Ortega y Gasset on the specialist

"We shall have to say he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

"And such in fact is the behaviour of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of--this is the paradox--specialists in those matters. By specializing him, civilisation has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty." -- The Revolt of the Masses, p. 112

Ortega y Gasset could not have better described the attitude of many contemporary physicists, such as Hawking, towards philosophy. While I would never dream of challenging anything Hawking says about, for instance, about black holes, he feels perfectly confident expounding on philosophy, without any apparent familiarity with the subject.

9 comments:

  1. I can think of so many people that this can be applied to.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What is the solution to this kind of thing? We seem to be embedded in an economic order that encourages/demands ever higher degrees of specialization, but a social order that is arranged according to democratic mass-opinion mongering.

    Seems like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Maybe it's one of those trends that will continue right up to the point that it doesn't.

    Samson -- I can surely think of one -- myself! But what do you do about this kind of thing? I seriously don't trust pretty much anybody at this point. Personally, I've fallen in love with the crazy-early retirement movement (followed by a lifetime of dedicated, well-rounded dilletantism), but that's hardly for everyone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Scott, Ortega y Gasset sees the trouble not so much as merely specialization, but specialists who recognize no authority outside their specialty.

      Delete
    2. We seem to be embedded in an economic order that encourages/demands ever higher degrees of specialization, but a social order that is arranged according to democratic mass-opinion mongering.

      How did you get that from this?

      Delete
    3. Samson -- I can surely think of one -- myself!

      I actually had some libertarians in mind because the majority of the movement seems to have its head stuck mostly in economics books but they don't have a lick of knowledge about law, government, or political theory. If they did, then they'd recognize marriage can't be replaced with contracts and that they're not actually eliminating government. A good example of this is when some LvMI scholars point to Iceland or Ireland or Rhode Island as having been proto-libertarian societies when they were nothing remotely like that.

      But what do you do about this kind of thing?

      Let people know when they're out of their depth. Like Gene says, it's not the variety of fields people enter that's the problem, it's when people think they're special knowledge equips them to deal with things outside of their specialty.

      Delete
    4. " but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty."
      You don't see how Gene's point follows? Hawking would reject Gene as lacking expertise in physics. Hawking will not allow Gene to reject Hawking as lacking expertise in philosophy.

      Delete
  3. 1) I plead guilty to the crime of abstraction and generalization from a particular observation
    2) On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that we are not pretty far along the path of becoming a nation of ever narrower specialists. He did not say, for example, scientists in particular. And you can hardly go about your day without seeing a hundred examples of this behavior.
    3) By dropping this particular bit of thought into the complex stew of ideas boiling around inside my little pea-brain. :)

    But is it not true? On the one hand, we are asked to live a certain way, which produces a certain sort of person (as described here and elsewhere), and on the other, this sort of person is handed the reins of government through the ballot.

    Maybe there's more detail involved, but it's hard to say that this general thing isn't happening (along with a bunch of other stuff).

    If you are asking where the overarching thought process came from, probably my reading of Thorstein Veblen.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Right Ken. Hadn't thought of it that way. The formula is (roughly):

    Democratic attitude + hyperspecialization = Stephen Hawking

    I don't think you would have seen this sort of attitude expressed much during, say, the Middle Ages. And I don't think Hawking would do something like dismiss the opinion of a truck driver on how to get an 18-wheeler safely down a mountain. It is fairly specific to issues surrounding politics (economics, philosophy, social stuff, etc), and also the issue on which one specializes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Certainly seems that way. Economists seem to have a particularly different one, for example.

      Delete