The wheel and the bobsleigh

Haris Shekeris
4 min readJan 14, 2023

This post is an attempt to offer some insight into progress in academia. The central thesis is that, at least in the domain that I know a bit about, philosophy, progress should be thought of in the form of the slinkie (the slinkie is a progressive circle which can be closed).

Now of course, you’d probably like to react to the above as ‘Who cares about philosophy?’. To which, defensive as I’d be of my baby-thought, I’d say ‘well, what if there are some lesson to be drawn about progress in science and/or technology?’. Anyway, enough with this back and forth!

So, let me first explain the slinkie before going into a case-study of a question in philosophy which I hope will serve to illustrate my thesis. The slinkie consists of plastic in circles with width, in other words it has the shape of cylinder, but a bendy one. When put on a staircase and given a push, it will descend that staircase, ie it will cover some new ground, it will progress.

However, the slinkie may be used to close in upon itself, thus forming the shape of a toroid. Of course, some some people have elevated the toroid as the shape of many totems in physics, such as top-noth accelerators and the universe. Others just eat donuts.

Now, a toroid is impressive as it’s it’s a three dimensional circle. It progresses yet it has a centre, it is a combination of a line and a circle with a centre in the middle.

My claim is that philosophical questions go round in time, each time in a different iteration, yet with the same centre (a corollary is that given that there are so many infinite little circles, the number of the centres, the number of questions in philosophy in other words, are quite limited — but I won’t pursue this any further here).

I will demonstrate this with a brief case-study on the question of the relationship between experts and politicians (or science/knowledge and policy). For my purposes, it’s sufficient that I list the different iterations of the problem, rather than the exact accounts.

Soo, here goes. Plato was perhaps the first influential author (perhaps just the first who thought about writing it and packaging it in his own medium which happened to become lucky and withstand the test of time) who suggested that the philosopher king should listen to some knowledgeable advisors, I think called ‘the guardians’. In his account (the internet has informed me that they were indeed called ‘the guardians’), these people would possess the quality of wisdom.

After many years (perhaps not so many as I present here, but maybe a significant amount of time later as there were much fewer books produced then — of course my account here is also short-cited in that these problems must have definitely been addressed by Arab Chinese and perhaps Indian authors to say the least, however I don’t know much about these guys) Macchiavelli also addressed essentially the same problem and gave his own answer in the Prince.

After a while, (things start going a bit faster now) a bit earlier than the official birth date of Science, Francis Bacon in his work fantasised about the Scientific priesthood. Others followed, and of course both the nature of science (an explosion in production, more systematicity) and of the persona of the scientist (from a gentleman with time in his hands to a traveller to somebody with a job etc) and the nature of the state changed. Marx wrote, J.S Mill wrote, and countless others. Max Weber discussed the state and bureaucracy, inn the 1920s Mannheim wrote a book on the sociology of knowledge, in which he associated different perceptions of scientific knowledge by social class, in the 1960s many authors discussed technocracy reactions against it (I like Habermas’ notion of the scientized society, but that’s just personal taste).

And what happens around 2008? Well, around this time academic philosophy of science catches up and discovers ‘epistocracy’, the rule of the knowers — also it discovers the domain of political epistemology and yet more papers in an esoteric language and more conferences address the same questions without realising so. Knowledge circulates along the spires of the toroid, taking a whole circle in order to make a millimeter’s worth of progress, a progress which may ultimately if we live enough come fully round circle. And yet we all believe the myth of progress and even refuse to cite Plato and Macchiavelli when discussing ‘the state of the art’ in our submitted papers.

Anyway. End of rant.

Any lessons for people other than philosophers? Well, I don’t know. I tend to think that the lesson that we have to pay attention to history and not think that everything around us came into being yesterday is a valuable lesson (there’s the related term ‘whig history’ I think in history studies), and I’m quite sure that it applies to technology, for example it would be good when we look into things like Facebook to think of things such as the internet being born out of the need of communication between bunkers in the event of a nuclear war or of the french minitel system. Or for example to remember Marie-Antoinette when discussing fake news. So there you go. My overall message would then be: There’s perhaps not much that is new under the sun. And in the spirit of this article, this dictum is not even new. As far as I know, the Ancient Greeks said it. Maybe countless others before me too :)