Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy?  What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history?  Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages?  Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.”  Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise.  He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor” of course primarily refers to physicians.  Ph.D.’s sometime use the term in academic settings, but truth to tell I think most feel a bit fraudulent when they do so.    (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom.  Thus philosophy is more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge.  It is this love, according to Plato, that should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences. It sets us on the road that leads beyond the confines of our illusions as he illustrates in his famous allegory of the cave.

But how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom?  Robert Pirsig once suggested that many teachers are so smug and self-satisfied that wisdom is a threat to their ego-bound security.

One cannot teach love with words.  The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it.  The teacher must BE what she teaches.  Sure, the facts and the information have an important place, but if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.  As a teacher, I need to know my subject, but I believe that what ultimately stays with my students is the respect with which I listen to them, the attention with which I regard them, and the love I have for them and for the wonders and surprises of the subject I teach.  Ten years after the class is over, if they remember me at all, it will be for my love rather than for my knowledge.

So to be a Ph.D. is a humbling and challenging mantle.  It is also a beckoning aspiration for which I am eternally grateful.












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