How philosophy was squeezed out of the PhD

Ocean Conservation Research, Lagunitas, California, USA.

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Gundula Bosch’s argument for putting the philosophy back into the PhD is a breath of fresh air (Nature 554, 277; 2018). It is interesting to look back and see how broad critical thinking came to be eased out of the doctorate, squeezing academic enquiry into narrow disciplines.

The process started in the early 1970s in the United States, prompted by a suspicion that intellectual artefacts of the ‘soft’ sciences, as they were then called — such as sociology, anthropology and philosophy — were stimulating campus unrest.

This conveniently dovetailed with the idea that if industry outsourced its research and development departments to universities by setting (and funding) curricula, then students would have ready-made jobs in industry on graduation. These mechanistic conceits looked good on paper and fitted well with reductionists’ educational metrics. However, they all but killed students’ curiosity for serendipitous scientific enquiry.

My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.

The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.

Nature 556, 31 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04051-1

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