Keith Flaherty (AGI22): “Everything is Philosophy”
October 7, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa
Keith Flaherty (AGI22) is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director of clinical research at Mass General Cancer Center, where he specializes in melanoma treatment. He attended Yale University as an undergraduate and John Hopkins for medical school.
You live in Boston and have a family and full-time career. How did you handle the logistics of attending the St. John’s Graduate Institute?
Keith Flaherty: I spent about five years clearing the way for being able to do the Program the way I wanted, which was to devote the majority of my time to reading and rereading and rereading and then to discussion. So I needed to clear out about 60 percent of my weekly schedule. I had 21 faculty in the center that I had built and directed at Mass General. Those are the people I asked to step up and take over operating and directing the scientific direction of the program. I started St. John’s when I was just about turning 50.
Did you commute to Annapolis?
I did for one term. I had intended to commute the whole time, because I applied pre-COVID. Part of the reason I felt like I had to be pretty severe about managing my calendar was that my intent was to commute back and forth twice per week. I was on Zoom the first term, as was everybody. In the spring, campus opened up. That was during the philosophy segment, and my instinct was that an in-person seminar might be helpful, versus online. I really felt like the stars were aligning in a good way to allow me to be able to commute during most of that term and get through to the end of it.
Although, I have to say, my online experience was really exceptional. It was really a pleasant surprise how roughly twelve people could comfortably fit on the Zoom screen and open up in a way that felt exactly like in-person. There’s a way of getting to know someone and their intellectual process that was mind-blowing. You get a wave of understanding of what are the persistent questions that people carry with them from work to work. I had never really had a chance to get to know someone primarily that way.
Why did you feel an in-person exploration of philosophy, in particular, would be helpful for you?
I had no grounding in philosophy, had not taken any philosophy before as an undergraduate, so philosophy was really the big draw for me. I developed a fascination with Plato right before the philosophy segment. I knew that he would show up in a number of the segments, as he does not only in philosophy but elsewhere. I learned pretty quickly by being in St. John’s that essentially everything is philosophy: math, science, literature. It’s everything. It’s not as though philosophy is walled off in that one segment.
How do you see that dynamic play out?
Being a scientist and doctor, I’m heavily informed by Enlightenment thoughts, but where scientific method and rigorous scientific thinking comes from is something that was only lightly discussed in medical and scientific education.
Even in the 19th century, philosophers considered themselves Swiss Army knife thinkers—which is to say multidisciplinary, multitrack thinkers—and as I began reading the Greeks and then Romans, it became absolutely clear to me that Plato, and particularly Aristotle, saw themselves as one-stop-shopping thinkers, that philosophy was simply the process of gaining as much knowledge as one possibly could, trying to understand all that could be understood in the material world by opining on a common set of thoughts, concerns, questions.
It struck me right away that math and physical sciences in the ancient world were in no way less a part of philosophy than any other subject. Everything was bundled together. St. John’s breaks the Program into threads—which I am in no way arguing against—but history, literature, philosophy, and science were woven together in one rope. That’s the ancient mindset.
Through medieval thinking, and with the Enlightenment, those threads start to get pulled apart, and you start to develop specialists, most notably in the sciences. I very quickly began to understand, as a result of direct conversation with St. John’s tutors, that essentially the strategy of the Program is to really try to bundle together what was constituted as “it’s just all learning” in ancient times.
Did you see your relationship with the work of Plato evolving over the course of your Graduate Institute studies?
The Program gave me the grounding—maybe even a degree of competence—to read Plato and feel like he’s speaking to me directly, which is what I think we all aspire to get out of any reading of great work. In the winter break between fall and spring of my first year, I read the 26 dialogues that are canonically considered to be definitely written by Plato. I sprinted through all the dialogues, and that really was a life-changing experience.
I carried a lot of that with me—a lot of the thinking, a lot of the questions that were raised about the nature of his dialogues, and the way in which they essentially operate as a single body of work, speak to each other, and accomplish a certain holistic task.
Your work as a physician involves conversations with patients about what a fulfilling life might entail in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Did that ongoing experience influence your desire to go to St. John’s?
I’m a melanoma specialist, and melanoma affects younger people more than most other cancers. Throughout my career I’ve always had patients under my care who were my exact age. That backdrop is unquestionably important in terms of my worldview. Part of the process of taking care of dying patients—or people who feel like they’re going to die even if it turns out they are not going to—is the meaning of their lives. What constitutes meaning? What constitutes happiness? When can someone define a complete life? And can a 25-year-old do that?
A statement I commonly make about lessons learned from being an oncologist is that life is unpredictable. The duration is often short, but not definitely short, and, most importantly, very much unknown. We simply have no idea what our future holds, and if nothing else, that forces one to embrace the notion of living for the day. That led to the sense of compulsion to do the St. John’s Program, which had been on my radar in a big way for a long time.
I know you only just completed it, but how have you seen the St. John’s Graduate Institute Program reverberate in your life so far?
I wasn’t looking at it as an end, something to complete and then be done with. I was really looking at the Program as a chance to meditate on the big questions very personally, but also from the perspective of trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life, to use it as a chance to really step back.
I see people of all different ages pursuing St. John’s graduate degrees, and I celebrate that, because I think people need it at different times of their lives, depending on their own narrative. We’re wanting to keep the life of the mind as full and robust as possible. I can’t help but imagine there’s a vast number of people who—were they able to create the space or just even gain awareness of this Program—would appreciate it for the way it would similarly give them a blank slate, of sorts, and a chance to redirect.
I feel very good, very optimistic, regarding my path forward. I haven’t settled much in terms of how my life is going to look five years from now, logistically, but I know what I want to work on and think about in a way that I could not possibly have arrived at without the St. John’s Program.