The silent philosopher

June 23, 2013

So how should I act in the lab? There are many ways to interact with scientists, but are some better than others? One can look back on past philosophers to classify typical ways that they have interacted with society. Here are a few methods that I have considered:

  1. The Socratic method: Socrates spoke his idea of the truth to everyone and anyone. He made people uncomfortable because he highlighted how much each individual did not know about their craft. Socrates is typically seen as the model philosopher, however his tactic did not help society, and it definitely did not help him. Even though the Socratic philosophers of the 21st century are rarely sentenced to death, it is clear that this method of integrating philosophy into society only heightens the tensions between the philosophers and the common man.
  2. The Platonic method: Plato’s philosophy is always presented in the form of a dialogue. This form brilliantly allowed Plato to criticize the society while also distancing himself from the reception of his work. It is never clear in Plato’s dialogues which ideas Plato personally is promoting and which ideas he is condemning. The reader only receives a dialogue of ideas, and after that it is up to the reader to design the overall narrative of what Plato is trying to communicate to society.
  3. The Machiavellian method: Machiavelli took a non/anti-democratic approach to how to speak his truth to society. He didn’t write The Prince for society, but instead he wrote it for the real Prince. His political treatise was only written for a select few people, and he made sure that it was these people who could directly change the society.
  4. The Cartesian method: Descartes spoke his truth to the society by filling his writing with contradictions. He would say X and then say not X. Descartes was careful not to upset the heads of academia, for if his writing was interpreted as impious he would be surely exiled or killed. His method of how to communicate his philosophy to society is similar to the Platonic method. It allows the philosopher to distance himself from the societal reaction of his work.

These are just a few examples of how philosopher’s of the 21st century can and should learn how to interact with society. However, I want to suggest a new method for how philosophers should interact with society. But do note that each of these methods are valuable in certain situations. When you begin to integrate the humanities and the sciences (or integrate philosophy with society) it is necessary for the humanist to be aware of their personal character. They must carefully think about how the sciences or society at large will receive their actions and words.

First I want to point out the automatic rejection society has to philosophy today. This reaction has a historical presence, and it is important to understand how philosophy has come to have such a poor role in our society. However, I will not go into the history of this now–I already distinguished a few of the ways that philosopher’s have interacted with society, and it is the accumulation of the words and actions of past philosophers that has created the current societal reaction to philosophy.

When one introduces himself as a philosopher the usual reaction is for society to dismiss him. Philosophy is hard, and many people have avoided the subject since high school. People feel that it is full of pointless ideas, which have no concrete answers. “Why would any one want to worry and argue about the meaning of reality? Who really cares anyways?” It is because of this attitude that philosophers are ignored when they approach society (or in my case a science research lab). On top of this, society views philosophers as old men, locked up in ivory towers, thinking pointless difficult thoughts and having egos that are as large as their lofty ideas. Our society sticks up their noses at philosophers because they don’t care to hear the egotistical ramble of ideas that are not pertinent to the common man’s worries.

Anyways, I could go on for a while describing the many stereotypes of philosophers and why they exist, but I want instead to offer a solution. When I walk into the lab I am silent. I keep both my philosophical and biological questions short and to the point, and I do not pester the people in the lab. I smile and make sure that I look engaged and interested in the lab experiments, and most importantly I observe everything. The other day a women in the lab told me that she doesn’t really understand why I am here as a philosopher. She often makes side remarks when I mess up on a mathematical question, saying: “ha! See what philosophers know!” She is not being mean, and she says every comment in a playful tone. She even told me that she would be willing for me to further explain my project to her, but that all I would receive from her would be a smile and a nodding head. I get the feeling that her attitude is the norm for the scientists in the lab. However, I will need more than a smile and a nod to convince the scientists here of just how important my work is.

So what should I do? Should I pester her each day? Should I point out at every point in the experiment how each measurement, every machine and every word she says to me has a multitude of philosophic implications behind it? Should I tell her that she is actually doing philosophy in the lab, and that she just has scales covering her eyes? Should I go into how it was only in the mid-1800s that the term ‘scientist’ was coined by William Whewell, and that before that a ‘scientist’ was called a ‘natural philosopher’? Do I tell her that she needs to wake up and realize the ‘truth’ of reality? That she needs to open her mind to how the simple idea of calibration is actually deep and meaningful!

No, it would not work. And by ‘work’ I mean that I would not be using my time effectively by pestering her as a Socratic philosopher. She would grow weary of my comments and stop listening.  This would only further confirm the stereotype that philosophers are egoistic, annoying pesterers. So, how does my silent approach work to combat this stereotype of a philosopher? If I may, I would like to tell a short story to illuminate the effectiveness of this approach.

In high school I was on the basketball team. As a freshman I was pretty good, and the coaches were talking of putting me on the varsity squad. The freshmen team, who I practiced with, did not like this, and the team would focus on my mistakes during practice. They wanted to make their selves feel better by proving that I actually wasn’t that good, and that if I should be on the varsity team, then they certainly deserved to be too. There was one girl on the freshmen team who was one of the better players, but a troublemaker. She should have been on varsity, but because of her attitude she hardly got any paying time on the freshmen team. She despised me, and would make fun of me at any opportunity that she could find. Instead of reacting to her insults, I decided to simply prove to her that I was worth her attention on the court. I worked the hardest out of anyone on the team, and showed her that I was the best post. Soon she realized that, in fact, we needed each other, and that we could have fun together by helping each other make neat plays on the court. So, it worked! And it didn’t even take that long. We even became really close friends.

All of this is to suggest that this silent approach is a good way for philosophers to begin to integrate them selves into society as well as other disciplines in academia. Due to philosophy’s bad reputation, it is going to take some effort to reconstruct the philosopher’s place in society and academia. We need to prove, through hard work and dedication, that not only the future of higher education but all aspects of our society need philosophy.

I know the work that I am doing here is important, and instead of shoving my dogmas down the throats of the scientists, I hope to prove to them with the outcome of my project that my work was not only important, but fundamental to the future of their jobs.


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