James Ladyman recently published an essay in The Philosophers’ Magazine arguing (as the title of the essay would indicate) in praise of specialization within the discipline of philosophy. (Attentive purists will notice that I use American spellings, and not the British forms used in Ladyman’s article.) Colleague (and occasional commentor) Brian Burtt brought Ladyman’s essay to my attention, with a gentle prod for my thoughts on Ladyman’s argument. As a general rule, I’m quite happy to do “requests,” and so what follows are my not-quite initial reactions to the article. (Not quite initial, as they are colored by a degree of considered thought.) One can safely hazard a guess as to the top layer of my remarks, from the Heinlein quote that titles this blog post. However, there are a few subtleties I hope to add, beyond just and only the Notebooks of Lararus Long.
James Ladyman wants to defend the (academic) discipline of philosophy against the charge that the discipline has become so egregiously specialized that it is impenetrably technical as to be incomprehensible to anyone but other specialists. Before proceeding to a gloss of Ladyman’s argument, I would note one irksome (to me) problem with Ladyman’s discussion that appears right here at the beginning: nowhere does he name or indicate any of the people whose accusations he is defending against. Now, Ladyman is a smart enough fellow to otherwise know better than to commit such a mistake, so the problem here might be due to the editorial constraints under which he was writing, rather than a sloppy error on his part. Nevertheless, as a professional (if not strictly “academic”) philosopher, such an oversight is the kind of thing that will seriously grate my cheese. (A technical phrase, mind you.)
Ladyman takes some pains to distinguish the specialization one finds in philosophy from its professionalization. On the one hand, it is an appropriate distinction to make, because professional academics need not be especially specialized, while persons outside of the profession might easily and appropriately develop extremely refined specialties with regard to individual topics. However, it is once again unclear that this is an argument that he needs to make since, not knowing who it is he is arguing against, it is unclear whether anyone is making such an error of conflation such that it needs to be addressed.
The meat of Ladyman’s argument is, at last, that mastery requires specialization. This is especially true of philosophy, where the very nature of the inquiry requires the “amphibian” ability to stand in several different intellectual “biomes” and live, with at least some comfort, in each. (These are my metaphors, not Ladyman’s.) Ladyman gives several examples, I will illustrate only one, from my own background in the philosophy of physics. In order to even casually examine and critique the presuppositions behind physical theories and inquiries, one must possess a sufficient background in those theories (and the mathematical instruments with which those theories are constructed) that one can understand – with a much higher than average level of comprehension – what it is that is being said in those theories, with those tools. That does not mean that one has to be, or even wants to be, a working physicist (Stephen Hawking’s childishly dogmatic declarations to the contrary notwithstanding). However, it does mean that, in my case, for example, it was necessary that I become sufficiently facile in differential geometry to recognize a tensor when it bites me on the patootee (another technical phrase), and recognize how the indices interact with one another to create an entire relational field. In addition, with my background in Whitehead scholarship as well as in formal logic, I can apply a very particular – and carefully developed! – criticism to the dogmas that underly contemporary gravitational cosmology.
So yes – insofar – no small measure of specialization is the sine qua non of doing serious, deep, and important philosophy.
But observe, first off, how the list of specialties given above (and, again, I chose myself as just the most familiar example to my hand) are still not the kind of “absolute specialization” one might find in other, technical disciplines. Thus, for example, Davis and Hersh, in their magnificent The Mathematical Experience, observe that working mathematicians may have fewer than 100 peers in the entire world with whom they can discuss in depth their areas of expertise.
But philosophy is not like that, and Ladyman is adamant on this point. The previously mentioned “amphibian” character of philosophical specialization precludes such an absolute narrowness of focus. John Dewey frequently described philosophy as the “critique of critiques”; for Ladyman, we might add, “the interdisciplinary of interdisciplinaries.” Approaching the issue from the opposite direction, Richard Rorty decried the presumptions of philosophy to “legislate” “truth” to other disciplines. (In fairness, philosophy wasn’t doing this 35+ years ago any more than it is doing so today.) But Rorty saw in philosophy the same synoptic, interdisciplinary forces that Ladyman mentions. Rorty’s response was that philosophy and its foolishness should be sequestered in a corner of the campus where it can never bother anyone. But even at the time (I read the book in 1983, as an undergraduate) I thought Rorty had failed to follow through to the conclusion mandated by his own premises and arguments: philosophy needs to be housed in a gazebo in the middle of the quad, where it can bother everyone, because that is what a truly interdisciplinary mode of inquiry must do.
This generic conclusion is, I would argue, ultimately forced upon Ladyman as well, but he is no more a fan of such a notion than Rorty was. Finally, at the end of Ladyman’s essay, do we come to the real issue for Ladyman. Having gratuitously broached the conflation of specialization and professionalization, and then padded his essay with example after example of why specialization is important (when a single example would have sufficed), Ladyman points out that his real objection is to the notion that he should ever have to explain himself to lay persons: his article is, essentially, an extended evasion of his position that, “I don’ wanna!” (I would personally have been much happier if Ladyman had simply cut to the chase at the beginning, rather than burying the real issue for him in secondary arguments. Hence, my less than charitable rhetoric.)
To his credit, Ladyman freely admits that he just does not want to be involved with pubic or popular philosophy. Moreover, he correctly points out that there are a number of books that do pursue such lines, and that, frankly, sell quite well. After all, we do not criticize the overwhelming body of scientists because they fail to also be popularizers and expositors of their disciplines. Nevertheless, this still invites at least two questions: (1) Can the hyper-specialization of the sciences be used to excuse philosophy from engaging the public in view of its qualitatively different interdisciplinary modes of specialization? (2) Just ’cause you “don’ wanna”, does this mean you “don’ hafta”? I submit that the answer to both questions is, “No.”
One piece of irony in all this (and, from some of his other remarks, it is very possible that Ladyman is quite calculatedly aware of this) is Ladyman’s decrying of the requirement to engage in popular philosophy in an essay that is entirely nothing more than popular philosophy. (Stephen Hawking regularly dismisses philosophy, even as he unqualifiedly engage in it, and engages in it badly.) Moreover, and certainly to Ladyman’s credit, he does not disdain popular philosophy, he just does not want to do it. I have a colleague – a full, tenured professor, at a major, public, research institution – who has been criticized by his so-called colleagues for having engaged in popular philosophy, in the form of a very coherent and well-presented blog. So Ladyman’s position here is not one to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, one might justifiably ask what Ladyman has done to introduce his areas of specialization to the broader public. Having read his essay, even as he praises the need for specialization, I remain clueless as to what his areas of specialization might be. I could easily look this up. But in discussing so personal an issue, why didn’t Ladyman bring his person into it?
Here is a simple fact: if you cannot explain yourself to non-experts, than you cannot explain yourself at all. The reason why we all have a moral obligation – yes, you “hafta” – to explain ourselves to non-experts is because it is only in those sorts of explanations that we genuinely show that we do – or do not! (e.g., Stephen Hawking) – know what we are talking about. Few of us are granted the privilege and the bully-pulpit of an established publisher who will carry our ideas onto dead trees. (Another technical phrase.) But we can still go beyond just saying what needs to be said; we can show that we know what we’re saying by saying it to people who don’t already know that we know what we are saying.
Finally, the Heinlein aphorism from which this post’s title came is worth quoting (with the understanding that my doing so falls under “fair use” policies) in full:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects!
(Despite his best efforts, Heinlein was never a very good Libertarian: as one can see even from the above quote, the place of community was always at the center of Heinlein’s concerns.)
(1) I spent 33 years as a “software engineer”, to use the current, academic, and obscure title. If an expert could not explain their design, then I knew that it was bad design. The designer did not understand it. Incidentally, I worked with Chris Brooks, who designed and built the first commercial packet data network. Chris could explain why he chose each bit in a standard 10-buit packet. I also worked with Roger Dyer, who helped to build the first email system. Roger could explain why and how they built every module.
(1a) In Henning Mankell’s mysteries, Kurt Wallander tells himself the “story” of the murder. Over and over, until he understands. Who would Ladyman tell?
(2) Would Ladyman have us throw away the work of John Dewey? John McDermott once said that if you pick up almost any book by Dewey — his “Democracy in Education” for instance — you also get his ethics, his logic, his aesthetics, and everything else. Dewey, however, rarely used “technical” jargon, which partially explains Dewey’s awkward sentences. Rather than use a philosopher’s-only word, Dewey explained what he, and they, meant.
(3) Should we throw away William James? Not a specialist and anyone who can read the NY Times can read James. Throw away David Hume? Never taught and mostly wrote a history of England. Or Locke? Another non-specialist. How did Locke dare to write political philosophy or an essay on religious toleration, or, good heavens(!) a commentary of St. Paul?
(4) But without Dewey, James, Hume, and Locke, where does Ladyman stand? And I won’t bother to mention Royce, Peirce, the people Whitehead read, and all the rest. As an experiment, though: imagine that western scholars had not re-learned Greek and that no one looked for the manuscripts of Aristotle. Ladyman would be standing on clouds. We discussed all of this almost 30 years ago, when Russell Jacoby wrote about the decline of the “public intellectual”. Should Ladyman be sent to the library to read “Partisan Review”?
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Gary Herstein said:
I’m not overly sympathetic to Ladyman’s position, but things have changed in the last 150 years. I mentioned Davis and Hersh: they observed that the number of mathematical sub-disciplines have increased by something like two orders of magnitude over that time frame. In the 1880’s, a mathematician could write respectable philosophy; today a mathematician can barely write publishable mathematics. (There are more mathematicians working today than in all of history prior to 1900. There are more theorems published in any year now, than were published in all of written, Western history prior to 1900.)
Not to say that philosophy has enjoyed anything like that kind of growth. Still, Dewey could write intelligently on most any aspect of philosophy in his day; it is all I can do to say a few stupid things about a sub-discipline nobody ever reads now.
So I do sympathize (a little) with Ladyman’s position. But only a little. I know, for example, that I can make Whitehead broadly understandable to a non-philosophical audience (I’m actually quite proud of that article at the IEP.) So, yeah, the poor, delicate darling can do as much for his sub-discipline, and he can stop whining about it as well.
Brian Burtt said:
That article at the IEP is where I probably first came across your name.
An important question here: if specialists are willing to work to engage with the public, is the public willing to meet them half-way? I may be in old-guy, “get off my lawn” mode here, but I feel that’s less the case in the past. Understanding what a specialist in an intellectually demanding discipline is doing and saying will necessarily take some work. I feel like the books written for the educated public in the middle of the twentieth century–the ones that got me interested in science and philosophy rather later in that same century–assumed such willingness and helped the readers act on it. I feel that non-fiction books written for non-academics now are often on the order of cotton mind-candy.
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Gary Herstein said:
My first reaction is an amusement over an irrelevant ambiguity: is that cotton-mind candy, or cotton mind-candy?
The need for expertism today is so much denser than it was even 60 — 100 years ago when thinkers variously denounced the “cult of expertism.” Davis & Hersh, in their wonderful book “The Mathematical Experience”, observe how the divisions and subdivisions of mathematics have increased by two orders of magnitude in the past century, and that something in the neighborhood of 10,000 theorems are published every year. A mathematicians will likely have fewer than 100 peers with whom they can communicate in the entire world, even thought there are more working mathematicians today than in all of Western history (prior to the onset of the 20th C.) combined. Analogous (if not identical) situations have emerged in all disciplines. So communicating with the public is, at least arguably, a notably more challenging project today than it has been at any time in the past.
But, on the other hand, that part of the public that qualified as the *reading* public was also a much smaller audience 100+ years ago than it is today. If secondary — to say nothing of higher — ed was limited now to the extent it was then, then our students, while quite a bit fewer, would nevertheless be of vastly higher quality on average. This, in turn, would translate into that “reading public” with its attendant valid assumptions about the quality of that readership, and what we could take for granted in communicating with them.
Perhaps what we need now is a more “layered” approach? Books and writings that are aimed at the public, but aimed in a more hierarchical approach? So we might have very, VERY basic intro to philosophy books, but then we might have books on metaphysics or philosophy of language that are only very basic? In this way, we could continue to engage the public in a responsible fashion, and that public (in turn) could engage us at a level that was functionally effective for their — which is to say, that particular public’s (I’m being very Deweyan, “The Public and its Problems” here) — level of comprehension?
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