Monday, October 14, 2013

Are the traditional disciplines (like philosophy) obsolete?

This is the text of the monologue from last night's episode of Why? Radio. To hear the entire episode and a detailed conversation about the nature of human knowledge and understanding, please click here.

Universities across the country are experiencing changes; administrators are restructuring things and altering how they hire faculty. Most of it is awful, a lot of it is just an excuse to have more money to spend on public relations, and a great deal of it is wrapped-up in power politics internal to particular schools. But in the middle of it all is the claim that traditional disciplines are either obsolete or a luxury, a loss of faith in what gets called “pure research.”

The argument goes something like this: nobody does philosophy, really. Nobody does physics. What they do is work on topics. They are concerned with energy issues, or relieving hunger, or rethinking transportation. So, nobody needs a philosopher or a physicist, what’s needed instead is a group of people trained in various disciplines who can work together to make better pipelines, or stop famine, or invent a more efficient light-rail system. Research and teaching have to be more practical, the argument goes, and faculty will have more publication success and get more grant dollars if they are clustered around a topic instead of an outdated field of study.

The uninteresting thing about this argument is that it is really about profit and whatever subject is hip at the moment. But these fads change frequently. The moment they do, the people whose work is out of fashion become disregarded or, worse, get fired.
The interesting thing about the argument is what it assumes about human knowledge. It suggests that the only way people can discover is by asking the most immediate practical questions, and the only way any of us learn is by working with people who share information about subjects we know nothing about. In the case of light rail, for example, this suggests that sociologists who examine how passengers interact must be partnered with engineers who design train engines. In the case of famine, economists who understand distribution have to work with geneticists who design hardier grains.

There is a truth here. Light rail, no matter how efficient, will only be successful if it’s designed around how people actually use it, and famine will only be relieved if the grain we send to the hungry remains edible after it is shipped. In other words, knowledge is integrated and every inquiry overlaps with many others.

But there’s something deeply wrong about the belief that researchers have to work with people in radically different fields: the history of discovery has shown us that the best, and sometimes the only, way to learn stuff is to become specialized, to have some people working on some things, others working on others, and have their results, not their methods, accessible to everyone. This means that sociologists should work with sociologists, engineers should work with engineers, and only after these groups have actually learned something, should they connect. Universities are necessary because they promote specialization first and cultivate a large scale conversation only after there’s knowledge to share.

Philosophically all of this forces us to ask how knowledge is actually connected, the subject of today’s episode. What does physics have to do with philosophy? What does chemistry have to do with art? These are questions no one would have asked a couple of hundred years ago because the disciplines that we are all familiar with weren’t invented yet. The American founding fathers didn’t study economics, political science, or sociology; they learned political economy. Early universities didn’t teach physics, biology, and chemistry; the original disciplines were natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and logic. The classical Greeks taught music to help people understand math. They taught gymnastics to help teach ethics. The modern world divided knowledge into specialized chunks; universities succumbed to the division of labor around the same time that factories did.

Specialization itself is one of humanity’s most important discoveries and despite what some will say, working on pipelines, or famine relief, or light rail isn’t actually a specialization. It’s only what we happen to be looking at right now. A university has to be flexible. It has to respond to the needs of the moment and ask classic human questions at the same time. It has to respond to how people understand themselves as human beings, not just the trends. And this is what our guest today will argue. He is going to suggest that how we map knowledge is based on how we map people—that we can’t describe one without the other.

This brings us back to the university. Our schools are built on how we see ourselves. Are we really people who only want profit and to call attention to ourselves? If so, our universities should succumb to these new administrative demands. But instead, if we are, as I believe, creators, explorers, discoverers, and partners in a common world, we must return universities to their most central purpose, the creation and dissemination of knowledge. I promise you, our pipelines, our food distribution techniques, and our light rails will get better along the way.

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