Arguing for Wisdom in the University: An Intellectual Autobiography
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- Maxwell, N. Philosophia (2012) 40: 663. doi:10.1007/s11406-012-9375-4
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For 40 years I have argued that we urgently need to bring about a revolution in academia so that the basic task becomes to seek and promote wisdom. How did I come to argue for such a vast, wildly ambitious intellectual revolution? It goes back to my childhood. From an early age, I desired passionately to understand the physical universe. Then, around adolescence, my passion became to understand the heart and soul of people via the novel. But I never discovered how to tell stories in order to tell the truth. So, having failed to become a physicist, and failed to become a novelist, I studied philosophy at Manchester University and then, in 6 weeks of inspiration, discovered that the riddle of the universe is the riddle of our desires. Philosophy should be about how to live, and should not just do conceptual analysis. I struggled to reconcile the two worlds of my childhood ambitions, the physical universe and the human world. I decided they could be reconciled with one another if one regarded the two accounts of them, physics and common sense, as myths, and not as literal truths. But then I discovered Karl Popper: truth is too important to be discarded. I revised my ideas: physics seeks to depict truly only an aspect of all that there is; in addition, there is the experiential aspect of things—the world as we experience it. I was immensely impressed with Popper’s view that science makes progress, not by verification, but by ferocious attempted falsification of theories. I was impressed, too, with his generalization of this view to form critical rationalism. Then it dawned on me: Popper’s view of science is untenable because it misrepresents the basic aim of science. This is not truth as such; rather it is explanatory truth—truth presupposed to be unified or physically comprehensible. We need, I realized, a new conception of science, called by me aim-oriented empiricism, which acknowledges the real, problematic aims of science, and seeks to improve them. Then, treading along a path parallel to Popper’s, I realized that aim-oriented empiricism can be generalized to form a new conception of rationality, aim-oriented rationality, with implications for all that we do. This led on to a new conception of academic inquiry. From the Enlightenment we have inherited the view that academia, in order to help promote human welfare, must first acquire knowledge. But this is profoundly and damagingly irrational. If academia really does seek to help promote human welfare, then its primary tasks must be to articulate problems of living, and propose and critically assess possible solutions—possible actions, policies, political programmes, philosophies of life. The pursuit of knowledge is secondary. Academia needs to promote cooperatively rational problem solving in the social world, and needs to help humanity improve individual and institutional aims by exploiting aim-oriented rationality, arrived at by generalizing the real progress-achieving methods of science. We might, as a result, get into life some of the progressive success that is such a marked feature of science. Thus began my campaign to promote awareness of the urgent need for a new kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity create a wiser world.