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.
Keats soon veered off into what might be called “experimental philosophy”, performing public acts of artistic and scientific investigation into questions like how one might go about genetically engineering god or creating pornography for plants. His work is an ambitious, thought-provoking, playful theater of ideas through which he enacts his curiosity and encourages others to do the same.
We’ve featured several of Keats’ projects on Big Think. Readers’ responses have ranged from: “This is Total Genius!!” to “What the hell is he doing with taxpayers’ money??” But for all the playful absurdity of projects like his Microbial Academy of Sciences, Keats is a morally and intellectually serious man on a mission.
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. He’s a lobbyist for the freedom of the imagination and the right to ask stupid questions as essential to meaningful human progress. In a world of unassailable experts, Keats is advocating for the return of the curious amateur.
Jonathan Keats: I think that human beings are most limited in their tendency to pursue certainty and to think that answers are somehow absolute or even beneficial. That the degree to which we can go about the process of living as humans in increasingly interesting ways, in increasingly productive ways is one in which we need instead of pursuing answers to pursue curiosity, that the limitation that we have is practical and for good reason, that we need to make our society operate, make things work, but that once we get things working they can enslave us at a certain level. They can entrap us. They can make us work according to their own terms and they can put us on the track of trying to improve them in terms of finding better and better answers at that level of making things work more and more efficiently.
What we need is to step outside of that. We need to instead think about what those mechanisms are, what those technologies are and to find ways in which we can pursue questions that are bigger than those technologies, bigger than those routines and that therefore, lead to a more fulfilling life in which other opportunities for thinking and other opportunities for engaging our world come about every day.
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Image Credit: Kobal