“A specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” — Quotation from the 1920s, attributed to William J. Mayo, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic
For the early Greek philosophers like Plato and the Pythagoreans, philosophy was the search for an integrated worldview in which all branches of human knowledge and concern were implicated. They viewed the cosmos as a whole system in which human beings participated, and assumed that human knowledge, at its deepest, must relate to the living unity of the world’s integrated structure.
As time went on, this began to change, first with Aristotle’s school, which undertook programs of ongoing, systematic research. For Plato, the study of ethics could not be separated from cosmology and other fields of inquiry. By contrast, the third head of Aristotle’s school, Strato of Lampsacus, was the first example of “the pure scientist”: he focused only on the study of mechanical and pneumatic devices and believed that this kind of pure research had little to do with ethics or social concerns.
As human knowledge expanded, the demand for specialization, naturally, increased. Our modern word scientist was only coined in 1833, and since then both information and knowledge have exploded exponentially. Specialization is needed, but human knowledge at its deepest is both analytic and synthetic. Through analysis, we take things apart intellectually; but through synthesis, we put things together to create a meaningful worldview.
In the modern world, however, things have become increasingly one-sided. As John Naisbitt pointed out in his classic line, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” and the thought was expressed in the verse of T. S. Eliot too:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Seeing the World as a Whole — and What Happens When That Vision is Lost
We can see the effects of our one-sided devotion to the power of analytical knowledge (and lack of an integrated worldview) in the recently published ecological statistic that over the past forty years human population on the planet has doubled while, at the same time, the number of wild animals on Earth has declined by 50 percent.
As David McConville of the Buckminster Fuller Institute has noted, right at the very moment when we have the greatest need ever for a well-functioning worldview,
The radical fragmentation of knowledge is making it difficult to understand any kind of big picture. Academia now has 8,000 disciplines, 50,000 journals, and over a million articles published every year. A visualization from the University of California–San Diego shows how few disciplines actually draw from, or even reference, fields other than their own. We are facing a time of extreme hyperspecialization.
What this illustrates is that we have been very good at taking the world apart. But now that we have taken it apart, how do we put it back together?
“I’m Sorry . . . But That’s Not My Field”
Traditionally, this is where philosophy and the humanities should step in. Science can show us how to do certain things, but cannot offer much guidance as to why we should take a particular path—or even if we should go down that path in the first place. Unfortunately, it seems, the original mandate and spirit of the humanities has been largely lost. For example, as Arthur Krystal has brilliantly argued in a recent article on “The Shrinking World of Ideas,” in the humanities today the meaning of ideas has lost its importance; it has been replaced instead by an overwhelming shift to theories about how ideas are produced.
In the end, the kind of crises we face (like losing half the world’s wildlife in forty years) are profoundly systemic in nature. Simultaneously, the academic world is devoted to the creation of specialists who, by their very training, are ill-equipped to think in terms of whole systems. By definition, when confronted by the most defining issues of our time, someone who has emerged from our university system might honestly reply, “I’m sorry, but that’s not my field.”
Contemplating the Future of Education
If the educational system begins to fail us in specific ways, that is a clear invitation to once again consider the spirit of the humanities, the liberal arts, our underlying philosophies of education, and the historical roots of our Western traditions.
Taking up this invitation, the Cosmopolis Project is co-sponsoring a series of dialogues and presentations that will take place in Athens, June 18–21, 2015, entitled “The Humanities, the Experience of the Transcendent, and the Future of Higher Education.” By the transcendent we mean that which exists beyond our limited selves, including our relationships with society and the greater world.
We invite you to read about this gathering, which we hope will result in a published book. And we are inviting everyone reading this to share your thoughts about these issues, so your thoughts can be part of this discussion.
— David Fideler
- Earth has Lost Half of its Wildlife in the Past 40 Years. From The Guardian.
- The Humanities, the Experience of the Transcendent, and the Future of Higher Education. Description of our symposium, June 18–21, 2015, Athens, Greece.
- The Shrinking World of Ideas. Article by Arthur Krystal in The Chronicle of Higher Education about how interest in the meaning of ideas has been replaced by theories about how ideas are produced.
- Valorizing the Sphere. Presentation by David McConville that addresses, in part, hyperspecialization and the fragmentation of knowledge.