My academic life revolves around posing answers to a family of related questions: how does education inform life? does it improve outcomes or cause unnecessary harm? how? when? what is the role of the sciences, and other forms of culture involving human concepts and percepts, in human life?

In my experience, the significant break in answers given comes down to different ways of structuring knowledge. Some people (who might be scientists, humanists, or artists) believe that knowledge should be universal, at the very least in theory, and that education consists in generalizing the particular to some kind of universal (e.g. “the scientific method” writ large across all historical sciences in their various fields of endeavor). Other people (as diverse as the first group in their education) believe that there is no such thing as universal knowledge, that knowledge is a particular byproduct of living mindfully in certain environments (physics labs, biology labs, the jungle, the desert, the artist’s studio, the university, the marketplace, the courtroom, etc.). For these folks, the quest for perfecting universal conceptual systems (e.g. creating a universal map of Platonic forms or Aristotelian categories) is hopeless–and a waste of time, definitely not the point of any education worth having.

For better or worse, I am a member of the second camp. I have more in common with physicists who denigrate universals than with humanists or philosophers who embrace them, even though I am accidentally a member of the humanist faction (with more serious reading logged in philosophy than in physics). I don’t think there is any solution to our conflict in sight: people who believe in universals will always struggle for them, as we who disbelieve will always struggle to escape the kind of thinking we regard as fundamentally imprisoning, stultifying, and illiberal (unfree, requiring definitive universal answers to questions that are beyond universal definition).