Philosophy in performance

May 10, 1996

Rolf Hughes reports on a Swedish initiative to rethink the relationship between learning and work. Miroslav Holub was recently asked about his dual identity as a celebrated Czech poet and a leading research immunologist. "I have a single goal," he said, "but two ways to reach it. I never switch them - I apply them both in turn. Poetry and science form the basis of my existence."

Holub was in Stockholm earlier this year to celebrate an anniversary, marking ten years of Dialogue Seminars, a joint venture between Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre, the Swedish Institute for Work Life Research and the Royal Institute of Technology, which has brought together philosophers, technologists, scientists, and writers. In his welcome, Bo Goranzon, professor of skill and technology at the Royal Institute of Technology indicated why Holub had been invited; Holub, Goranzon remarked, manages to combine the two cultures - science and the humanities - within the same body without being schizophrenic.

We are living in a period when the nature and value of work are undergoing significant transformation. This is reflected in a number of ways; in forms of communication; in the structure of organisations; in the very idea of a career; in the search for a new balance between working life and the life of learning. It seems increasingly evident that a single fixed model of the world, including the world of work, is no longer satisfactory.

An international group of mathematicians, actors, physicists, literary critics, engineers and philosophers is meeting regularly in Stockholm to rethink the relationship between learning and work. Against the inflated claims made on behalf of artificial intelligence systems, the group seeks to defend practical skills.

Their research seminars are attended by professionals who share two core beliefs; first, that working life must be located within culture as a whole - the impact of technology on work cannot be isolated from its cultural and social context - and, second, that the central problem to be solved in the area of skill transfer is that of tacit knowledge, the most powerful knowledge humans have, but the hardest to elicit. The plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Montaigne's essays, Diderot's philosophical dialogues, and Wittgenstein's later philosophy provide some of the common references for their investigations.

This diverse group is coordinated by Goranzon, a mathematician with a love of the theatre, who has supervised studies of professional knowledge over 20 years, including examinations of the working cultures of social insurance, forestry, photography, and weather forecasting. How, Goranzon asks, do we reflect on our own practices? How do we think about the way that we think? We create metaphors and analogies; we perform our thoughts; we engineer models to externalise cognitive processes. Students on the skill and technology graduate programme can accordingly participate in the MA in culture and communication at the University of East Anglia and the MSc in technology management at the Open University, where they are encouraged to develop a measure of epistemological selfawareness. For Jon Cook, director of UEA's centre for creative and performing arts, the programme fosters creative and critical approaches to the uncertainties of contemporary work and learning cultures. "It involves redrawing the boundaries between traditional disciplines, encouraging a more rigorous dialogue between academic thinking and professional practice, and developing the capacity to explore paradoxes, uncertainties, and shifting points of view."

John Monk, professor in the faculty of technology at the Open University, says his students have gained useful insights into their work by reading engineered artefacts as forms of storytelling. Similarly, a student of systems analysis can learn valuable lessons on leadership, rule-following and the rituals of expertise from a good production of King Lear.

In recent years the senior researchers of the group have produced a series of variations on the tradition of the philosophical dialogue. Stephen Toulmin's Imaginary Confessions presents the history of reason as a history of passion, suffering, and comedy as the idiosyncrasies of Montaigne, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton are brought to life onstage. Lars Kleberg, professor of Slavic and Baltic languages at Stockholm University has written a triptych of philosophical dialogues for radio involving Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Bakhtin, and the Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang. These explore the different meanings of the word "experiment" in science and art. Beyond All Certainty, written by Goranzon and Anders Karlqvist, examines the different traditions of knowledge represented by the meeting between Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge on the eve of the second world war. It has also served as the basis of seminars on the relationship of philosophy to artificial intelligence. The plays and philosophical dialogues indicate the group's concern not to dissociate knowledge from its narration and performance.

The Dialogue Seminar has now joined forces with the European Humanities Research Centre at the University of Oxford, and the British Comparative Literature Association to offer a Pounds 5,000 award for a new philosophical dialogue or a new translation of an existing philosophical dialogue. "Our performances of philosophical dialogues and drama, from Sophocles to Oscar Wilde, have provided a fruitful method of study," Goranzon comments. "The International Philosophical Dialogues Award is a mark of the renewed interest in the philosophical dialogue as a means of reflection." The award will be presented, with readings and performances at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, in Stockholm in spring 1998.

Rolf Hughes is research fellow, centre for the advanced study of skill, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

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