Posted tagged ‘knowledge’

The philosopher’s stone

October 9, 2017

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.


How politicians resist scholarship

February 17, 2016

One thing to watch closely in the current US presidential election campaign is how some politicians adopt an ideological approach to what one might call the current state of informed knowledge. This is the case in particular in the approach of many Republic Party candidates, who as has been documented insist that they hold the truth on certain issues even in the face of different academic consensus. This leads them to argue against evolution, climate change and other conclusions of the academy, in terms that suggest that knowledge and science can never trump ideology. It is reminiscent of the rule of Stalin in the Soviet Union, who famously sent the scientist Alexander Chizhevsky to a labour camp, declaring that his research on sunspots had ‘taken an unMarxist turn’.

Knowledge, as long as it is critically evaluated, should of course always trump bias and prejudice, even if that prejudice wears the cloak of political doctrine. It is why the Republicans’ approach must be resisted, as should all attempts to sideline science, including attempts for example to declare that genetic modifications are always wrong irrespective of evidence. Politics should not determine the direction of scholarship or its conclusions.

High value knowledge, and what to do with it

April 16, 2013

Around 830 AD the Benedictine monk and later Abbot Lupus Servatus, then living in Fulda, Germany, wrote the following in a letter to a close and learned friend: ‘Mihi satis apparent propter se ipsam appetenda sapientia.’ There are nuances in the original Latin, but the sentence has generally been translated as ‘It is quite apparent to me that knowledge should be sought for its own sake.’ Based in large part on this letter, Lupus has often been seen as the father of the humanist intellectual tradition, and the statement quoted above has been repeated and endorsed by many others, including Nietzsche and Albert Einstein. Many of those arguing for and defending a more traditional outlook on higher education repeat the formula.

In fact, the idea of ‘knowledge for its own sake’ has for many become the key test of higher education policy and strategy, suggesting a higher commitment to the integrity and independence of learning and scholarship; and often placed in opposition to a more impact-oriented or use-directed application of knowledge. But this affects not just higher education policy, but also the appropriateness and legitimacy of the strategic direction of some universities, and perhaps of certain academic disciplines or projects.

I confess that I don’t find this useful. For me, ‘knowledge for its own sake’ is a curiously empty formula, suggesting a metaphysical approach to knowledge that accords it importance without apparently knowing why. I believe strongly in the acquisition, discovery and dissemination of knowledge, but not for its own sake (which to me means nothing), but because knowledge empowers, civilises and innovates. The value of knowledge is in no way mysterious, it is compelling and clear. The case for learning is a much stronger one if its use can be explained clearly. ‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one.

What some who support a traditional outlook on higher education may not appreciate is that a formula such as this may have been persuasive when education and knowledge were largely the property of a social elite who had no need to justify what they were doing. Today’s society needs something more, and there is plenty to give. High value knowledge is at the root of social progress, inclusiveness, economic growth, better health, a higher quality of life. Universities need to be willing to associate themselves with such objectives and ideals, rather than arguing a much more opaque case based on a hoped for but not specifically targeted benefit flowing from detached learning and scholarship.

It may be time not just to modernise our higher education system, but also our understanding of why we do it.

How specialised should we be?

July 9, 2008

362 years ago this month saw the birth of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Leibniz was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

Over recent years it has become much more acceptable in academic circles to pursue interdisciplinary studies and research, and we have come to understand that a good deal of progress for society is achieved not within disciplines, but between them. Whole new subject areas have developed out of this realisation, including biotechnology.

It is of course still true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for leading scientists.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz. After all, Leibniz has received the ultimate accolade: he has a biscuit named after him.