The Rule of the Hedgehogs

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, November 6, 2009 Under: Architectonics

Edward Carr’s article ‘The Last Days of the Polymath’, published recently in Intelligent Life, raises questions that are of fundamental importance today.  My interest in architectonics stems from the same concerns but draws upon the history of philosophy to find resources to challenge the reign of specialisation that Carr is also keen to question.  He ends the article by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘foxes’ who know many things and ‘hedgehogs’ who know one big thing, which captures the difference between ‘polymaths’ and ‘monomaths’.  Carr concludes that:  ‘The foxes used to roam free across the hills.  Today the hedgehogs rule’.

We find here a rigorous exposition of the concept of a polymath.  The vacuity of the notion as it is commonly used is brought out and the pressing issues involved are explored.  Why are there fewer polymaths today than in the past?  How do today’s polymaths compare with those of the past?  Does it matter that today the hedgehogs or polymaths rule?  The tendency of monomaths or specialists to colonise disciplines is explored.  The dominance of particular vocabularies throws up barriers that prevent anyone with a general interest from doing anything more than dabbling or flitting from flower to flower.  The age of information is here closely related to the age of specialisation, with information being something we can easily dip into thanks to new technologies.  However, a firm footing is only achieved through long and life- consuming specialisation.  Carr argues that polymaths nevertheless shine forth in this more restricted space, amongst jealous specialists and prohibitive technical vocabularies.  One of the many interesting examples he uses is Carl Djerassi who might be described as ‘a scientist who writes’.  However, for Carr this is to use the language of the age of specialisation, one that only includes specialists who have interests on the side or who dip their toes into other fields.  In fact Djerassi’s scientific, literary and artistic accomplishments show him to have a mind-set and a genius whose nature and value is not named in the language that puts everyone in their place in an age of specialisation.  In this language there are dabblers and dilettantes, there are also those shoppers for ideas who can be helped to dip into different disciplines by specialists but never enter deeply into any one of them.  Carr points to Djerassi’s way of naming himself a ‘polygamist polymath’.  This is part of what Alain Badiou calls a ‘subject language’, one that holds within the fidelity of a subject to a cause but which is not recognised in the language of an established situation.  The polygamist polymath is unnamed and unrecognised by the language of specialisation for which such a figure is ‘promiscuous’ rather than ‘polygamous’.  They are recognised as figures who dip into different areas like a consumer of commodities rather than as subjects who make faithful commitments to each one and are thus polygamous. 

My interest in architectonics is partly a response to the age of specialisation.  The relations between the disciplines need to be thought through systematically and architectonics is ‘system building’.  If these relations are not developed we lack the solid ground for disciplines to be related and for figures to operate in-between or at the intersection of disciplines.  A transdisciplinary system that accounts for transformations in any discipline would provide the ground for relating very different vocabularies to a common structure.  This would be a structure that accounts for how very different disciplines change whilst keeping in touch with reality.  It would ensure that thinking ‘between’ disciplines has solid grounding and is rigorous.  In his article Carr also points to Thomas Young as someone who in 1802 was able to lecture on the ‘sum’ of human knowledge.  He was someone who made advances in knowledge as well as having a very wide grasp of it (we are directed to Andrew Robertson’s biography of Young: The Last Man Who Knew Everything).  However, if one is to effect change in and across different disciplines, and to effect this change by relating them, surely it is not the ‘sum’ that must be mastered.  Whilst each discipline has its own rigorous method that keeps it on solid ground it also encounters its structural limit.  In Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? this limit is ‘chaos’ whilst in Badiou’s Being and Event it is ‘the void’.  This structures different disciplines in the same way, insofar as they share a common limit.  For Badiou different disciplines are ‘conditions’ for the discovery of truths and they pursue this in their own unique ways but in each case they can only ‘wager’ upon truths if the void is at work.  This shows that Carr’s article is not limited to a sentimental yearning for a world where each of us is free of specialisation.  It is not a form of escapism from the consuming task of keeping up with the current state of your specialism.  Rather, it is a call to relate disciplines in a way that advances each of them and keeps them in touch with reality.  We have here a call to secure what Immanuel Kant called ‘an idea of the whole’ as operative in the practice of different disciplines, making advances in one dependent upon a wider synthesis of knowledge.  Thus, instead of a reactive vision where knowledge is easier to master, Carr presents a challenge for specialists who jealously cling to their expertise.  He points to advances like the discovery of the structure of DNA that involved more than one discipline and to the neglect in economics of those insights in the work of Keynes that were not presented in the now orthodox form of mathematical formulae.  The solution is not a vision of a universal language or encyclopedia of knowledge, where sensation would be named in the same way by the novelist and the scientist, because this would itself be a form of specialisation and would be exceeded by reality as it outstrips our attempts to name it.  Instead of creating a common language we must seek a common structure that realises the excess of reality over knowledge in different disciplinary situations.  We would not then speak a common language but encounter a common limit where language breaks down.  This is the challenge involved in building transdisciplinary systems.  Rather than attempts to present the sum of human knowledge it is the transdisciplinary structure which must be held in common.  This provides a veritable ‘idea of the whole’ from which interdisciplinary endeavors may feed.

In : Architectonics 



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The Rule of the Hedgehogs

Posted by Edward Willatt on Friday, November 6, 2009 Under: Architectonics

Edward Carr’s article ‘The Last Days of the Polymath’, published recently in Intelligent Life, raises questions that are of fundamental importance today.  My interest in architectonics stems from the same concerns but draws upon the history of philosophy to find resources to challenge the reign of specialisation that Carr is also keen to question.  He ends the article by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘foxes’ who know many things and ‘hedgehogs’ who know one big thing, which captures the difference between ‘polymaths’ and ‘monomaths’.  Carr concludes that:  ‘The foxes used to roam free across the hills.  Today the hedgehogs rule’.

We find here a rigorous exposition of the concept of a polymath.  The vacuity of the notion as it is commonly used is brought out and the pressing issues involved are explored.  Why are there fewer polymaths today than in the past?  How do today’s polymaths compare with those of the past?  Does it matter that today the hedgehogs or polymaths rule?  The tendency of monomaths or specialists to colonise disciplines is explored.  The dominance of particular vocabularies throws up barriers that prevent anyone with a general interest from doing anything more than dabbling or flitting from flower to flower.  The age of information is here closely related to the age of specialisation, with information being something we can easily dip into thanks to new technologies.  However, a firm footing is only achieved through long and life- consuming specialisation.  Carr argues that polymaths nevertheless shine forth in this more restricted space, amongst jealous specialists and prohibitive technical vocabularies.  One of the many interesting examples he uses is Carl Djerassi who might be described as ‘a scientist who writes’.  However, for Carr this is to use the language of the age of specialisation, one that only includes specialists who have interests on the side or who dip their toes into other fields.  In fact Djerassi’s scientific, literary and artistic accomplishments show him to have a mind-set and a genius whose nature and value is not named in the language that puts everyone in their place in an age of specialisation.  In this language there are dabblers and dilettantes, there are also those shoppers for ideas who can be helped to dip into different disciplines by specialists but never enter deeply into any one of them.  Carr points to Djerassi’s way of naming himself a ‘polygamist polymath’.  This is part of what Alain Badiou calls a ‘subject language’, one that holds within the fidelity of a subject to a cause but which is not recognised in the language of an established situation.  The polygamist polymath is unnamed and unrecognised by the language of specialisation for which such a figure is ‘promiscuous’ rather than ‘polygamous’.  They are recognised as figures who dip into different areas like a consumer of commodities rather than as subjects who make faithful commitments to each one and are thus polygamous. 

My interest in architectonics is partly a response to the age of specialisation.  The relations between the disciplines need to be thought through systematically and architectonics is ‘system building’.  If these relations are not developed we lack the solid ground for disciplines to be related and for figures to operate in-between or at the intersection of disciplines.  A transdisciplinary system that accounts for transformations in any discipline would provide the ground for relating very different vocabularies to a common structure.  This would be a structure that accounts for how very different disciplines change whilst keeping in touch with reality.  It would ensure that thinking ‘between’ disciplines has solid grounding and is rigorous.  In his article Carr also points to Thomas Young as someone who in 1802 was able to lecture on the ‘sum’ of human knowledge.  He was someone who made advances in knowledge as well as having a very wide grasp of it (we are directed to Andrew Robertson’s biography of Young: The Last Man Who Knew Everything).  However, if one is to effect change in and across different disciplines, and to effect this change by relating them, surely it is not the ‘sum’ that must be mastered.  Whilst each discipline has its own rigorous method that keeps it on solid ground it also encounters its structural limit.  In Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? this limit is ‘chaos’ whilst in Badiou’s Being and Event it is ‘the void’.  This structures different disciplines in the same way, insofar as they share a common limit.  For Badiou different disciplines are ‘conditions’ for the discovery of truths and they pursue this in their own unique ways but in each case they can only ‘wager’ upon truths if the void is at work.  This shows that Carr’s article is not limited to a sentimental yearning for a world where each of us is free of specialisation.  It is not a form of escapism from the consuming task of keeping up with the current state of your specialism.  Rather, it is a call to relate disciplines in a way that advances each of them and keeps them in touch with reality.  We have here a call to secure what Immanuel Kant called ‘an idea of the whole’ as operative in the practice of different disciplines, making advances in one dependent upon a wider synthesis of knowledge.  Thus, instead of a reactive vision where knowledge is easier to master, Carr presents a challenge for specialists who jealously cling to their expertise.  He points to advances like the discovery of the structure of DNA that involved more than one discipline and to the neglect in economics of those insights in the work of Keynes that were not presented in the now orthodox form of mathematical formulae.  The solution is not a vision of a universal language or encyclopedia of knowledge, where sensation would be named in the same way by the novelist and the scientist, because this would itself be a form of specialisation and would be exceeded by reality as it outstrips our attempts to name it.  Instead of creating a common language we must seek a common structure that realises the excess of reality over knowledge in different disciplinary situations.  We would not then speak a common language but encounter a common limit where language breaks down.  This is the challenge involved in building transdisciplinary systems.  Rather than attempts to present the sum of human knowledge it is the transdisciplinary structure which must be held in common.  This provides a veritable ‘idea of the whole’ from which interdisciplinary endeavors may feed.

In : Architectonics 



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