Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Two Cultures

That fall, right after senior year at Caltech, I began graduate school in the History and Philosophy of Science (or HPS).  Though this field was certainly a better fit for me than physics, I would soon find myself facing very similar spiritual dilemmas.

HPS is basically a subfield of Philosophy, one which attempts to draw philosophical lessons about science by examining its history.  The university I entered was very strong both in HPS and in philosophy, with professors known around the world for their work.

Unfortunately, I soon found that my idea of modern philosophy was very different from what was done here.

I had read some philosophy as an undergrad, but apparently not enough to realize that there is a deep, deep rift between two dominant schools in the Western world:  Continental Philosophy and Analytic Philosophy.  The first concerns art, culture, individuality, and society.  The second concerns logic, science, and precise argumentation.

My department, of course, was pretty firmly in the Analytic camp, and Nietzsche was considered pretty far out of bounds -- a poet of little significance for science.  I was very disappointed to learn this.  Pretty much every philosopher I had read who understood my dilemma concerning Art and Science fell under the label of "Continental."

They had admitted me because everything I had submitted for admission to grad school-- including my writing sample and essay-- had been Analytic, concerning typical issues in the field (causality and complexity).  Obviously, I had avoided mentioning my wild ideas concerning art and Nietzsche.  But I hadn't realized that such things were completely beyond discussion, as they were for more obvious reasons in physics (since they can't be quantified).

For a time I considered transferring to a Continental department.  A nearby university had a leading program in the field, so I cross-registered in a class on Heidegger (an influential Continental philosopher from the mid-20th century).  My professors understood that I was new to philosphy and kindly humored me in this.

The course was very interesting, and I received an A in it, but I realized that switching to Continental Philosophy would not solve the problem.  To the same extent that Analytic philosophers neglected values, creativity, and poetry, Continental philosophers neglected science, knowledge, and precision.  My problem was that what I really wanted to study involved a combination of these elements.

Seeing that Analytic Philosophy was a more dominant and respected field, I stuck with my department.  I was encouraged by the fact that many of my fellow students expressed a similar dissatisfaction with the status quo, and similar desires to steer Analytic Philosophy toward a more broader perspective.  Perhaps, in time, our generation would rise up and remake the field.

Meanwhile, I knew that I needed good teachers if I was going to make any headway in the field.  I wasn't about to make the same mistake of setting out into the wild blue yonder on my own.  I automatically turned to books.  So far the only helpful teacher I had found was Nietzche, and I knew that if there was anyone else to help me, it would be another diamond in the rough.  I made a list of books that are considered "classics" in literature, poetry, science, philosophy, and religion, from all time periods and cultures, a list that would grow to hundreds of books, and set to work reading each one.  I took my time, but I worked diligently, reasoning that I could meet a goal of at least 50 or 100 books per year, not including those assigned for class.  This was a crucial decision, and years later it would lead me to a much, much better place.

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