Science as a vocation
Timothy Burke lets fly with an impassioned post about the state of academic life. Channelling Nietzsche, he complains that a combination of timidity born of careerism and ignorance born of overspecialization combine to form a “vacuum at the heart of academic life”.
It is not because we are too busy. It is because we are afraid. For one, we are afraid because of having tenure, not because we have yet to have it: all of us with tenure fear starting a conversation that will reveal an irresolvable intellectual and political divide between ourselves and a colleague. …
We are afraid of our own intellectual ambitions, afraid that other academics will think us simple or lacking knowledge and expert command of our subject matter. That is partly an artifact of graduate school training, its internalization of shame and its paranoid wariness.
More potently, it is an artifact of the massive saturation of the intellectual marketplace with published knowledge and academic performances of knowledge at conferences, workshops and events. We fear exposure of ignorance because in truth, most of us are ignorant.
He calls instead for “histories and sociologies and anthropologies that have the emotional intimacy and ambiguity of the best and richest fiction” to replace “derivative, second-order knowledge, of monographs or experiments”. We should create an interdisciplinary world “humming with passion for ideas and a generosity of spirit … where the excitement of discussion and debate replaces the damp silence that nestles over the academic calendar like a fog.”
Well, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of the sort of talk between the disciplines that Timothy wants. Who could be against it? A response is difficult because he’s dug himself in pretty well, rhetorically. He is on the side of Motherhood and against sin. If I disagree, I risk looking like a frightened, ignorant specialist. But at least I’m talking across the disciplinary fence at him. (Maybe this means I win both ways: performatively I follow his advice, but substantively I advance my career.) So let me play Weber to Timothy’s Nietzsche.
Three observations. First, Romantic objections to overspecialization are almost as old as the division of academic labor. The Invisible Adjunct produces a quote from David Hume bemoaning that learning is “shut up in Colleges and Cells … cultivated by Men without any Taste of Life or Manners, and without that Liberty and Facility of Thought and Expression, which can only be acquir’d by Conversation.” Hume confirms Burke’s acuity in one sense, but undermines it on the other. It’s a real issue, but also a perennial complaint of the chattier sort of scholar.
Second, you can’t have interdisciplinary conversations unless you have disciplines. There are no boundaries without territories, if you like. So the interdisciplinary buzz that Timothy craves can only be created in a world of specialists.
Third, and more generally, Weber was right.
In our time, the internal situation, in contrast to the organization of science as a vocation, is first of all conditioned by the facts that science has entered a phase of specialization previously unknown and that this will forever remain the case. Not only externally, but inwardly, matters stand at a point where the individual can acquire the sure consciousness of achieving something truly perfect in the field of science only in case he is a strict specialist. … A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment.
Weber didn’t think that specialization of this sort was necessarily dull, just that it was unavoidable. It has strong rewards of its own:
And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders, so to speak, and to come up to the idea that the fate of his soul depends upon whether or not he makes the correct conjecture at this passage of this manuscript may as well stay away from science. He will never have what one may call the ‘personal experience’ of science. Without this strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider; without this passion … you have no calling for science and you should do something else. For nothing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion.
Weber was well aware that the actual organization of academia fell far short of the ideal. Earlier in the essay he notes that academic life is a “mad hazard” and offers much the same advice to prospective profs as that given by the Invisible Adjunct and Timothy himself.
But one must ask every other man: Do you in all conscience believe that you can stand seeing mediocrity after mediocrity, year after year, climb beyond you, without becoming embittered and without coming to grief? Naturally, one always receives the answer: ‘Of course, I live only for my “calling.” ’ Yet, I have found that only a few men could endure this situation without coming to grief.
Weber has his own pathos about the life of the specialist that’s oddly romantic itself. The ecology of academic life is more variegated than he allows, and there are roles for boundary-crossers and idea-importers and popularizers. But there’s really no getting around the central point that specialization is unavoidable. It may be true that inside every hedgehog there is a fox trying to get out. But even Jon Elster says somewhere that you can’t really be a scholar without really mastering one thing. (I’ll look that quote up once I get to the office.)
Every academic shares something of Timothy’s angst sometime or other, and we all have the desire—as he puts it—to “ride the wave of information in its wild state, embrace the strange attractors that lure us from one subject to the next.” We can follow that urge at times, but the reason we don’t give in to it isn’t just because we’re afraid or ignorant. It’s also because, as Weber points out, we have a contradictory drive to focus on a single topic or problem and get it right. There’s no shame in that.