I’ve been writing a conference paper and it felt like being in Plato’s allegory of the cave, but in reverse. Strapped to a chair, but instead of shadows on the wall it was 18th century works and journal articles on philosophy, law and history in the dim light of a desk lamp and the Scottish winter sun. It was not shadows of the realm of ideas, but theoretical and abstract notions of the foundations of the US government and its connection to a philosophy trying to describe the real lived experience of the human condition. While just behind me is the sunlight of a number of real present examples of that human condition, not to mention my own. But I sit and write as the world and the rest of my life slips away. The light at the mouth of the cave dimming. That is until, the work is finished, my fetters cut and I’m able to turn and walk out into the light once more.
This often happens to me when I write, and I think in moderation it’s a good thing, well a necessary thing, at least for my work. But it does seem ironic to me at times that in my attempts to truly understand aspects of the human condition I remove myself from it, from the society of other humans. I don’t become a complete recluse, but I’m also never totally present, in many ways my mind is still writing. Even when I’m not writing a chapter or paper there seems to be part of me still grappling with a concept or source, leaving me feeling more and more distant from the very thing the humanities study. And I wonder at times if this isn’t why communicating knowledge from academia to the public is so difficult. I wonder if the knowledge discovered and expressed in that cave lacks the human touch, that tang of the real lived experience of the human condition that makes it palpable to popular audiences. Is it possibly part of the reason why experts’ pleas during the Brexit and US presidential campaign fell on deaf ears?
Thomas Reid, the philosopher I study, once explained the errors of his intellectual opponent Hume, by writing that: “it was only in solitude and retirement that he could yield any assent to his own philosophy; society, like day-light, dispelled the darkness and fogs of scepticism”.1 I often wonder if I lose the plot at times in my own personal cave or lost the ability to express what I’ve found in a meaningful way to society. The very ends I’m hoping to achieve being destroyed by the means. But then I venture into a café or a pub, speak with friends or family, and the day-light of society streams back as a conversation begins. That is when I realise they have as much knowledge to bring to me as I think I have to explain to them – not of the realm of ideas, but of the experience of being human. I realise that I need that society not only for my wellbeing, but to keep my work aligned and grounded in reality.
I think this is the key to academic public engagement, the recognition that it must be a dialogue and not merely a lecture. That while a person may have been misled about certain facts or ideas, what they’re often attempting to express is something about their real lived experience and there is a real truth and humanity in that. I wonder sometimes if the most effective public engagement is not the kind that happens in cafes, pubs, and flats; and begins with listening. I certainly could be wrong, but I do think I have learned enough about vitamin D deficiencies from Scottish winters to say that us cave dwellers should wander out into the light a little more often.
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- Thomas Reid, ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind’, in The Works of Thomas Reid Now Fully Collected, with Selections from His Unpublished Letters / Preface, Notes and Supplementary Dissertations by Sir William Hamilton; Prefixed, Stewart’s Account of the Life and Writings of Reid with Notes by the Editor, ed. by William Hamilton, 6th edn (Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart, 1863), pp. 97a – 211b (p. 102a).