1.2 Panta Rei

In the previous post, I summoned the ancient philosophers in my apparently catastrophic attempt to explain the term Ph.D. My succinct analysis is however not entirely fair; although it seems clear that modern doctorates are not best described as teachers of philosophy, or even just philosophers, the term derives from the academic tradition and should not be seen just as a pretentious label attached to a university degree. After an investigation on the historical course of the degree, I discovered the motivations that caused such denomination to arrive to our days. An important fact to be considered is that the term philosophy itself has changed meaning during the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the disciplines that were not classified as theology, medicine and law were all defined as philosophy.

At a more informal level, a wit comment posted by Stian after my previous post outlined how philosophers and modern academics have more in common than one could initially think. It is true that ancient philosophers were in fact the first academics.

Then, it is perhaps worth casting a further glance at the painting “School of Athens” before moving forward: on the lower left, another famous philosopher, Heraclitus , is taking some notes after a sudden inspiration that apparently came upon him while looking at his knee.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. Detail depicting Heraclitus .

This is an important moment; here at the very school of Athens we find already the seed of change, or at least the awareness of such change: Heraclitus’s philosophy was later encapsulated in the famous aphorism “Panta rei”, meaning everything is in flux, everything changes constantly. There is little doubt that if Heraclitus could see Ph.D. nowadays, he would be utterly dumbstruck to discover how right his theory was after all.

It was a long way though, and the Ph.D. title didn’t just came into being one sunny morning while a yawning professor stared at his knee. It was in the Middle Ages that the European universities started to award the first Doctorate degrees as forms of habilitation for teaching. The records tell us that Bologna University awarded the first Doctorate degrees in Civil Law at the end of the 12th century. But it was only in the second half of the 19th century that the Ph.D. awarded by German universities was adopted by American universities as well. In that period, American bachelors, attracted by the prestige of German universities, would travel to Europe to earn a German Ph.D. The influence was such that in 1861 Yale University awarded the first Ph.D. and in 1876 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore set rigid standards to make the U.S. Ph.D. comparable to the German degree. From the U.S. the degree spread to Canada and back to Europe in the 20th century. Although Ph.D. is a rather popular degree nowadays, there are many kind of Doctorate degrees: the Encyclopaedia Americana reports a list of 20 Doctorate degrees, from Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L) to Doctor of Science.
The history of Ph.D. is indeed a jungle of degrees and conventions among many countries and universities. I shall inevitably refer to the many accounts on encyclopaedias for further details.

At this point, after a bit of historical background, I’m somehow pressed to leave the past and dive into the current life, hoping also to keep up the interest of my eleven readers. In the next post I will crawl the Net in search of hints on the modern Ph.D. world.


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