Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Philosophical, in Philadelphia

 Chaucer directed his wonderful poem Troilus and Criseyde to two of his admired friends: the trilingual poet John Gower and Ralph Strode, a logician from Merton College, Oxford.  He called the one moral Gower and the other philosophical Strode.  The adjectives sound heavy and stilted to us today, perhaps even ironical; but Chaucer meant them as straight and highly complimentary.  It’s rather a pity that philosophical in particular has lost its old juice.  To be philosophical about something these days is to be uncomplaining, pragmatic, or resigned.  In Boethius and other early writers “philosophy” can indeed lead its votaries to an attitude of indifference or even scorn toward many of the things that animate the rat race, but the word itself is true to its noble etymological origins—the love of wisdom.

All this comes to mind because we just spent two days last week at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the city in which Benjamin Franklin and others founded it in 1743.  In its name we have the dignity of the older meaning of the word.  “The first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over,” Franklin wrote, “and there are many in every province in circumstances that set them at ease, and afford leisure to cultivate the finer arts, and improve the common stock of knowledge.”  The principal purpose of the Society would be to promote “useful” knowledge—particularly the application of new scientific knowledge and technological developments to the advancement of human health, welfare, and general felicity.  Its most obvious antecedent model was the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660; but there were, or soon would be, similar sodalities of the benevolent learned wherever the Enlightenment had taken root.  It was not explicitly a political organization.  But people interested in the betterment of mankind often think, rightly or wrongly, in political terms; and the Society really got going in the 1770s just as our nation really got going.  Among its early luminaries were many of our great Founders, including Adams, Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, and Washington.  Thomas Jefferson was actually the president of the Philosophical Society while he was President of the United States. To recall such names is to revel, licitly, in national pride; but it is also a sadly archaeological exercise.  As you catch glimpses of our national leaders today on CNN how many “philosophers” can you count?

The Society’s grand old buildings are in the historic center of Philadelphia, very near to Independence Hall.  The library is one of the intellectual jewels of the early Republic.  Among its treasures are the original journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Like many early American intellectuals Jefferson was eclectic in his interests, which included agriculture, history, literature, and archaeology.  Everything about native Americans interested him, particularly Indian languages.  The Enlightenment was an age of great systems, and he and others hoped it might be possible to construct a universal linguistic map, which might deconstruct the Tower of Babel.  To this day the library remains an important world resource for the study of America languages. 

There are of course limits to the traditionalism of an organization dedicated to intellectual progress.  What we are now calling the STEM fields are probably still most thoroughly represented in the membership, but there are also artists, poets, musicians and quite a few humanities professors from fields less obviously “useful” than organic chemistry or applied mathematics.  At the meeting just concluded outgoing president Clyde Barker, an eminent transplant surgeon and medical educator, passed the gavel on to Linda Greenhouse, a prominent journalist and legal expert.  There is an actual gavel, incidentally, though it looks more like a detached door knocker than a hammer.  Naturally, it once was wielded by Jefferson.

 A meeting of the APS consists principally in hearing a series of diverse, carefully prepared learned talks pitched for a diversely learned audience, and then schmoozing about them with interesting people over nibbles.  Two of the themes last week were the growing impact of artificial intelligence on the professions and various aspects of observable climate change.  Sometimes what is observable in the very old tells us important things about the very new.  There are scholar-adventurers who seek out the oldest ice in the world and dendro-chronologists (“tree ring” experts) who wrest from the carcasses of long dead forests information about the here and now.

One odd feature of academic life as a university professor is that one is surrounded by great lecturers whose lectures one never hears. By chance I got to hear two dynamic talks by a couple of my own Princeton colleagues—something that I would never get to do under ordinary circumstances.  The astrophysicist David Spergel explained both of Einstein’s relativity theories in six minutes flat, and the Sinologist Martin Kern introduced us to the treasure trove of ancient Chinese bamboo manuscripts recovered from grave sites.  

We returned from our “philosophical” weekend refreshed in mind and body.