Have our minds dulled between Empire and the present? It is a common belief that each subsequent generation is losing more knowledge than the last.1 Rather than a general decline in human knowledge over the past two hundred years, there has been an enormous increase in knowledge in all sciences and technical subjects. Then why do we believe that people are becoming duller? As the frontier of human knowledge expands, it appears that the frontier of the individual’s knowledge contracts.
The most significant change in education since the 19th century is in specialisation. When reading Harvard admission papers from the first decade of the twentieth century, it is apparent the university demanded what is today described as a “rounded Humanist education,” that is, more than a passing acquaintance with the Humanist scholars and a strong knowledge of the classical writers. Students were assumed fluent in the prose of the 1611 King James Bible. Some questions concerning the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, and the great rivers of China appear. Today, much of this would be considered trivia.
The humanist education or rounded education is a product of pre-capitalist society. The Medieval and Renaissance minds were pre-capitalist and unspecialised. The Enlightenment amateur thinkers possessed the industry of the entrepreneur however, coffee and the salon are not as dynamic as electricity and the factory. John Maynard Keynes, albeit unintentionally, recognised this new intellectual direction which complemented the birth of capitalism. With John Locke; constructing philosophical foundations derived from Newtonian blueprint of the universe; and Thomas Jefferson; founding the American Republic on the foundations laid by Locke2; Isaac Newton is often seen, erroneously, as the first significant actor in the scientific revolution and the age of reason. The great Keynes in his lecture “Newton, the Man”:
Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.3
The bourgeois rationalism of the Capitalist Civilisation exiled the magician from life.
Capitalism specialises. Aristotle and Xenophon observed the necessity of the division of labour in even the most basic pre-capitalist civilisations. Adam Smith and the Classicals were still writing in the early development of capitalism. Smith’s observation of the division of labour is no more insightful than that of Turgot, and the Physiocrats4 before him. They understood that the division of labour was a necessity. The insight of Smith is that the growth of capitalism is caused by the efficiency of the division of labour, and Capital accumulation.
Most civilisations do not reach their full potential. They are ruined by the nomadic horse lords and lesser peoples that agitate in border provinces. No civilisation has reached the heights of the Capitalist Civilisation, its triumphs are unprecedented in the history of man. Capitalism is dynamic. The clergy and aristocracy that foresaw capitalism suppressed it. A refusal of what was at that time an inevitability. They foresaw a sublime and terrifying power, a hurricane that would devastate feudalism, a dynamic new world. Capitalism is the last stage of feudalism.
This Capitalist Civilisation drove industry to specialise via the putting-out system. Then, to coalesce into factories and vertically integrated firms that owned every factor of production. From the family potter to the great pottery factories of Stoke, from the monastery scholar to the university academic. Specialisation has naturally forced workers to specialise their skills. The natural capital that a worker possess and acquires though education must become narrowly defined to complement the worker’s specific role in production. Consider engineering: Mechanical, Electric, Civil, Nuclear, Petroleum, Aerospace, Maritime, Military, etc.. No longer do the master artists dirty themselves with the drawing up of designs for military fortifications, though for Durer and Rafael this provided a sufficient income. They much prefer, and are restricted to, their artistic specialty. This is true between forms within art. If you were to explore one of these general fields of engineering, you will quickly penetrate deep into a maze of innumerable sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines. As technology becomes more complex, workers become more specialised.
What is the benefit of a oil-rig engineer that can quote lines of Virgil in Latin, over one that cannot? Perhaps it is important to those with a patrician’s disposition however, it is not important to capitalism. For capitalism speaks only the language of profit, efficiency and specialisation. Latin is equally dead, here, and in the jungles where the West is no more than an half-remembered dream.
The increased specialisation of jobs that follows from increased complexity forces students to invest many hours into their field. Educators simply do not have the time to waste on Virgil, Homer, and Dante.5 A deep study of Dante is necessary if a student is studying to become a Dante scholar, unessential if the student is studying to become a Nuclear Engineer. The inefficiencies are stripped away, and only the specific remains. Universities are becoming no more than post-industrial degree factories. Degrees and diplomas are required for hairdressing, tourism, dentistry, teaching, and so on.
Those members of, or those acquainted with, that Castalian Order populating the university-international are fully aware of the inroads capitalist specialisation has made into academia. While many attempt to escape, to cloister themselves, from the filthy and uncultured world of the Capitalist, Capitalist Civilisation is inescapable. The academic cannot protect himself from the vicissitudes of the market. Indeed, his own academic institutions have adopted in near totality the practices of the world he so despises.
Hierarchy and Specialisation of Sciences
It is worthwhile to briefly comment on the hierarchy of sciences within academia in order to understand the inroads capitalism has made within it. In Saint Bonaventure‘s The Journey of the Mind Into God, a hierarchy of sciences is presented that is almost entirely believed to this day. It is found in the utterances of the mathematician, physicist, and most S.T.E.M. students. Bonaventure outlines a hierarchy where the lesser sciences6 of motion and the natural world subordinated themselves to the higher contemplation of philosophy and ultimately, theology. The argument appears to run that since motion and interactions can, in the Aristotelian paradigm, be reduced to the “mover,” and this can be reduced, and so on until we arrive at the prime mover of God. This is not a concatenation of events, but a burrowing into the fundamentals of one event. All the lesser sciences gesture towards the divine, their existence is necessitated by the divine, which is fundamental to all knowledge. Significantly, all things can then be said to flow from the divine. In effect, the assertion is that reductionism implies constructionism. All things flow from the fundamental, and so our contemplations should be directed at this fundamental above all else. This view is still commonly held, consider the common hierarchy of sciences:
Mathematics → Physics → Chemistry → Biology → Psychology → Sociology → …
Mathematics is more fundamental and so occupies a more privileged position in the hierarchy. Mathematicians stand somewhat apart from other fields and do not seem interested at all at constructing the world again once it has been reduced. Mathematicians can seem like aloof Platonists.7
The most vocal proselytizers of this hierarchy are theoretical physicists. They are obsessives, and much of their time is spent searching for the arche. The belief among most is that a fundamental theory of everything will give the scientist power to construct the universe again. That from fundamental particles, or vibrations, complex phenomena can be explained and recreated. They seem to be waiting for new Mr. Newton to write a new Principia. Chaos has obliterated the hope that by reducing complex phenomena to simple principles man can to construct the phenomena from those principles. This so called “chaos revolution” in the last century should have done away with the obsession with attempting to construct complex phenomena from principles.8
The significance of this revolution is that each field cannot be meaningfully constructed from a more fundamental field. Each field uses its own models, and is mostly unique in this respect. Y is not simply applied X. This uniqueness is a fact revealed to us though inquiry and emphasised by capitalism.
The uniqueness of each field has enabled academics to specialise efficiently. Indeed, it is a fact often noted among academics that while a professor should be a leading expert in his field to ensure job security, ideally, he should be the only expert in his field.
Polymaths cannot exist in the true sense any more. One can be a novice of all but not a master of all, and not even a master of a few general fields. If we select a some polymaths: Aristotle, Vinci, Newton, Goethe, Mill, and von Neumann you should already observe their tendency to speciality. The artist-doctor-scientist-inventor-writer becomes the artist-writer or the inventor-scientist until eventually simply becoming a writer or scientist. After capitalism, true polymaths cannot exist. A complete reading of Aristotle will demonstrate the decline in general minds, from Aristotle to Bruno and then Goethe. John Stuart Mill, a genius and a “polymath” was no master engineer, doctor, or chemist. His writings were constricted to philosophy, politics, and economics. That was enough to be a 19th century polymath. Von Neumann influenced many sub-disciplines within mathematics (he also founded new sub-disciplines). His other contributions were limited to the quantitative sciences: Physics, Mathematics, and Economics. In the case of Physics it was mostly the sub-discipline of theoretical physics, and in Economics the sub-discipline of Microeconomics (in actuality the sub-sub-discipline of Economics: game theory). So even polymaths, those with the most rounded of all minds have still become increasingly confined to speciality by the rise of Capitalism and the complexity of human knowledge.
As knowledge becomes more complex, as in production, the academic, like the manufacturing worker, becomes more specialised. This specialty knowledge is encouraged as generality is inefficiency. Scientific and scholarly progress, the accumulation of knowledge, and technological progress are driven by capitalism.9 All areas of society are becoming specialised because we live in a capitalist civilisation. Each member of society is driven into deeper and increasingly complex specialties, that each operate in relative isolation. It will take a lifetime to master one sub-sub-discipline of physics, and so it can only be the case that all the efforts of the student should be trained on this one specialty (I can hear Schiller’s bones rattling). The general student is increasingly being driven out of the market by the specialist student,10 those that can compete, drive profits, and innovate are specialists, and so the dynamics of capitalism operating in a market will drive academia and production into ever deeper and more complex specialties. This should serve to explain why living standards, accumulated human knowledge, medicine, and technology can bound into the exponential while the average young man of every class is so astoundingly stupid. And note also how astoundingly ignorant he is of his own history, people, and customs. It is worth contemplating the (inevitable?) future. Will specialisation create an atomised white collar proletariat, a mass of workers that cannot prevent their institutions from evanescing because they are ignorant of them? will it produce a mass of workers for whom the future is impenetrable fog to be guided through by technocrats, and for whom the past is simply unseen?
A sedentary worker, under the fluorescent glare of modernity, gazes out of his office window at night and sees only his own reflection. Is this our future?
1. I am ignoring gnosis or a knowledge of oneself. I discuss predominantly the middle to upper-class, though this affects all classes. I am not foolishly comparing a random proletarian to a W.A.S.P.. I will try to explain specialisation from a manufacturing and an academic perspective. It is a common sentiment that only the elites should receive a broad elite education. True, only a few can appreciate high art, and it is foolish endeavouring to re-educate factory workers to listen to Buxtehude or some other nonsense of that sort however, this will become impossible to even those middle-class “aristocrats of the soul.”
2. Jefferson owned a copy of the Principia. Also note the use of “self evident” truths, or axioms: politics as a rational system derived from axioms.
4. Alas, the great economists Cantillon, Quesnay, du Pont, and Turgot are criminally ignored. The Ricardians defeated the Malthusians, and many of these thinkers were consigned to the memory hole. I suspect the Pysiocrats are too aristocratic for liberal sensibilities, and too liberal for the Marxians. Much of their work is ignored. Beware of the econometricians; do not assume that economic thought progresses linearly. There are motifs that reoccur across the centuries, and every generation has its bien pensant. A great new mind can rediscover an old mind whose insights have been lost or ignored. I believe that the Physiocrats can refresh our understanding of economy despite the vast redundancy of their theories. Malthus was a fellow traveller, and, lamenting the oncoming storm of industry forty years after the publication of the Tableau Economique, wrote that “A great part of them [labourers] would have exchanged the healthy labours of agriculture for the unhealthy occupations of manufacturing industry.” Note: Malthus uses the term “unhealthy” to describe manufacturing, this is an influence from Quesnay whom classified manufacturing as “sterile.” I recommend a reading of Malthus, whose works read as sermons — it was after a reading of Malthus that Carlyle gifted to us the words “dismal science” to classify economics. Interestingly, Carlyle’s Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question is overwhelmingly Malthusian in its thesis.
5. To many readers, an education in the Provençal and Italian poets is certainly not a “waste of time,” however, I must restate that a study of Villon, Cavalcanti, and Dante is an inefficiency that is not tolerated by capitalism. It is only possible to remain efficient in a global capitalist market though specialisation.
6. Science used loosely to mean scientia, or “knowledge.”
7. A friend of mine studying mathematics at Jesus College once told me earnestly that he spends his days “in contemplation of the heavenly spheres.” Ah! The pomposity that reached its zenith in N. Bourbaki and the Parisian theorists is still alive in some it seems.
8. Although it seems to be fading out, and the fashion among physicists is no longer particle physics, atom smashers, and such. So much for those billion dollar colliders.
9. The industrial revolution and the capitalist revolution are inseparable.
10. The jobless 2:1 glut of general philosophy/Eng-lit/theory/etc. whose lack of employment should be no surprise given an understanding of this article.