04 January 2009

Academic training

To revert to the question of why everyone has always opposed me. Well, unfortunately, as it seems, I represent a number of things that the modern ideology wants to obliterate.

Socialism (or reversion to tribalism) is aimed at the elimination of individual freedom (= money = territory of decision). Hence, in academic contexts, it leads to a great increase in ‘supervised’ intellectual activity, and allowing/forcing people to do things ‘under supervision’.

In my teens I visited Cambridge with my parents; I remember feeling very miserable at the time. Perhaps this was the visit on which I struggled to obtain physics entrance papers in Heffers when my father had finishing buying maths ones for me.

However that may be, we met a young man out walking a dog and my parents chatted to him after getting directions from him. He was a research student, I was told, living in lodgings in a nearby house. He had taken his degree and that was what he was doing now. I became even more depressed. I had not taken a single degree yet and I was being forced to attend a school against my will.

Actually doing research, or living in any way I could get anything out of, was even further off in a gloomy future.

I think that the concept of a research student became much more dominant in post-war academia; as an undergraduate I was told that a D.Phil had not formerly been regarded as a necessary first stage in an academic career; in many subjects people who got Firsts could proceed straight away to appointments. To have a D.Phil had been an indication that you had probably got a Second, and needed to strengthen your claim by a further qualification.

Professor Richard Oldfield, at that time Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, had allegedly taken a degree in French and then gone along to the Department of Experimental Psychology, said he would like to do research in psychology, and started to do so. However, as with some other people who had been permitted academic status on what would nowadays be regarded as inadequate grounds, it may be observed that his outlook was thoroughly compatible with the modern ideology and in no way out of place in the modern world.

Wittgenstein provides another, even more eminent, example of a person who was allowed to proceed to academic status and distinction without prior ‘training’, as the following extract illustrates. It is highly unlikely that he would nowadays be allowed to do so.

Wittgenstein’s published output was tiny. In his lifetime, he published just one book, one article and one book review ... [The book review] was published in 1913 in a Cambridge undergraduate magazine called the Cambridge Review, and was his very first publication. Wittgenstein was then a student of philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, halfway through his second year of study. In many ways, though, it would be misleading to picture him at this time as an undergraduate student, or, in any case, it would be misleading to think of him as, in any sense, an ‘ordinary’ undergraduate student. For one thing, at twenty-four, he was a few years older than the usual second-year undergraduate, having spent three years before he went to Cambridge as an engineering student in Manchester. For another thing, he was already regarded by two of the most influential philosophers of the day, G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, as a significant philosopher in his own right ...

... Wittgenstein was not following a conventional undergraduate course in philosophy ... there is nothing to indicate that he ever seriously considered sitting any examinations. His formal status was that of an undergraduate, but he regarded himself, and, more remarkably, was regarded by others, not as a student of philosophy, but as an original philosopher, attempting to find solutions to problems that were at the very cutting edge of the discipline.

It is possible, I think, that Cambridge is the only university in the world that would have accepted Wittgenstein on these terms. Had he broken off his engineering studies in order to study philosophy at ... any other leading university of the time, he would have fallen at the first hurdle, most likely rejected because of his almost complete ignorance of the works of any philosophers other than Frege and Russell. And, even if he had overcome this hurdle, he would have been obliged to do what, in fact, he never did throughout his entire life, namely study the works of the great philosophers of the past. Only after he had shown some understanding of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, etc. would he have been allowed, as a graduate student, to devote himself to his own research.

At Cambridge, to its great credit, all that was required of Wittgenstein in order to reach this last stage – the stage at which he spent his time trying to solve philosophical problems rather than learning how previous philosophers had tried to solve them – was that he arouse the interest and admiration of Bertrand Russell. (Ray Monk, How to Read Wittgenstein, Granta Books 2005, pp5-6.)