Overweening Generalist

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Non-Definition of "Generalist"

My starting a blog was fairly whimsical; for a long time people had been telling me I really "ought" to blog. I'm the type of person, it seems, for which blogs were invented, it was hinted. One of the types. Since I started, I have noted there are a few other blogs that have taken as their center of interest Generalist thought, and I hesitate to read too much in those (a couple really terrific ones!), for fear of being too influenced by the ideas there. I hope, after 30 posts or so, to have added something to the conversation. And truly, like you, I largely write to (l)earn...

It seems the idea of being a person fascinated by very many areas of thought is not new. But the idea of self-description as a "generalist" seems fairly new. And that's probably because of specialization, which is clearly still in its ascendancy. Why is specialization such a big deal? Probably due to the demands of the technocratic State, its attendant mushrooming  bureaucratization of bureaus, the seeming ad infinitum compartmentalization of compartments, the demands of "efficiency" in business and government, the clamor for constant technological innovation, and the ever-acceleration of information.

Aristotle was a staggering Generalist of the synthesizing variety, it seems to me, but in his time it seems there was no dichotomy, and we just look at what existed before him, and then see what he produced and say, "What a compendious mind he had." True. Not only compendious, but creative...Did he at times "specialize" in, say, Logic? Oh my yes, but hey: no one was really doing it that extensively at the time, so he...generalized in all his areas of specialization? (Riffing on the false - because reified - polarities of generalists vs. specialists can lead one down a path of reductio ad adsurdum. O! the perils!)

In our age, it seems that some academics are Generalists, but probably most are not. The demands of the academy probably foreclose on a life of freewheeling Generalism. But academics are Knowers. It's difficult to get your Ph.D, obviously. One must specialize like mad these days. But most Ph.Ds I've known have a few side-interests in which their knowledge is extensive. We will find some tremendous Generalists within the groves of academe.

For quite a long time now intellectual artists not affiliated officially with any institution have been at odds with their more well-paid (salaried) knowledge specialists within the universities and think-tanks. One common notion (of some substance): Academics, seeking tenure, are overworked and bogged down with minutiae and endless papers, but have a class standing (pun semi-intended?) and relative material comfort. They are "responsible" professionals. They see their Generalist cousins as dilettantes or wide-eyed lovers of speculative thought or naive autodidacts unwilling to commit their minds to a prolonged discipline, pun most definitely intended. Or as weird polymaths who couldn't hack the Academy due to some unfortunate eccentricities. Or as cranks with overweening Big Ideas and too many novel Theories of Everything, etc.

The idea of a taken-for-granted solid class status for the academic seems in a state of flux recently, for reasons too various to dig into here.

The Generalists are often ironists, often with advanced degrees but disdainful of the inherent conservatism of academic life. (I am not saying academics are political conservatives, although very many are, despite what a person like David Horowitz "thinks.") Their economic lives are more precarious and they must hustle and create to pay their rents (I'm of course generalizing wildly here!). In his recent book, The Bed of Procrustes, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (one of our great Generalists, and when will I quit capitalizing that word?), says:

"No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing." (p.45)

Another: "The costs of specialization: architects build to impress other architects; models are thin to impress other models; academics write to impress other academics; filmmakers try to impress other filmmakers; painters impress art dealers; but authors who write to impress book editors tend to fail." (p.47)

This 2010 book by Taleb consists of Taleb's aphorisms, and it's at times too delicious for our tastes; I cannot help but throw in one more quote:

"The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not academics. It has always been hard to do genuine - and nonperishable - work within institutions." (p.79)

Ahhh: scholars vs. academics. 

Taleb, in his book The Black Swan seems to consider the term "erudite" used as a noun, as highly desirable. 

Then there is a fantastic case of perhaps the most visible intellectual in the world (as of 2011 falling behind Dawkins?), Noam Chomsky, an academic who, since the early 1960s, has consistently and famously attacked intellectuals for kowtowing to State power. 

We have some obvious problems with a taxonomy of "intellectuals" here...

Perhaps my favorite modern intellectual genius-crank, Ezra Pound, constantly railed against academics, who toiled not in universities but "beaneries." Here's a choice bit of Pound vis a vis these topics: "the mentality of bureaucracy and beanery":

"1. Desire to get and retain job.
2.  That many scholars write under a terror. They are forced to retain a pretence of omniscience. This leads to restricting their field of reference. In a developed philological system they would have to know 'ALL' about their subject. Which leads to segregation of minute proportions of that subject for 'profounder' investigation. With corollary that any man who knows where the oil well is, is considered superficial." - Guide To Kulchur, (1938, p.70)

So, no definition of "Generalist," but rather a walk around the dark periphery of the subject as posited. More later? Your thoughts? Any aid towards clarification?


ARW23 said...

On the clarification of the term "generalist" it seems, to me, that in "the province of Extremistan" (Nassim Taleb's term) "generalists" can contribute to de-toxification of knowledge as opposed to specialists/experts who can swim within their pond of "the toxicity of knowledge" (Taleb again) without ever being aware of it and feel 'comfortably numb'.

I also think that for some the term "generalist" could be tricky as it derives from the same root as "generalization" and some de-generalization might be needed. As Alexander Chase says in his "Perspectives": All generalizations are false, including this one." Followed by Epictetus's "Discourses" : "The cause of all human evils is the not being able to apply general principles to special cases." Or: "Any general statement is like a checque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it." by Ezra Pound, "The ABC of Reading".


michael said...

Meaty quotes! In the sense in which I will mean "Generalist" I'm much closer to Taleb, who, in my view nails the Cult of Expertise as well as anyone I've ever read. And he does it with such a wonderful style!

If we just look at Wiki or a similar source, there will be something on Generalist species in Biology (not our topic here); there will be something on medical practitioners: do they specialize or generalize (the latter often isomorphic to the family doctor). But there will be something on a person who is "knowledgeable" or competent in several fields. I prefer Braudel's "promiscuity" (in an above post) towards fields of knowledge. I'm hoping other Generalists will jump in here, or in other spaces. It seems that the scope of knowledge by 2011 is so wide that two virtuoso Generalists can get together and not know much about what each is talking about, BUT: being a Generalist means being open to that possibility and eager to listen, ask questions and learn. All seems contingent, forever. And Generalists will be sophisticated epistemologists, so even when confronted with another person who has a lot to say about something new TO THEM, s/he will still know how to begin gaining a purchase on new knowledge. I could go on, but I'd rather someone else did...

Eric Wagner said...

One might see you as a modern major generalist. Interesting piece. I do not have a Ph.D, and I regret not getting one decades ago. I struggle with my full time job and I putter about as a generalist.

michael said...

I wrote this so long ago, that, re-reading it now, it seemed like I was reading someone else. This guy and I agree on a just about everything here, though.

One of the odd things - perhaps the oddest - about trying to stay true to the "generalist" stance: the more I read and think, the more ignorant I feel. Because the scope of "knowledge" in the broadest sense of the woid, is overwhelms the overweening.

The main reason the OG guy doesn't write as much as he used to: too engaged with reading!