A State of Theory

I once made the crack to some friends at university that after so much indecision I had finally decided on a course of study; Theory. After some initial blank stares I got a few laughs out of it. One of my friends, now a resource management masters student at Waterloo’s School of Planning, really latched onto the idea. Little did I know that if I had gone back to the school at Athens, or maybe even any place that called itself a university before 1945, I would have found most of my professors telling me this was the entire point of post-secondary education. After all, no one becomes a doctor of biology, psychology or mathematics. Those that attain a Ph.D. are, as the name suggests, doctorates of philosophy with specializations in these topic areas.

Emmanueal Kant made a well known and oft quoted lament in the 18th century that metaphysics, “the queen of the sciences”, had lost her way and become secondary, and that when the other studies advanced beyond their current philosophical groundings, would find themselves directionless and basically without a leg to stand on.

So what exactly happened after Kant? Well lets do a broad and painfully shallow analysis of some scientific developments around and following Kant. Linnaeus, ‘the father of taxonomy’, was writing around Kant’s time. His science was systematic, and though he had no knowledge of the modern tenets of genetics (such as biology’s central dogma) much of classifications have remained to this day.

From Linnaeus we move to Hutton’s gradualism and Lyell’s uniformitarianism, which informed Darwinian evolution, a concept we still hold dear today (as especially evident in all the attention given to the recent anniversary). After that, things get sticky. The good ol’ days of classic colonialism are coming to a close and definite turmoil is setting in. Many at the time would relate the degredation of the social fabric directly back to ideas such as that of Darwin’s, but we easily forget that ‘survival of the fittest’ was Spencer’s invention, not Darwin’s.

Anyways by the end of the century the world finds itself in the Spanish-American War, followed closely by the advent of global war. The times are still good enough that with the close of the first world war Max Planck is receiving the Nobel Prize for his quantum physics and Einstein is publishing his theory of relativity.  A few years later (with the great depression as an interlude), the tumultuous and brilliant young Oppenheimer is recruited by the Manhattan Project (check out American Prometheus for a truly stellar biography). Before it comes to fruition, he will be signatory on a petition and knocking on doors in Washington to never see it used. Unfortunately the only result of his efforts will be to suffer persecution as a supposed communist. Together, ‘Little Boy’ and Joseph McCarthy help to define much of the cultural anxiety that would grip the world for the remainder of the 20th century. Pretty depressing stuff.

J. McCarthy (1908-1957), Republican Senator from Wisconsin.

The atomic bomb formerly known as 'Little Boy'

So to what end is all this analysis and recap?

Well at the same time Philosophy is rushing to keep up with rapidly changing understandings in the natural sciences. From Nietzsche’s attacks on empiricism and positivism, through Husserl’s phenomenology and into the existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre.

When I told my mother I was reading Aristotle she wasn’t surprised. It was standard first year reading in the ‘Liberal Arts’ explosion of the 1960’s. Now my political science professor is apologetic when he announces that he’s requiring his fourth year students to read the founding works of their discipline. Students complain that they don’t understand why their reading philosophy in a political science class.

We live in a very expensive age. The ‘rich’ western world is sitting on the largest pots of national and consumer debt ever conceived. Thought and reading are cheap, they rarely cost more than a cup of coffee every hour or two and pay dividends unimaginable in even the strongest bull market. All I wish to suggest is that, moving forward in the 21st century, a surplus of thought to the detriment of action could save us a lot of headaches and cleanups later on.


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