Friday, November 14, 2014

Learn Something New Every Day If You're Not Careful

I volunteered to give a guest lecture in a friend’s class later this month.

I’m actually looking forward to it.  We’ve worked together many times in the past – we actually team-teach a class together, whenever we can convince Home Campus to let us do so, and I’ve given guest lectures in other classes he’s taught as well.  And this lecture is on something I do know a fair bit about, as it is something that I cover in both my American and Western Civ classes.

But my friend is a philosopher by trade, not a historian.  And every time I venture into his discipline I end up profoundly grateful to be in my own.

Philosophy makes my head hurt.

I am perfectly willing to concede that this may well be a shortcoming in my own psyche rather than a failure of his discipline, but that neither prevents nor lessens my pain. 

This is especially so when I have to do the assigned reading.  I’ve read all of the things he’s assigned in our team-taught class and most of them just leave me thinking that either I missed something very important or these authors are just bags of hot wind.  I suppose it is entirely possible that both of these are true at the same time, which is disheartening, really.  If the fault is entirely my own then there exists the possibility that I might one day overcome it and learn to see what I am currently missing.  But if I’m actually right about the general nature of these works, then the prospects of my future improvement become very slim indeed.

I’m supposed to speak on the subject of the Industrial Revolution, at a level of detail wherein I can cover most of the main points – where it came from, its general outlines, its impact on the world of work, and the list of winners and losers – and still have time for questions in a 75-minute period.  So fairly broad strokes, in other words.  I can handle that.  Hell, I’ve taught a class that quite literally covers everything from the Neolithic period to Christopher Columbus.  I’ve taught it twice, in fact.  Broad strokes I can do.

But I also have to do the assigned reading, so I know what the students have in front of them. 

Yes, this assumes that the students have done the reading too.  I am aware of that.  As a professor, one lives in hope.

This particular reading is one chapter out of a book on the philosophy of technology.  They’re short chapters, though, so – as the professional nerd that I am – I decided that I would read the entire book.  It’s less than 200 pages long.  I can burrow through dense historical monographs twice that long in a couple of days.  How hard can this one be?

One of the many rules of life that I have developed over the years is that you should never ask a question that you really don’t want to know the answer to.  It turns out that reading works of philosophy is exponentially more time consuming than reading anything else, even works of economic theory (in part, one must admit, because about halfway through any book on economic theory the rational mind shrieks in protest and skips to the end to see if there are any twists or surprises, such as a paragraph that does not require a plumber’s snake to unclog or a lurid description of the author's strangulation by his own pet theory, which for certain authors I would pay real money to see even if I am not especially proud to admit this).

So I’ve been slogging along with this for a week now.  It’s slow going.  But I’ve learned a few things, and so – in a spirit of educational opportunity for all – I will share them with you now.  You’re welcome.  First drink’s on the house.

Arranged by the actual chapter headings, here are the lessons that have been imparted by this book:

Chapter 1: Can We Define “Technology”?

Answer: No.  

N.B. - The fact that the central term under discussion is hereby declared to be undefined does sort of imply that whatever follows from this point on may well be hot wind, but no matter.

Chapter 2: Does Technology Control Us?

Answer: No.

Chapter 3: Is Technology Predictable?

Answer: No.

Chapter 4: How do Historians Understand Technology?

Answer: Not very well.

Chapter 5: Cultural Uniformity, or Diversity?

Answer: Yes.

Chapter 6: Sustainable Abundance, or Ecological Crisis?

Answer: Yes, depending.

Chapter 7: Work: More, or Less?  Better, or Worse?

Answer: It varies by location.

Chapter 8: Should “the Market” Select Technology?

Answer: Kind of.

Chapter 9: More Security, or Escalating Dangers?

Answer:  Yes.

Chapter 10: Expanding Consciousness, or Encapsulation?

Answer: This is unclear, at least to me.

Chapter 11: Not Just One Future

In which it is pointed out that predicting the future is hard.

So I don’t know about you, but I feel that I have learned a great deal from reading this particular bit of scholarship, most of it being along the lines of “if you’d done something else with your time you probably wouldn’t have a headache now,” which is still a form of learning after all.


John the Scientist said...

It's not just you.

I like to point out that it's been almost 100 years since the modern conception of the Philosophy of Science emerged in the field of Philosophy - and they have not contributed a single thing to the actual practice of science.

Sure, scholars such as Popper have categorized science, but the contributions have been taxonomic, not practical. And as Ernest Rutheofrd used to say, science is either Physics, or it's stamp collecting. Philosophers of scientists are at best Natural Philosophers, at worst, Stamp collectors.

And any discipline that tortures language as they do (Love the plumber's snake image) is suspect of Baffling with Bullshit (rather than dazzling with audacity) in my mind.

David said...

Well, I'm not sure that the philosophy of science was ever meant to do anything more than be taxonomic, really.

Mostly I think that subfield is about figuring out the things that science is doing on a more meta level than scientists generally work on. As for practical scientific day-in-day-out things, not so much. There's a place for that.

What I object to in most philosophy (and most of what I've read for this friend of mine has been in ethics and epistemology) is that everything gets reduced to a chain of analogies, none of which are quite apt and all of which depend on absolutely no historical context. Eventually I get lost and at that point I usually decide that it's not really worth trying to find my way out of this particular maze.

You can always get out of a maze if you are willing to go straight ahead and have the capacity to destroy whatever walls are in front of you.