As an academic, it is (nominally) my job to contribute to knowledge. I am to do this by publishing books and writing papers. These texts should reflect a certain amount of time and effort: in research, reflection and writing. Recently, I have been thinking about “what I want to write about” next. As someone whose “field” is the history and philosophy of science, my options are quite broad. And, this, unfortunately, is the problem. It’s this problem that has prompted me to forgo research (at least for a day) and write about my reflections on the utter frustration of contemporary thought.
What do I mean by this? A valid question, since contemporary thought is probably not something most people see as frustrating. To most, if they think about it at all, contemporary thought is inspiring. And indeed, on the surface, I suppose it is. New discoveries and new horizons are announced in the media every day. Science and technology appear to be expanding at a dizzying rate…
And, in a way, they are. The production of new knowledge – across all fields – is occurring at an astonishing rate. So quickly, in fact, that we essentially require the new information technology developed over the last 30 years to even keep track of it. Measured in raw terms (i.e. by counting numbers of abstract, papers published, books, etc.), the production of knowledge doubles every seven to ten years. This growth and its consequences was a subject of some interest among scholars in the recent past. There was even a field developed to understand and manage this knowledge production, particularly with respect to science, called scientometrics. This field was a response to Derek J. de Solla Price’s classic book, Science Since Babylon, wherein he explored the ramifications of this development and even speculated on the possible downside of the specialization required to manage and use all this information.
And there, of course, is the key word: specialization. A word we approach with all too much innocence given its tremendous importance in shaping and structuring our contemporary “techno-scientific” society.
The origin of specialization provides insight into the kind of social circumstances it reflects. Originally developed in medicine, specialization was a response to a few factors. Theoretically, it was fostered by a bias in medicine toward organic localism. As medicine grew in scale and sophistication, each part of the body (heart, lungs, eyes, skin, etc…) seemed to require a deeper expertise and attention. This was the essential power of modern medicine – its tendency towards reductionism and mechanism were, by and large, successful epistemological strategies.
There were also social factors. The growth of medicine as a whole demanded that some begin to specialize, but population growth and urbanization created the conditions that allowed specialists to draw on a sufficiently large pool of patients concentrated in a given area.
From its roots in medicine around the mid-nineteenth century, specialization spread to other realms. Sciences began to drastically increase in complexity, giving rise to new fields (and sub-fields). The only way to manage this increasing production of knowledge was through specialization.
Production generally also followed this path. Industrialization and the growth of the economy demanded (and created) appropriate social structures in response. This phenomenon was already clear to observers by the late nineteenth century. Inspired by Marx, the sociologist Durkheim spoke of the “division of labor” as social fact.
This trend, of the compartmentalization of tasks and knowledges, only spread in the twentieth century. Fordism. Taylorism and scientific management. And science, of course, followed along this path. Arguably, it led the march…
The management of aspects of warfare in the dark years of the early twentieth century spawned an even more profound commitment to specialization and the “massification” of the individual. When science and technology (increasingly fused into an amalgam we now call “technoscience”) joined the fray, the process accelerated even further. Even scientists themselves had only a foggy conception of what was coming about. Complexity, scale and specialization evolved together, sometimes in unanticipated ways. When the Manhattan Project began and J. Robert Oppenheimer took charge of the laboratory at Los Alamos, he expected to lead a group of perhaps thirty or forty scientists. Little did he know that in a few months he would direct the activities of a scientific community of about 4-5000 – essentially a small town.
Since the end of the war, this process has only developed further. Specialization, as mentioned, is perhaps that which characterizes contemporary society; and not just specialization, but subspecialization, and subsubspecialization. Science, technology and complexity have grown up together to a degree that a nineteenth century ophthalmologist could not have envisioned or even dreamed of, and their impact on labor and economics is, one can say without hyperbole, epiphenomenal.
I have said much here already about the structures of thought (or how thought, through knowledge, takes shape), but what about thought itself?
This, I believe, is where the utter frustration comes in. For what is one who wants to contribute new ideas faced with? A mountain (or rather, a range of mountains) of information piled so high and deep as to be, well, insurmountable. Any subject (or subset of a subject) has been written about ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The creative mind, seeking a new topic to work on and explore, and wanting to exercise due diligence by consulting sources already written, is faced with a Herculean task. More, even, as the hero’s trials seem simple in comparison.
And what of ideas and thought generally in a world that as of last fall had reached 7 billion souls? Extremes. Either a knowledge or thought is so exclusive as to only be accessible to a small group of experts and specialists with the capacity to use or understand it, or it’s so general and so broad as to have reached the level of complete banality. In this way cultural forms and political discourse are reduced to axioms so simplistic that they can scarcely be understood as culture or politics.
We are faced with increasing specialization and complexity every day. The curve is asymptotic. It’s only by virtue of modern technology and machines that it’s even manageable. In medicine, where the phenomenon first started, it has become necessary to use computers – expert systems – to assist in complex diagnostic analysis. So many tasks have reached a level of complexity that makes us dependent on machine assistance, how long will it be until thought too requires this aid? Has it already happened and we haven’t really noticed? Probably.
The sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein quipped: “specialization is for insects”. Indeed, we have become a society so segmented into our particular fields, specializations and world-views that we are, essentially, as insects, inured to the larger picture. There was a time, once, when one could be a “Renaissance man” or polymath and have a panoramic vision; of the broad and holistic outlines of things, of the macrocosmic and microcosmic, and of its overall relationship to humanity (hence, humanism). That time has passed. And this, in short, is the central source of the utter frustration of contemporary thought.