Melancholy, books, scholarship and science

I am these days spending the winter break at my hometown, in Spain. This has left me some time to inspect my books. It’s that there are several of them I had even forgotten that I possessed. It is impossible to avoid feeling some nostalgia looking at them.

There is this strange feeling of discovering a selection of reading made by a past self. Many of them are attached to past interests, that is, latent passions that I have abandoned due to lack of time, lack of usefulness. I remember, for example, a time when I wanted to learn about China, ancient Rome or differential topology.Next to me is for example Paul Veyne’s Le pain et le cirque an 800 pages book on the sociology of charity in ancient Rome, or John W. Milnor Topology from a differentiable viewpoint.

It is also enjoyable to discover this selection, just as if I was gossiping someone else’s library in search of some good book. I find myself thinking ‘Oh, these are really great choices, I really I should find time to read these’, forgetting that, of course I find them great since they were chosen by me!

I used to cultivate the (flawed) idea that having a minimal understanding of these esoteric topics was an absolute requirement for any cultivated person, let alone for a researcher. Even now I found myself toying with the idea that, perhaps, if I think about working on preferences for redistribution ‘perhaps it could be useful to read Veyne’s book. Perhaps I could use its insights to think about charity and the political economy of redistribution in America!’.   Get behind me, Satan!

One of the reasons why I went into academia is because I loved to read and to learn. There was also this stuff about changing the world. But the reason why I can stand so much time working without becoming insane is because I like to read, to know, to understand. Recently, I learned that my fetish professor when I was an undergrad, Pedro de Vega, had died. He was the first professor I had. He taught us constitutional law, and introduced us to the history of political ideas. I remember being massively impressed by the breadth of his knowledge, although I am sure I would find it much more limited now. He belonged to that generation in which university professors were scholars, intellectual, meaning, individuals who were expected to feel comfortable in many fields and being smart.

The world of research has made massive progress getting beyond that paradigm. Currently, you are not valued for being smart or wise but by being good at writing papers- and make no mistake, the two do not alway coincide. Depth is valued over breath of knowledge. Researchers are much less intellectuals or scholars, and much more workers with a broad division of labor. Works are succinct and concise, instead of encyclopedic. This is encapsulated in a piece of advice a professor of mine always repeats ‘One idea/topic per paper/book/career’. I really think this is great progress.  I have met many people who were brilliant in their field, who contributed and produced valuable research and deserved thus being at the top, but -I am pretty sure of this- could not tell what the field of metaphysics is vaguely about. This is efficient, it is productive, it provides the right incentives. It is the scientific mode of production, after science stopped being ‘natural phylosophy’.

For people with my taste, of course, this incentive structure has made life much less pleasant. I still try to read at least one philosophy book and one novel every year and listen to as much history (in audioboooks) as I can on my way to the department.


Melancholy, books, scholarship and science

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