What the World Needs is More Curious Amateurs

Call it art, experimental philosophy, theater, or what you will – Jonathan Keats plays the fool as a kind of public protest against the ever-present danger of taking ourselves and our understanding of the world too seriously.

In 1712, nobody would have looked at you funny if your business card read: "Surgeon, Apothecary, Investigator of the Unknown. Also, Shoemaker." 


There are many reasons why that's no longer the case. Among them, the increasing specialization driven by the rise of the great universities and the classification of disciplines. Specialization has certain obvious benefits - it makes the transfer of knowledge and its application in targeted problem-solving much more efficient. It does for knowledge what Henry Ford did for the automobile, streamlining the production of each component by limiting the number of people involved. 

The trouble with hyperspecialization is that the automobile never gets assembled. Experts remain siloed off in their disciplines, speaking in code with their peers, engaging in talmudic debates on the finer points of footnotes to footnotes. Universities have tried to address this problem in recent years with interdisciplinary specializations, but their underlying architecture often inhibits free and open collaboration. 

As an undergraduate in Philosophy, Jonathon Keats was quickly disappointed in how little resemblance his classes bore to his vision of philosophy as an open-ended discussion of life, the universe, and everything. 

Jonathon Keats: It was not at all what I would have expected it to be with my rather naïve concept of Socrates and Plato . . . It felt that the questions being asked were narrow and getting more so and that the answers were—well they were answers.  There was too much of an attempt to nail things down and to ultimately come up with some sort of orthodoxy, which would on top of that be intelligible only to a very small group of people who essentially were engaged in the same enterprise.

Video: Jonathan Keats on why the world needs more curious amateurs. 

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