Is it possible to specialize in the big picture?

24 November 2014


academic silos

Contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations, though the hierarchy is not always obvious. A typical idiom employed today to describe specialization is that of “academic silos,” as though each academic specialization were tightly circumscribed by very high walls rarely breached. The idiom of “silos” points not to a hierarchy, but to a landscape of separate but equal and utterly isolated disciplines.

There are several taxonomies of the academic disciplines that arrange them hierarchically, as in the unity of science movement of twentieth century logical empiricism, which sought to reduce all the sciences to physics. This isn’t what I have in mind when I say that contemporary scholarship is a hierarchy of specializations. I am, rather, recurring to an idea that appeared in the work of Alfred North Whitehead, and which was picked up by Buckminster fuller (of geodesic dome fame).

We can think of Buckminster Fuller as a proto-techno-philosopher, and we know that techno-philosophy disdains the philosophical tradition and seeks to treat traditional philosophical problems de novo from the perspective of science and technology. In one of the rare instances of borrowing by techno-philosophy from traditional philosophy, Buckminster Fuller quoted Alfred North Whitehead, who was a bona fide philosopher.

In R. Buckminster Fuller’s Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity (Chapter 2, “The Music of the New Life”), Fuller identifies what he called “Whitehead’s dilemma,” following an observation made by Alfred North Whitehead about the accelerating pace of specialization in higher education. The dilemma is that the best and brightest students were channeled into specialized studies, and these studies became more specialized as they progress. But there remains a need for a coordinating function among specializations, though all the best minds have already been channeled into specialist studies. That means that the dullest minds that remain are left with the task of the overall coordination of specialist disciplines.

Whitehead formulated his dilemma in terms of academic specialization and governmental coordination of society, but there are “big picture” coordinating functions that have nothing to do with government. This is most especially evident in what I have called the epistemic overview effect, which is concerned with the “big picture” of knowledge. A comprehensive understanding of some specialist discipline no less that an overall coordinating function demands a grasp of the big picture. But the rise of specialization militates against comprehensive understanding in its widest aspect — where it is most needed.

The role of specialization in contemporary scholarship is ironic in historical perspective. It is ironic because, today, more students than ever before in history throng more institutions of higher learning than ever before existed in history, and the traditional ideal of higher education was that of creating a well-rounded individual who had some degree of sophistication across a spectrum of scholarship. Specialization was once the function of the trades (something Whitehead also noted, cf. his Adventures of Ideas, Part One, Chap. 4 “Aspects of Freedom,” Section V; Whitehead’s distinction in this section between profession and craft is instructive). An individual either went on to further academic education in order to understand the wider relationship between the sciences and the humanities, or one entered a trade school or an apprenticeship program and specialized in learning some skill or craft.

It would not be going too far to say that, if you want to understand the big picture, the last person you should talk to is a specialist. A specialist may simply refuse to talk about the big picture, or, if they do talk about the big picture, it will be through the lens of their specialty, which can be highly misleading as regards the big picture. Thus the big picture may be characterized as a body of knowledge in which there are no specialists and no experts. Can there be experts in comprehensive knowledge? Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? How would one go about specializing in the big picture, such that one’s neglect of detail and the specialization of the special sciences would be a principled neglect of detail in order to focus on the details and patterns that emerge exclusively from an attempt to grasp the whole of the world, or the whole of the universe? This kind of specialization sounds counter-intuitive, but we must make the effort to formulate such a conception.

While prima facie counter-intuitive, we should immediately recognize that the idea of specializing in the big picture is nothing other than a particular application of the general principle of scientific abstraction. Science constructs abstract, simplified, idealized models of the world in order to understand processes and phenomena that, in the fullness of their presence, are far too complex to allow totality of knowledge. Recall that Wordsworth said we murder to dissect. The world in itself is intractable; the world of science is made tractable through abstraction; abstraction is the price that we pay for understanding. We must learn to pay that price willingly, if not cheerfully.

In asking if it is possible to specialize in the big picture, I am also in a sense asking if it is possible to think rigorously about the big picture, thus we can also ask: Is it possible to think about the big picture with a clear scholarly conscience? Big picture thinking often invites careless and sloppy formulations, and this has brought big picture thinking into disrepute by those who wish to distance themselves from careless and sloppy thinking — which is to say, almost all contemporary philosophers, who take a special pride in the rigor of their formulations. And this is a rigor largely due to the kind of specialization that Whitehead identified.

There is a kind of implicit contrition in the contemporary philosophical passion for rigor and precision, since much traditional philosophy now seems painfully muddled and unclear, and this has been a stick that scientists have used to beat philosophers, and with which they have justified their fashionable anti-philosophy. But Scientists, too, are guilty on this account. And whereas philosophers committed their sins against rigor in the past, scientists are committing their sins against rigor in the present. The pronouncements of scientists upon extra-scientific questions is an admirable attempt at comprehensive understanding, but it almost always takes place in a context that ignores the history of the question addressed.

History, I think, is essential to the big picture. Indeed, I will go further and I will suggest that the emerging discipline of Big History offers the possibility of a discipline that can specialize in the big picture with the hope of rigorous formulations. We have need of such a discipline. At the 2014 IBHA conference, David Christian in his keynote address (titled,”Can I study everything, please?”) expressed quite vividly the origins of his own interest in what would become big history in an experience of disappointment. He talked about going to school as a child with an initial sense of excitement that his big questions would be answered, only to find that his big questions were shunted aside.

How do you talk about the whole of time without inviting scholarly ridicule by those who have spent their entire careers seeking to accurately portray some small fragment of the whole? Is it possible to speak at this level of generality and still be to “right” in any relevant sense? Big History seeks to be just such a discipline, and the big historians have done a remarkable job in integrating the results of the special sciences into a coherent whole. I have made the claim that big history need not reject any more specialized scholarship, but provides the overall framework within which all specialized studies can find a place. Big history is a “big tent” in which all scholarship can find a place.

Big History is now an established (albeit youthful) branch of historiography, but it could be more than this. Where Big History remains weak is in its theoretical formulations, and this is not a surprise. While Big Historians seek to portray philosophy and the humanities as part of the sweeping story of human civilization (itself a part of a larger cosmic history), they do not draw upon philosophy and the humanities in the same way that they draw upon the special sciences. There is, as yet, no philosophy of big history, and that means that there is, as yet, no systematic attempt to clarify and to extend the conceptions upon which Big History relies in its formulations. This remains to be done.

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