Snow’s Two Cultures: More Evidence of a Divide
I highly recommend this BBC documentary about Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who solved Fermat’s last theorem. In one scene, Wiles leads a course wherein he lays the groundwork for what would ultimately become his proof of the theorem. All but one student end up quitting the course. Meanwhile, there are very few — in watching, it seems as if there may be no more than a 100, perhaps as few as 12 — individuals capable of even understanding Wiles’s proof. But mathematicians of course don’t care about the number of followers they have. They care only for the actual results.
Contrast that attitude to that of the standard literary man. The goal of the literary man is rarely simply to produce a great work. His goal, rather, is to produce a work that will be recognized by others. Tyler Cowen links to this hilarious video spoofing graduate students studying continental philosophy. Continental philosophers are notorious for oracular though largely meaningless utterances. They have sufficient charisma, however, to convince generations of students to hang on their every word. That is pretty much the point of doing continental philosophy.
Ultimately, literary men (of which continental philosophers are a subset) are looking only for fame — that is, the sheer number of times that their names come up in conversation. Scientists and mathematicians, by contrast, are looking for glory. Like Wiles, they will toil in obscurity until (fortune permitting) they achieve a breakthrough of lasting merit and consequence. The pursuit of fame versus the pursuit of glory: this, I suggest, is the key difference in motivation between the man of letters and the man of science.