In an interview (4:10) while Director of Institute for Advanced Study, J. Robert Oppenheimer states quite plainly and sincerely:

We had here this year a Swiss French psychologist - he is almost a philosopher, called Piaget...

Secondly, at 7:09, Oppenheimer states:

...Harold Cherniss, who is that wonderful blend of scholar and philosopher...

And finally, considering the work of Alan Turning, who is described as being a: mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist.

Given the diverse range of fields in humanities and science, it must help to have one main perspective - a common foundation, and maybe this one main perspective helps to gain a high-level overview, allowing for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work.

Is being a scholar and philosopher (academic) the pinnacle of humanities and science?

For example, is Harold Cherniss first and foremost a scholar and philosopher, and then a classicist and historian?

  • What is the benefit of such kind of "classification"? Scholar is a descriptive term. Also scientist. They are also names of professions. Classicist is a scholar specialized in classical study... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 15 at 13:52
  • See Harold F. Cherniss: "was an American classicist and historian of ancient philosophy. " To be an historian of ancient philosophy means to be also a philosopher? I think not. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 15 at 14:29
  • The world of academia and science is structured around titles and ranks and concepts. So, I wondered if, to my limited experience and knowledge of their professional world, if Oppenheimer was alluding to some core concept in these things. Benefit? Perhaps, in the same way an athlete must first be physically and mentally fit before they are able to compete. So, does a scientist or physician have to be, by standard, a scholar and a philosophy, first and foremost? It made me wonder, what is the foundation of individual knowledge, and if there was a common notion within academia. – Dylan Jan 15 at 16:30
  • I think, personally, that a scientist or physician or mathematician psychologist - would have some general understanding of philosophy, and that they would also be highly experienced scholars. I wouldn't think Oppenheimer was making an in-joke in his interview, so I suppose - to him - psychology does not encompass philosophy as much as philosophy is a part of classicism. Chermiss, though a classicist by trade - could also have had general knowledge of philosophy too. Curious why Oppenheimer would make that distinction, since both Chermiss and Piaget were, first and foremost, scholars. – Dylan Jan 15 at 16:40

The academic model had very old roots, stretching back to the guild systems of the middle ages. We can break it down like so:

  • Apprentice (usually undergraduates in the modern system): Someone learning the basics of the trade.
  • Journeyman (graduate students): Someone who has a firm fitting in the trade, but needs to stand on his own feet for practical experience.
  • Master (an expert in the field, a post-graduate or someone who's earned their Master's or Doctoral degree): Someone experienced in the field who plies the trade as a career.

A philosopher, then, is someone working on fundamental issues to expand or deepen the field. It's not a formal designation (well, PhD means 'Doctor of Philosophy), but a recognition that there is a difference between a physicist who spends her days designing practical devices (like rockets or computers) and a physicist who spends her days trying to figure out the fundamental nature of reality.

  • Since then, I watched an interview with Freeman Dyson, who explained that Oppenheimer tended to oppose the use of the Institute of Advanced Study for practical reason (labs), and that IAS was for purely theoretical work. Perhaps, Oppenheimer felt a bias against practical use of philosophy (psychology) thus he might have believed Piaget was a practitioner more than a theorist, whereas Cherniss was focused purely on the history of ancient philosophy. But I found this helpful (META) with deciding where to start studying history/humanities, i.e. history of philosophy - firstly, before mathematics. – Dylan Jan 16 at 19:25
  • @Dylan: you should be a bit cautious in this, because some people use the word 'philosopher' idealistically and some people use it pejoratively (in the sense of dreamy, speculative, and un-rigorous). They usually aren't too subtle about their attitude, but it's wise to be sensitive to context. – Ted Wrigley Jan 16 at 19:40
  • I think one of the barriers to learning about science, mathematics, philosophy... is the sheer volume of information and the many numerous branches. I think there is some truth in Oppenheimer's words: foundation in philosophy, first and foremost. I do appreciate the difference between theoretical and practical side - and as Arthur F. Holmes stated, mathematicians tend to better understand Classical Logic. From Oppenheimer, did he believe in the opposite. (e.g. Pre-Socratic). But, it's clear now Oppenheimer was expressing his own view as opposed to a common academic standard or approach. – Dylan Jan 16 at 20:10

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