Autumn Conferrings 2008
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 10 MFómh 2008
Prof. Philip O’Kane, former Professor of Civil Engineering, UCC
“Crossing academic boundaries”
President of the University, Members of the Governing Body, Registrar, Heads of Colleges, fellow members of the academic community, graduates and distinguished guests, I have been asked “to congratulate, inspire and encourage our graduates of this afternoon as they move to the next stage of their lives”, in an address of 6-8 minutes in length. This is indeed a challenge for several reasons. The graduates today are from a most diverse range of backgrounds: research scientists concerned with the physics, chemistry and biology of the sensible world, applied scientists who make useful things for measuring, computing, programming, networking, and stimulating our senses, humanists who ponder the human condition and the mystery of our consciousness, and performance artists who hold a mirror up to nature.
While the boundaries of your disciplines are drawn by the University with a sharp compass, they are not impassible. Consequently, I take as the subject of my address, the opportunities that await those willing to cross academic boundaries, using two contrasting examples to inspire and encourage you. Both have Irish connections.
My first example is an engineer turned philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He was born in Vienna in 1889 to a highly musical family. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) were frequent visitors. Ludwig’s father, Karl, studied engineering at the Technical University in Vienna and became one of the leading manufacturers of iron and steel in Austro-Hungary. After private education at home, Karl (1847-1917) sent his son to the Königliche und Kaiserliche Oberrealschule in Linz, rather than to a classical Gymnasium in Vienna, for several reasons, one of which was to enhance his son’s knowledge of the practical arts.
After graduation in 1906 he entered the Technische Hochschule in Berlin-Schottenburg to study Mechanical Engineering. Two years later he moved to the Victoria University of Manchester and carried out experiments at The Kite Flying Upper Atmosphere Station in Glossop, Cheshire. His interest in heavier-than-air flight lead him to design a variable volume combustion propeller, registered in 1910, as patent No. 27,087, on “Improvements in Propellers applicable for Aerial Machines” which reads “I, Ludwig Wittgenstein, … of Manchester, Research Engineering Student, do hereby declare the nature of this invention and in what manner the same is to be performed, …”. He was 21 years of age.
He then changed direction, from mechanical engineering to philosophy, through the agency of the logical foundations of mathematics!
He had probably read Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik (1893-1903) in his father’s library, and in Manchester, the first volume of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica (1910-13). He visited Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) in the Summer of 1911 who encouraged him to study under Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) at Cambridge. Wittgenstein arrived unannounced at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October of that year to begin his career as a philosopher and for which he is now celebrated as the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922-23). In 1939 he was appointed to the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge.
While there were many subsequent changes of direction, his interest in the practical and plastic arts was sustained by a joint commission in 1926 with the architect Paul Engelmann for a villa in the Kundmanngasse in Vienna. Their client was his sister, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, the lady in the well-known portrait by Gustav Klimt. The villa is still there today.
Paul Wijdeveld in his book “Ludwig Wittgenstein, Architect” asserts “ By 1912, [aged 23] he must have realized that the machine, that is, the efficiently functioning mechanical system, could be the paradigm of the philosophical explanation of the world, the good and the beautiful that he was striving for”. Wittgenstein visited Ireland several times, staying at a cottage in Connemara owned by a student friend from Cambridge, the psychiatrist, Maurice O’Connor Drury.
My second example is the philosopher turned consulting engineer, the Anglo-Dane, Sir Ove Arup. Ove Nyquist Arup (1895-1988) was born in Newcastle, England in 1895 where his farther, Johannes, was consular veterinary inspector with the Danish Ministry of Agriculture. A year later he was transferred to Hamburg where Ove spent his early years. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen he attended the Sorø Academy (1562; 1623) in Denmark as a boarder and in the words of his biographer, Peter Jones, received “an essentially Public School education”.
More than fifty years later he recalled the problems of his school days: “There were so many problems to solve; How did life evolve from matter? How to square free will with determinism, Western Science with Eastern mysticism? The nature of truth, the foundation of ethical beliefs and behaviour – all that and more. Obviously I had to find out before I could think of a profession. It seemed rather absurd to me that the object of life should be to earn a living. So I decided to study philosophy.”
He matriculated at the University of Copenhagen in October 1913 aged eighteen and read philosophy for five years while enjoying the musical and social life of the Danish capital; “But Truth with a capital ‘T’ eluded him, and he abandoned philosophy”.
“He was not sure that he had ‘enough artistic ability to become a really good architect’, but he was good at mathematics, so engineering might be a solution”. In 1918 he reluctantly enrolled for an engineering degree at Den Polytekniske Læreanstalt (1829) now known as the Danish Technical University, specialising in reinforced concrete. He completed his studies in 1922 at the age of twenty eight and joined the leading Danish Contractor Christiani & Nielsen at their office in Hamburg, the city of his childhood.
In 1946 he founded the Arup firm of consulting engineers, opening offices simultaneously in London and Dublin. He became the engineer of choice for the post-war modernist architects, initially Berthold Lubetkin in London and Michael Scott in Dublin. Young engineering applicants for employment were sometimes asked, “Have you read Kropotkin – the anarchist?” The firm prospered and now has 10,000+ staff in 92 offices in 37 countries with projects in 160+ countries. In 1966 he was awarded the British architects’ most prestigious prize, the RIBA Gold Medal. An Irish engineer, Peter Rice, who joined the firm in 1956, also won the RIBA Gold Medal in 1992.
But philosophy had left its mark. In 1970 aged seventy-five he was moved to write down the aims and ethical principles of his firm. These are now required reading for all new staff, or for anyone who wants to learn about that remarkable firm.
The students who cross such steep academic boundaries will be small in number, in contrast to those who, on graduation, cross the boundary from academia to the world of employment. Do not be depressed by the voices of gloom in the media. We live in good times. In 1995 I told my graduating class that they could not have chosen a better year in which to graduate. That year was the minimum in the current fifty-five-year grand super cycle, or long wave, in the economy, named after the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev (1892-1938). This year we are at the mid-point, a point of inflection, on the upswing. The upswing will continue for another fifteen years driven by the economies of the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Opportunities await those willing to engage with the peoples of these four countries by learning and understanding their languages and cultures, and crossing the boundaries of our English-speaking world.
I congratulate you today on your mastery of your discipline, achieved through sustained study, practice and the fire of examination. I send compliments to your parents and families who have sustained you. I wish you every success in your chosen careers. Go n-eirí an bóthar libh.
 German text and Ogden-Ramsey translation http://www.kfs.org/~jonathan/witt/tlph.html
 Wijdeveld, P. (1994) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Architect, MIT Press, Boston.
 Drury, Maurice O'Connor; David Berman (ed), Michael Fitzgerald (ed), John Hayes (ed) (1973). The Danger of Words and Writings on Wittgenstein. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 225.
 Jones, Peter (2006) Ove Arup Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press. 2006
 Reputedly the largest Civil Engineering contractor in the world before the second world war.