Big is Better (For Thinking)

After saying that big is bad, one of the writers chiefly responsible for my opposition to all things large has to go and ruin my simple categories. This passage from Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle is to blame:

Freedom in both science and art probably depends upon enlarging the context of our work, increasing (rather than decreasing) the number of considerations we allow to bear upon it. This is because the ultimate context of our work is the world, which is always larger than the context of our thought… If we could faithfully commit ourselves to the principle that nothing whatever can safely be said to lie outside the context of our work, then artists and scientists would have to be ready at any time to see that they have been wrong and to start again, making yet larger the context of the work. That is true freedom. It means simply that beyond all error we can begin again; redemption is possible. From this principle also we can make our way to critical judgments of an amplitude beyond specialization and professionalism; Work that diminishes the possibility of a new start, of “making it new,” is bad work.

Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000), 134.

The move Berry makes here is a key one. Although the modern world operates at a too-large scale, it paradoxically does most of its thinking at the narrowest possible scale, particularly when it comes to thinking through the consequences of a line of inquiry or a course of action.

Thinking narrowly is generally known by its sanitized moniker specialization—which I am against. Specialization is a mode of thinking and practice which eschews anything other than the circular logic of a field designing and enforcing its internal standards. This type of insular thinking is revealed by the term externalities in the field of economics. For those blessedly unenlightened of the tenets of the dismal science, externalities refer to the generally unsavoury by-products of “business as usual,” such as pollution, unemployment and shoddy workmanship.

I chose the example of externalities because it perfectly encapsulates the specialist mindset, which could be narrated like this:

We are aware that there are consequences to the mode of thinking from our field, but they lie outside of our field, so we cannot hope to understand them, much less be held accountable for them! Let’s sound intelligent and suitably humble by admitting that there are things that our field doesn’t have the tools to explain, while making it clear that these things are properly outside of our field. Let’s call these things externalities. That way, we can foist them off on other specialists, who have little to no power—over us, in any case.

If our world is to have a future, this type of thinking needs to come to an end, and none too soon. That each person will engage in work different from their neighbour is inevitable, but we must our specialization under some greater notion of what all those work is going towards. Wendell Berry comments so well on this that it justifies a lengthy concluding quote (to shorten it would be to make it much too narrow):

It used to be that we thought of the disciplines as ways of being useful to ourselves, for we needed to earn a living, but also and more importantly we thought of them as ways of being useful to one another. As long as the idea of vocation was still viable among us, I don’t believe it was ever understood that a person was “called” to be rich or powerful or even successful. People were taught the disciplines at home or in school for two reasons: to enable them to live and work both as self-sustaining individuals and as useful members of their communities, and to see that the disciplines themselves survived the passing of the generations.

Now we seem to have replaced the ideas of responsible community membership, of cultural survival, and even of usefulness, with the idea of professionalism. Professional education proceeds according to ideas of professional competence and according to professional standards, and this explains the decline in education from ideals of service and good work, citizenship and membership, to mere “job training” or “career preparation.” The context of professionalism is not a place or a community but a career, and this explains the phenomenon of “social mobility” and all the evils that proceed from it. The religion of professionalism is progress, and this means that, in spite of its vocal bias in favor of practicality and realism, professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real. Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future, in which all our problems will be solved and our tears wiped away—and which, being the future, never arrives. The future is always free of past limitations and present demands, always stocked with newer merchandise than any presently available, always promising that what we are going to have is better than what we have. The future is the utopia of academic thought, for virtually anything is hypothetically possible there; and it is the always-expanding frontier of the industrial economy, the fictive real estate against which losses are debited and to which failures are exiled. The future is not anticipated or provided for, but is only bought or sold. The present is ever diminished by this buying and selling of shares in the future that rightfully are owned by the unborn.

Berry, 130-131.

3 responses to “Big is Better (For Thinking)”

  1. wow is all i can say. there is a lot to think about there! somewhat new stuff at that! he’s a pretty darn good writer hey?
    berry, who is this guy? where did he get so smart? though, a lot of it is common sense. we’re just so pitifully stupid that anyone with half a brain will sound smart to us!

    we went for a walk and then later that night a drive yesterday and saw two very saddening (small) things.

    one: passing by a house, there hung, in their large living room window, a blanket of sorts with a huge jeep with santa driving! not only are they blocking any sort of light, but they are looking through the light at santa in a jeep? this i do not get.

    second: down mcgee a woman, sitting in her wheel chair at 11pm hunched over, looking very cold and abandoned. we pass and then stop wondering if she needs help. we look back and see a younger man jump out of the dumpster and proceed to walk her down the dark, cold road. i’m presuming he was responsible for her but this was his chosen vocation for the evening. it was actually a very creepy, disturbing scene. one which makes me wonder where our humanity has gone.

    i’m not sure where this fits in with professionalism and the religion of progress but it sure smacks of the byproduct…

    empty, lonely lives…

    thanks for writing,

  2. maria: Yes, Berry is very, very bright. It come from being a farmer, an author and a poet. Reading him melts my brain.

  3. A friend of mine says “specialization leads to extinction”, and it comes to my mind the words “phenoypic plasticity”. But from a less individual-centerd approach, this post helps a lot to understand the problem of ignoring externalities, both in an ethic and an epistemologic way.

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