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A “polytechnic Ulysses” as a synthesis of new cultures

True knowledge, according to Giulio Giorello, one of Europe’s most respected philosophers of science, is like Ulysses, “a poet who had the courage to navigate by different constellations than those of known biases”, the goal of which is “to establish a sort of new agreement, an original alliance between those who develop knowledge nearly to the limits of our capacity to reason and those with a stubborn drive to understand the secrets of philosophy and the arts” (see Corriere della Sera, 11 July). In other words, an agreement between scientist and artist, an example of “polytechnic culture” in the very Italian brand of the best humanism, a synthesis of various forms of knowledge as taught by Piero della Francesca (both an extraordinary mathematician and great painter), Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo and so on, right up until the controversial trend of the twentieth century when the humanities and the sciences would separate and we would see the rise of the unbearable concept of “the two cultures”. Now, though, it has come time to reunite these two forms of knowledge in order to find solutions to the complexity of the Great Crisis, which has placed traditional paradigms of production, trade and consumption into doubt and has forced us to seek better environmental and social sustainability in economic development.

This is the new challenge of the culture of enterprise, to have a strategy for discovering new points of view and original ways of creating jobs and wealth, to become familiar with the processes that are more typical of scientific research (i.e. forming hypotheses, finding confirmation, submitting the hypotheses to tests of “falsifiability” as popularised by Karl Popper, moving on towards new syntheses, and so on ad infinitum), and to engage in the production of goods and services with a careful eye on change, transformation and new forms of equilibrium. Culture of enterprise as a culture of metamorphosis.

Along the way, there will be a need for engineers, chemists, physicists, biologists and mathematicians in numbers much greater than Italian universities are able to produce each year – Italian businesses would need 40,000 more individuals with “technical” degrees such as these – but also a need for philosophers who are able to make sense of the complexity and for humanists able to work with the hallmarks of modern art and to recognise changes in relationships, needs, dreams and their symbols. In other words, we need philosophical engineers just like those that the best in Italian education was traditionally able to provide to Italian businesses, research labs, the markets and the world. Indeed, this is the reasoning behind the decision made some time ago by Politecnico di Milano and Politecnico di Torino – two schools that have trained some of the best Italian executives – to offer sophisticated philosophy courses and to work together with businesses and science foundations, as well as with a great cultural institution like Piccolo Teatro in Milan, on a series of initiatives that have been given the name “Teatro Scienza” (Science Theatre): an exploration of knowledge and theatre.

There are, in fact, words that point to these surprising synergies, words such as “laboratory” used in reference to theatre, education, research and manufacturing: the Piccolo laboratory; the Politecnico laboratory; the Pirelli laboratory. Think, design, do, tell.

This is innovation. Not new technology, but a new way of thinking, a new point of view, new relationships of meaning and story telling. A way of thinking that results in new technologies and makes use of them. Knowledge and tools. The work of philosophical engineers and of the manufacturers who hire them. A “polytechnic Ulysses”.