In 1676 Newton, in a private letter to Robert Hooke said If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Stephen Jay Gould in his last book The Hedgehog, The Fox and the Magister’s Pox sees this as the apotheosis of Bacon’s earlier aphorism Antiquitas saeculi juventus mundi which loosely translated means that the good old days were the world’s youth. Bacon is challenging the pre-enlightenment orthodoxy that the goal of the intellect is to rediscover the learning of the ancients. Aquinas and Augustine between them had respectively taken the newly re-discovered work of Aristotle and Plato and formulated it into a modern, theistic philosophy which was mistakenly seen as a constraint by many in the enlightenment.
I have always liked Newton’s formulation, and the fact that he was also fully engaged in politics as master of the mint. He also continued alchemical experiments in parallel and with equal commitment to his pioneering work in the Scientific Revolution. He is also human: the spats with the supporters of Liebniz over who really invented calculus and his creation of one of the first intelligence networks to hunt down forgers, both represent the ridiculous and the sublime aspects of that humanity. My point here is that Newton was curious and engaged, he was original and inventive, but not over specialised and he was open to multiple contradictory ideas.
Complexity science, our understanding of the human brain and genetics, not to mention the fundamental aspects of the Universe represents as great a paradigm shift as did the enlightenment. As a result we see people who embrace the the new and reject all that has gone before, just as we see people who resist change. We also live in a society increasing specialised and separated in nature. However progress requires interaction, an interweaving of the old with the new, or reflection with action, and abstraction with engagement. However our education system focuses on measurable outcome targets, seeks to justify itself by producing by what society currently says it wants without a clear sense of an end or goal, which is not justified by necessity but by a generic capability of learning. In this day and age Newton would have been made to study one discipline and by the time he had his doctorate all originality would have been driven out of him. (this is a bit harsh but I have tagged this entry as polemic).
Bacon also said that knowledge is power. Too many people in knowledge management interpret that as people withhold their knowledge because they seek power. I have long argued that fear of abuse and time are more significant, but that is not my point here. Bacon is arguing that knowledge, for its its own sake represents an opportunity for power, not to control but to make sense of and interpret the world. With the problems we now face across our multiple societies we need generalists but have ceased to educate them. We lack a capability to integrate and synthesis our own, and the knowledge of the ancients with a dynamic and rapidly changing (politically and physically) world.
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