Saturday, August 1, 2015

Thinking Like an Artist

I'm just reading a fascinating article in Forbes about how really useful a good liberal arts degree can be: in the world of high tech! Surprising I know, but have a look. The article is titled "That 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket". What really caught my attention was the founder of a particularly interesting high-tech company, Slack Technologies, who got started as a graduate of the University of Victoria in philosophy. I came very close to switching from music to philosophy in that very same university--they had some excellent philosophy professors. Here is a sample of the article:
Stewart Butterfield [is] Slack’s 42-year-old cofounder and CEO, whose estimated double-digit stake in the company could be worth $300 million or more. He’s the proud holder of an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Canada’s University of Victoria and a master’s degree from Cambridge in philosophy and the history of science.
“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” says Butterfield, sitting in his office in San Francisco’s South of Market district, a neighborhood almost entirely dedicated to the cult of coding. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true–like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces–until they realized that it wasn’t true.”
I realize over and over, writing this blog, how much I owe to my three philosophy professors at the University of Victoria who seem, these many years later, to have had a real influence on how I think. Here is more from the article:
Slack’s core business benefits from the philosopher’s touch. Hard-core engineers have been trying to build knowledge-management software for at least 15 years. Most of their approaches are so cumbersome that corporate users can’t wait to quit. Slack makes everything simple. It bridges everything from Dropbox to Twitter, helping users organize documents, photos and data files into streamlined channels for easy browsing. Considering that Butterfield spent his early 20s trying to make sense of Wittgenstein’s writings, sorting out corporate knowledge might seem simple.
Oh, you bet. Anyone who has made a serious attempt to understand Wittgenstein is going to find most other intellectual challenges rather easier in comparison. Based on what you read in the mass media it is easy to get the idea that an artist and anyone else coming out of the humanities is a haphazard, irrational thinker at best. So much of the humanities these days are dominated by second-rate French post-modernist influenced Marxism that it is easy to forget that other approaches exist. Philosophy and classical studies are probably the most free of that influence and, when taught well, they can impart a really rigorous kind of critical thinking--the kind that hardly exists these days. You can also find some of this still floating around in some corners of the literary and musical worlds as well. This kind of creative, yet disciplined, thought I suspect is not found in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. They have their own discipline, but it is of a different kind.

I think the great strength of a traditional education in the humanities is twofold: first of all there is the exposure to the great works of art in the western tradition. From Homer to Dante to Shakespeare to Joyce in literature and from PĂ©rotin to DuFay to Bach to Stravinsky in music, there is really no substitute for an understanding of great works of art and their place in history. Indeed, one often suspects that it is the near-total ignorance of history that underlies so much of the absurdity we see in 21st century politics and social trends. The study of science and technology does not foster a sense of history.

Second, the humanities and the arts in particular have unique disciplines that do not have counterparts in other fields. I mentioned a sense of history, but there has been a lot of research showing that the study of music at an early age can help shape mental discipline later in life. Not surprising as training in music demands very special kinds of alertness and focus that unite various bodily senses and thought patterns.

Going back to philosophy, I believe that I have derived an ability to dig into what is being said in an essay or argument because of what I have learned from philosophy. It is no exaggeration to state that the majority of what we read and are told in the mass media and elsewhere is based on fuzzy concepts and false logic. There is a class in society that is very adept at shaping public understanding and unfortunately, they have been getting away with intellectual travesties for quite some time, largely because most members of the public have a poor foundation in the humanities.

The critique I posted on Thursday where I talked about the Passive Collective and false dilemmas is an example of things that I was only aware of because of philosophy. It is astonishing how often writers rely on attributing agency to imaginary entities and then use this to scaffold a weak argument. If everyone read a few dialogues by Plato, this tactic wouldn't go very far!

But enough, my point is made, I think, and time to find a piece of music that can top this off. Wait, I know, the Symphony No. 22 in E flat major by Joseph Haydn, nicknamed The Philosopher. This is the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer:


Rickard Dahl said...

Interesting points. Well, I have no idea how philosophy can help STEM but I guess it's good with a philosophical type of thinking in general. The big innovations come from thinking outside the box and of course critical thinking in general is something also very useful. The media has indeed been getting away with lies and misinformation for far too long. The whole Gamergate "controversy" started over the lack of ethics in video game journalism and journalists randomly inserting their own political (i.e. far left) agendas. However it's just part of a bigger problem. The biggest offenders are in the mainstream media. It is rare to find true (objective) journalists these days. On the other hand, alternative media has made it (much) easier to get news/information outside of official channels, which is a good development I think.

Bryan Townsend said...

Couldn't agree more, Rickard.