scholars. Are fellowships at such institutions a useful form of career development and, if so, how can they best be implemented within a wider set-up of an IAS? In what ways do the needs of early-career researchers differ from those of more established fellows, and how can their particular needs be met? Which consequences (intended and unintended) does the existence of Institutes of Advanced Study and similar interdisciplinary research centers have on the wider academic ecosystem? Are there adverse systemic developments in the regular workings of contemporary universities that might be seen as being compensated for or (inadvertently) intensified by the offerings of IAS to leading scholars (for example, the reallocation of teaching duties from research active, tenured academics to junior scholars on precarious, fixed-term contracts; the relative increase in administrative duties and general increase in stratification between those academics fortunate enough to devote most of their time to research and those who are not; the tension between the ideal of freedom of research versus the growing reality of predominantly project-based research)?

With this event, the research group takes up an invitation by the German Council of Science and Humanities (“Wissenschaftsrat”) to feed the perspective of the early career researchers and emerging scholars into the ongoing discussion within the Council’s commission “Developmental Perspectives for Institutes for Advanced Studies in Germany”, on which Sebastian Matzner serves as an external expert.

2019: Workshop on “Spaces of (Inter-)Disciplinarity”

On July 4 and 5, 2019, the “Two Cultures” research group gathered at NIAS Amsterdam for a workshop on the topic of “Spaces of (Inter-)Disciplinarity.” The workshop was organized and moderated by Fabian Krämer and Sebastian Matzner. Its concrete goal was to collect interdisciplinary perspectives for a report on the currently uncertain future of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) in Germany.

Photo: UNStudio/ DPA | Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Singapore, 2010 – 2015
Architect: Ben van Berkel / UNStudio

The presently omnipresent call for interdisciplinary research raises the question of what shape a research institute today should take in terms of architecture, space and infrastructure to enable this kind of research. The workshop considered this question both from historical and analytical perspectives. The first panel looked at the history of academic architecture. Since when has it been expected that universities be clearly defined architectural spaces? What efforts toward collaboration between disciplines in the sciences and humanities can we identify in the history of science? The second panel analyzed what requirements are placed on interdisciplinary research and how contemporary architects have attempted to make these possible. Finally, the third panel looked at the epitome of a research institute intended specially for interdisciplinary work: The Institute for Advanced Study. The objective was to use the findings of the first two sections for identifying how an ideal institute for advanced studies would look. 

The results of the workshop will serve as the basis for a report that members of Die Junge Akademie will present to Germany’s Advisory Council on the Sciences regarding the current discussion on the future of institutes for advanced study in the country.


Final report

2018: Lecture and discussion with Peter Burke

The research group “The Two Cultures” welcomed cultural historian Peter Burke to a lecture followed by a discussion on October 12, 2018 in the ICI Berlin.

In a cultural history of the polymaths from the Renaissance to the present (from Leonardo da Vinci to Umberto Eco), Peter Burke examined the figure of polymath and its survival in an age of specialization. At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to assume that polymath has managed to overcome the disciplinary borders which have been drawn since the mid-nineteenth century and which structurally manifest themselves in the division of universities into faculties, departments and institutes. Yet, as Peter Burke showed, the species of polymath has continued to exist; and it still does today – despite an undeniable decline.

Peter Burke is Professor Emeritus for Cultural History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is considered one of the most renowned cultural historians worldwide. He has published extensively, most notably on the Italian and European Renaissance as well as on The Fabrication of Louis XIV. More recently, he has focused his research interests on media history and the sociology of knowledge.

Final report


2018: Workshop on "The Two Cultures in the Practice of Research"

What effects does the demarcation between the humanities and sciences have on research practices within the individual disciplines? How can a “crisis of the humanities” be discussed in the context of this dichotomy? How can researchers on either side of the divide share their findings best with the other “culture” ?  At the invitation of Dr. Eva Buddeberg and the “Emergence of Normative Orders” cluster, the “Two Cultures” research group met on June 15, 2018 at Goethe University Frankfurt toa address these issues in an exploratory workshop.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons (Bertrand Russel; Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche)

The cleft between the sciences and humanities runs both great and small within the individual disciplines. Eva Buddeberg argued that, in terms of both institutions and content, the division of philosophy into “continental” and “analytic” philosophy reflects a similar cleavage.  Around the year 1900, sexology even needed elements of diverse cultures to coalesce as a discipline, as Sebastian Matzner demonstrated. Early texts on homosexuality combined different ways of knowing, including scientific and philological ones, among others.

What part does the demarcation into two cultures play in the “crisis of the humanities”? Eva Buddeberg argued that the division within philosophy since the 19th and early 20th century must be understood in the context of philosophy’s decline in significance during the same time, which required a greater amount of self-reflection within the discipline. One might similarly explain, she said, why current considerations of the division between the sciences and humanities are especially prominent among the “crisis-hit” humanities. But are all humanities in crisis today? A closer look at individual disciplines in the humanities does not yield a uniform image of crisis. Instead, distinguishing between research for applied purposes and (seemingly) non-applicational research appears more useful in explaining the legitimacy problem facing some disciplines in the humanities. An analogous picture emerges on the side of the sciences. Among them, the theoretical, non-applied disciplines frequently have it harder, as Albrecht Koschorke demonstrated in his previously circulated text on the “alleged crisis of the humanities” (Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 46/2007, pp. 21-25). The division stretches ultimately to the issue of efficient sharing of knowledge among disciplines. How can scholars most successfully pass on the results of their research that are relevant to others? What hurdles of a substantive, methodological or institutional nature can actually be traced back to this dichotomy between the sciences and humanities? The working group affirmed that it will explore these and other questions in greater detail.

2016: Workshop on “Borderline Phenomena between the Sciences and Humanities”

What exactly are the “cultural” differences between the sciences and the humanities? In what ways do the “two cultures” interact? Are “crossovers” possible at the interface between the sciences and humanities? To consider these and related questions, the research group “Two Cultures” gathered at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin at its invitation for an exploratory workshop on September 18, 2016.

Bild: studiostoks, Shutterstock 590311676
Bild: studiostoks, Shutterstock 590311676

Illustration: studiostoks, Shutterstock 590311676

The demarcation of the Wissenschaften into two “cultures” as formulated by C. P. Snow (1959) was meant to describe a dichotomy at the levels of objects as well as methods between the “sciences and humanities.” The workshop participants agreed, however, that frequently the cleft between the humanities and sciences is conditioned not exclusively or even primarily by issues of content, but by institutions. This can explain the rivalry between literary scholars and linguists within a department, as well as the good cooperation spanning departments among historians of antiquity and other researchers of those epochs, on which Kai Wiegandt and Christoph Lundgreen reported in their lectures. A similar picture emerged when looking at the origins of the dichotomy between the sciences and humanities in the 19th century (Fabian Krämer): Their institutional separation in Europe’s academies and universities preceded the philosophical contemplation of this contrast.  

Besides a (new) interpretation of the “two cultures,” the workshop also brought new insights to light on the interactions between the “cultures.” One relevant and enduring topic is the attractiveness of the (allegedly) objective methods of the sciences to other disciplines (e.g. literary studies), as they promise to add scientific rigor to their work. On the other hand, scientific fields such as esthetics can also be grasped as existing beyond the demarcation of the two cultures. As a scientific criterion, esthetics can be situated in-between the two cultures, as illustrated by the example of mathematics. Attempts at trans-disciplinary esthetics research were already made around the year 1900.

The research group also discussed core themes for further workshops. In the future we will also be looking at the relationship between art and science, and ask under what conditions interdisciplinary collaboration is productive, and under what conditions it is not.

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