Meet you at the Crossroad

Dan Edelstein’s article brought me back to a book, that I had last read about a year back and Aristotle. Considered as one of the world’s most influential philosophers, Aristotle’s interest lay across multiple fields. He is also considered as one of the world’s first biologist who used a network of scouts to collect botanical and zoological samples from all over Greece and Asia. Aristotle established a school, the Lyceum (in Athens) where the majority of study focused on mathematics, philosophy and natural sciences. Seems weird?

Fig. 1. Aristotle (Source: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle)

Here’s an excerpt from Durant (1961)

The new School was no mere replica of that which Plato had left behind him. The Academy was devoted above all to mathematics and to speculative and political philosophy; the Lyceum had rather a tendency to biology and the natural sciences. If we may believe Pliny, Alexander instructed his hunters, gamekeepers, gardeners and  fishermen to furnish Aristotle with all the zoological and botanical material he might desire; other ancient writers tell us that at one time he had at his disposal a thousand men scattered throughout Greece and Asia, collecting for him specimens of the fauna and flora of every land. With this wealth of material he was enabled to establish the first great zoological garden that the world had seen. We can hardly exaggerate the influence of this collection upon his science and his philosophy.”  Durant (1961, pg 53)

This is not a one off situation. The majority of early scientists and mathematicians were philosophers (Pythagoras, Rene Descartes among others). However, with the modern times and the advent of the “Division of Labor” as propounded by the famous economist Adam Smith, there has been a tendency for people to specialize in one particular field (in the majority of cases a specific aspect of a field).

I have an undergraduate degree in Economics, a subject considered by some as a science as well as art (Read this blog) and others as neither. To my untrained mind, economics looked like science with concrete demand and supply equations. It blew my mind when I had to take my first class in Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx and other classical economists. Here were people considered the forerunners of the field of economics and their writing turned out to rely heavily on what we now classify as philosophy, sociology and political science etc. (so called humanities). There went my inherent disdain for the humanities. I decided to meet all (or atleast some of the sciences) at the crossroad thereon. From that day on, Economics could not exist independently of philosophy, sociology and psychology.

Reference:

  1. Edelstein, Dan (2010), “How Is Innovation Taught? On the Humanities and the Knowledge Economy,” Liberal Education96(1), 14-19.
  2. Durant, Will (1961), “Story of philosophy,” Simon and Schuster. Link to the full text here
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5 thoughts on “Meet you at the Crossroad”

  1. I think that the realization that you had that the humanities plays an important role in economics is one that all students need to have. We begin our undergraduate degrees thinking that we just need to learn the material that is directly related to our field of study. Engineering students for example begin their degree believing that they just need to learn how to build a bridge (it’s a metaphor). The reality is that every field of study requires a holistic understanding; to really understand science for example, first you must understand history, philosophy, economics, etc. and learn how each of the different disciplines connects with each other. I believe that many of the modern problems faced by humanity are a result of “experts” not really understanding (or considering) the big picture of the different human aspects of their decisions.

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  2. Don’t get me wrong, I agree, but I fear polymaths may reflect exceptional human beings that are few and far between, ie. ~ one every 2500 years if we are still looking for the next Aristotle. Most attempts I have made to delve into fields outside my area of study have left me feeling like a ‘jack of all trades’ rather than a luminary from antiquity. I fear they won’t be making busts of me anytime soon. I guess I could branch out into sculpture and make my own…

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  3. I think it will get harder for someone to specialize in a particular field as the years go by, as the expectations of what you are expected to know as an expert will increase. I like you have realized the value of humanities in science and engineering. We need more well rounded thinkers to solve the interdisciplinary problems that our society faces today.

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  4. Have you ever read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures? Your post reminded me of his argument that the wall between the sciences and humanities (especially philosophy) is a destructive artificial construct. The new rise of interdisciplinary education may somewhat reduce this, but it’ll take a serious effort to get back to the point where STEM folks realize how useful philosophy is.

    Another recommendation I’d make is a book by famous VT professor Deborah Mayo (philosophy) and her colleague Aris Spanos (economics) called “Error Statistics” in which they explore the philosophical underpinnings of modern statistics (and famously / infamously argue against Bayesian statistics in most cases). It is not an easy read, but it is good proof that philosophy still has a role to play even for the most number-obsessed econometrician.

    http://www.phil.vt.edu/dmayo/personal_website/Error_Statistics_2011.pdf

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  5. Thank you for bringing this point up, Debjit. Education was always considered a pursuit to expand one’s thinking and understanding first and foremost before the industrial era.
    But the human population was also more in control and tribal/colonial living was still dominant as well.

    I often think about how humans have created so many problems -for themselves and for all of the Earth’s inhabitants – simply by ignoring the need to control how many of us exist. I wonder if we examined/studied the conditions under which some of the greatest (and worst) thinking of humanity occurred if we wouldn’t have a better grasp on what is important to derive from an education as both teachers and learners.

    I imagine if we did we would have a better perspective on what is important to know and how to connect with the wisdom of our forebearers. Perhaps we could also cure the flawed perspective Edelstein notes of “a liberal arts education grounded in the humanities ‘ being ‘almost universally viewed as the opposite of vocational education.’

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