Reflexions on abstract knowledge
July 16, 2012 10:55 AM   Subscribe

"Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times." -Abraham Flexner, in his 1939 Harper's Article "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" (available at Harper's for money or in PDF from the IAS for free)
posted by BlackLeotardFront (7 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Meh. I understand where he's going with this, but I think a balance must be struck ... else how would those institutions ever have any impact on the real world?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:22 PM on July 16, 2012

else how would those institutions ever have any impact on the real world?

Uhm, the creation and dissemination of abstract knowledge is part of "the real world" (whatever that even means).
posted by kengraham at 2:22 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Spot on. There are a great many areas of life and human endeavour which must be allowed to flourish according to their own rules, not bent and pressed into the service of somebody's narrow notion of importance or reality, and thereby killed, deformed or rendered toxic.

The modern mania, of course, is to run things "like a business" - as if the business-like way of doing things was always the right way, or any more "real" than any other.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:45 PM on July 16, 2012

I prefer MIT's approach, stated in its motto "Mens et Manus". This is Latin for "Mind and Hand". Research and teaching at MIT are explicitly biased towards science and art with a practical application. A heck of a lot of fundamental science gets done there, but all of it with some eye towards commercialization and/or improving the world.
posted by KevCed at 3:03 PM on July 16, 2012

improving the world.

What constitutes an "improvement of the world"? Is somebody profiting necessary or sufficient? What about commercial innovations with unintended negative consequences for people whose welfare was not considered in advance?

Is "now we know more about how shit works, and that knowledge is available to anyone who asks" an improvement on the world? If not, why not? Can you give examples of technologies which have not improved on the world, or is technological innovation uniformly good? What about innovative, "useful" technology that doesn't prove marketable?

Also, even if we grant that commercially viable technology is the ultimate goal of human existence or whatever, it's very shortsighted to disfavour research whose "real" applications are not immediately apparent. It's hard to say how far back inspirational/motivational chains can be pushed, but we probably should be thanking Frege, Russell-Whitehead, Goedel, Church/Turing*, Kleene, von Neumann*, maybe even Wittgenstein for the technology via which we're currently interfacing, and it doesn't get a lot more "uselessly" abstract, a priori, than formal logic.

*In their logician costumes, not even their "real computer-building" costumes.

Also, that "eye toward commercialization" consists, sometimes, at least partly of scientists sticking tenuous connections between their work and "real" things in their grant proposal because, ultimately, a bureaucrat who has to answer to an unimaginative, wilfully ignorant, materialistic public is deciding whether or not to fund it, not because they [the scientists] necessarily give much of a damn about commercialization of their work. I don't blame them (the scientists), if they remain within the bounds of literal honesty.
posted by kengraham at 3:28 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't forget about the humanities and other non-technological stuff. I've lived and worked in enough ugly cement block buildings to know that literature, art, and design go a long way to "improving the world," whether they be in commercialized form or purely academic study.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:25 PM on July 16, 2012

I completely agree, yeolcoatl.
posted by kengraham at 6:36 AM on July 17, 2012

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