Why Otium?

One of my more controversial beliefs is that speculative thinking is valuable.

This goes against the grain of the ideal that scientists and other professionals should be specialists.  As a mathematician, so says the “specialist ethos”, I should make careful and precise statements about my field of mathematics, and remain deliberately agnostic about everything else.  Over time, I can become an authority in my field, and my statements will be an expert’s judgments; until then, what I think is just “opinion”, and opinions are basically worthless.  Every newspaper reader has an opinion; the Internet is full of idiots with opinions; if you want a real answer, ask an expert.

The “specialist ethos” is, I believe, overly authoritarian and harmful to free inquiry.  Sure, uninformed opinions are less reliable, and it’s valuable to be aware when you don’t know what you’re talking about.  But intellectuals often can make valid contributions to fields outside their own.  And discussion about speculative, early-stage ideas is critical to the development of new paradigms, scientific fields, and technologies.  Speculation is looser and more uncertain than proof or experiment, but if we don’t do it, we calcify.

The alternative to a specialist ethos is a philosophical ethos.  The classical world valued otium, literally meaning leisure, but with a connotation of intellectual contemplation outside of the constraints of public life.  Seneca writes of curiosity for its own sake, and the virtue of the contemplative life as an occasion for exploration and leaving knowledge for posterity.

For most of Western history, the intellectual was not a specialist but a philosopher.  Speculative inquiry was considered a virtue.  And the practice of philosophy was considered incompatible with participation in public life; the Stoics believed that one should balance the active with the contemplative, but believed that a “commonwealth” would inevitably persecute a genuine philosopher as Athens persecuted Socrates. To do philosophy, you would have to retire, for some time, to a private estate, away from the pressures of politics and business.

And so, to blogging. A WordPress site isn’t a villa (unfortunately), and I’m not a Roman philosopher.  But a place for speculative thinking and discussion, apart from professional competition, remains valuable.

When I write here, I’ll write as a human being thinking about things, not as a professional.  It’ll be filtered through the lens of my education, which means there will be some math, at varying levels of technicality, but there’ll also be a lot of hand-waving, rough ideas, metaphors, and wild guesses.  I’ll be wrong sometimes.  I’ll facepalm at my own mistakes.  I’ll talk about things like biology and business, where I’m a novice, and about things like how thinking works, where in some sense everyone’s an amateur.  And maybe this is an unusual practice, but I think of it as the basic way that a free, complete, thinking human being goes through life.

Happy reading!


5 thoughts on “Why Otium?

  1. “The “specialist ethos” is, I believe, overly authoritarian and harmful to free inquiry… Speculation is looser and more uncertain than proof or experiment, but if we don’t do it, we calcify.”

    And sometimes dangerously misleading, because in my experience as a specialist among specialists, much of academic training often corresponds to indoctrination within particular paradigms, which can limit questions and bias interpretations of data. As much as I hate to admit it, Kuhn’s account was not completely inaccurate in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So although I value specialization, I think you’re completely right about the importance of speculation from a variety of sources, which I think is essential for a healthy dialectic.

  2. Very reminiscent of lateral thinking (see de Bono and so forth), which, like Seneca’s writings, it oft ignored in modernity.

  3. I think speculative thinking is vital. But it’s also problematic.

    When one begins to speculate in disciplines where one has little familiarity or knowledge, there are some inherent pitfalls. One of them is imagining that the speculation is breaking new ground, when the insights were actually long ago conceptualized- and, moreover, critiqued- by those with more background and experience. Often critiqued quite thoroughly, to an extent not imagined by the naive speculator. Critiqued and discarded.

    For that reason, I’m personally more inclined to encourage speculations that take the form of questions, and questioning, rather than assertions of insight. As for developing working hypotheses- see above. Take care that the questions weren’t examined long ago, lest you find yourself proclaiming a gold strike with a nugget of iron pyrite in your hand. There’s inevitably a high quotient of hokum in the realm of speculation, even when parsed interrogatively. Beware of that. Try to winnow out as much of it as you can, knowing that you’ll never get all of it.

    Sometimes the perspective of another mode of knowledge or scholarly discipline can lead to, or provide, a useful contribution in a realm of knowledge where it had previously not been applied. Other times it merely works like a Procrustean bed in the mind of the speculator, or results in the sort of incoherence and confusion associated with possessing a hammer and imagining that all unsolved problems or challenges are nails. Etc.

    So by all means, speculate on. But pack an ample quantity of humility with you on your quest. Iconoclasm is often facile; revolution, often prematurely declared; and quackery and humbug are commonplace. Authentically valid and worthy iconoclasm- real ground-breaking insight, especially that of unheralded revolutionary import- is rare indeed.

    Don’t let anything I’ve said stop you from aspiring to that, and trying for it. Speculative thinking is vital.

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