The philosopher’s stone

Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.

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5 Comments on “The philosopher’s stone”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    As we say up north: No. The curriculum is full enough as it is. A little philosophy at Primary & the odd BBC4 Lucy Worseley program should suffice

  2. iainmacl Says:

    I agree with you. I wonder though whether there’s more scope for addressing some of these types of interconnectedness after graduation. I suspect there are many people who have graduated in particular disciplines and would appreciate the opportunity later in life and career to widen their knowledge, but not by taking a full course in another discipline, but rather something broader.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    “But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values.”
    This is all very well, however I would suggest that such philosophical reflection requires time and that is challenging in the context of the time constraints imposed upon us in academia (and elsewhere). This is exactly what philosopher Michelle Boulous Walker writes in her Slow Philosophy (2016) where she proposes an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world. See ‘Could “Slow Philosophy” Offer An Antidote to Modern Academia?’ (11 October 2017) https://rhystranter.com/2017/10/11/slow-philosophy/


    • That really is fascinating – I hadn’t come across ‘slow philosophy’. I shall follow up.

      For myself, what I benefited from most was doing a course in philosophy at my (German) school, which gave me a fairly good grounding at the time when I could take it in best.

  4. Georgeson Fisher Says:

    Boundary porosity is a term that was much in vogue in the 1990s when interdisciplinary was the fad du jour. But now we specialise too much and are no longer shamed when lack of knowledge beyond our discipline is exposed,
    But in the real world it is only exceptional youngsters who can really see the benefits of learning for learnig’s sake. Epic fail.


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