Science & Education

, Volume 24, Issue 7–8, pp 813–814 | Cite as

What Makes a Life Worth Living? An Essay in Honor of Michael Matthews

  • Gerald Holton


Science Teaching Worth Living Life Worth Living Worthwhile Life Specific Accomplishment 
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It is again time to attend to the fundamentals. Both science and education in the United States and elsewhere are widely demeaned and underfunded, as are other cultural activities, products, and standards. More and more, “success” is being measured merely in terms of profits. Against that dark picture, leaders toward positive and energizing goals are especially treasured. And happily for many of us, one of these is our Michael Matthews, extraordinary scholar, editor, and statesman.

It is very tempting to elaborate at this point on his specific accomplishments, especially on his championing eloquently the view that science and education are not only interlinked from beginning to end, but are both at the heart of modern civilization. A constant aim has been to bring together the communities of science education and historian/philosophers of science. In this he has been extremely successful: he has been the Editor-in-Chief of Science & Education for 25 years; he has written the influential Science Teaching: The Contribution of History and Philosophy of Science (1994, 2015); and he has edited the enormous, 2532-page long International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching (2014).

Here, a question urges itself on me: What produced a mind as unique and fruitful as Michael’s? Rather than trying to force him onto an analysts’ couch, I found a good part of the answer by stumbling on a kind of long oral history session, the sort historians of science highly value, which he underwent in 2010. It is published as “A Conversation with Michael R. Matthews: The Contribution of History and Philosophy of Science to Science Teaching and Research” (Yalaki and Cakmaci 2010). It turns out, not to one’s surprise, that the influences on Michael have covered a huge spread of different fields. It begins with frequent study of philosophy back in high school, furthered by informed members of the family, going on into college and universities. That led to a deeply motivating study of the Philosophy of Education, but also of the writings of David Hume. University appointments at University of New South Wales in Australia and University of Auckland, New Zealand, and an important visit to Boston University’s School of Philosophy followed, introducing Michael to the thinking of a dazzling variety of points of view among the academics. I have often found that among the most interesting minds is a high complexity of experiences, some consciously sought out, others, as in this case, also by a fortunate, unplanned incident that led to the first publication on the topic (Matthews 1991).

I am here only reporting on the first few pages of the interview, leaving it up to the reader to follow up on the whole fascinating account of the coming-into-being of the mind of Michael, and take up another question urging itself on me: What makes a leader like Michael?

That consideration might illuminate a little the way to bring forth more Michaels in our time. There seem to me two clues worth pursuing. One comes from a famous publication issued after a speech to university students in Germany in 1918 by the great sociologist, Max Weber. Its title in the original was “Wissenschaft als Beruf”. (The version in English, “Science as a Calling”, preserved the meaning of Beruf, a calling as if from on high; but the word Wissenschaft of course does not denote only Science). Weber presented his students with what he saw profoundly needed for making a true cultural agent, ending his speech with the unforgettable metaphor: one must find the Daemon which grabs you by the throat for life. The Daemon, a word from the Greek (which all his students would have studied in school), meaning not the fallen angel, the Devil, but the spirit that inspires. Weber’s powerful image applies of course to Michael, who evidently found his calling early, and all these years has devoted himself unassumingly to his monumental task, often having to push against the negative Zeitgeist.

The second and related clue to the productivity of true leaders seems to me to come from another publication, one that had also resulted from a speech given to university students. In this case it was the psychologist-philosopher William James, speaking at Harvard in 1895. His subject was nothing less than this: What makes a life worth living?

It is an ancient quest, central to all religions, and implied in literary works from the time of Homer, where the answer was that this honor of worthiness came to extraordinary persons, such as those who achieved eternal renown in bloody battle. In contrast, William James proposed that a distinguished, worthwhile life should result from three fundamental decisions. First, devote yourself to causes that deeply engage your passions, but to difficult ones, for the easy ones could be taken care of by others. Next, persevere against all odds, no matter how daunting, until successful in your chosen task. Third, and above all, adopt causes that have important meaning for humanity (and there James included science).

By all these measures, Michael’s many decades of devotion to important works of global reach is an exemplar, fulfilling all the requirements for a truly worthy life. May he be a model for many other strivers, at just this time when we sorely need them.


  1. Matthews, M. R. (1991). History, philosophy, and science teaching: Selected readings. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  2. Matthews, M. R. (1994). Science teaching: The role of history and philosophy of science. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Matthews, M. R. (Ed.). (2014). International handbook of research in history, philosophy and science teaching. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  4. Matthews, M. R. (2015). Science teaching: The contribution of history and philosophy of science (20th anniversary revised and expanded edition). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Yalaki, Y., & Cakmaci, G. (2010). A conversation with Michael R. Matthews: The contribution of history and philosophy of science to science teaching and research. Eurasian Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 6(4), 287–309.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Harvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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