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Hyperspecialization and the “Permanent Things”

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, The Academy, Western Philosophy on January 11, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Hyperspecialization in the academy is an enemy of the permanent things.  It has caused scholars to become bogged down in particular eras and woefully constrained in their knowledge of people, events, and ideas from periods outside of their specialization.  The result is that scholars tend to see the world through the lens of their narrow academic focus.  A historian of 19th century American slavery will try to find the residue of slavery in all features of the present era.  He may not realize how distorted his interpretation of the present is in light of his immersion in his scholarly field.  Moreover, his data are atomized; therefore, he cannot have a comprehensive sense of the trajectory of history.

A related problem is over-infatuation with present ideas.  There was a time when philosophies prevailed for centuries, but lately new philosophies seem to spring up every decade.  For thinkers to commit unreservedly to a present philosophical fad is to guarantee their intellectual obsolescence.  Close association with fleeting fancies will blind thinkers to the different manifestations of traditional theories, and it is an awareness of the varying manifestations of similar theories that characterizes the great thinker.

There are benefits to specialization to the extent that it generates efficiency in the way that, in economic terms, division of labor generates efficiency: one scholar works on details that supplement the details provided by another scholar and so on until all of the details in the aggregate enable us to draw general conclusions.  But this process occurs to the detriment of the individual scholar, who becomes alienated from the general conclusions because his profession diverts his activities to the details and minutiae.  We need more scholars who are aware of the general conclusions and can identify and illuminate the permanent things.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides the lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried already.  Ideas that seem new have traceable historical antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to put seemingly novel ideas into their proper context.  Such individuals recognize that change is not always evolution; sometimes it is deterioration.  They also acknowledge the value of intellectual flexibility: to spot and utilize ideas with which one disagrees enables the integration of information that, in turn, enables a more thorough understanding.

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