How to Control Intellectual Segmentation

Anton C. Zijderveld

Not only the structures of society, but also man’s consciousness has become segmented in the process of modernization. We discussed this in the third chapter and called it “intellectual Taylorism.” Modern knowledge, scientific as well as common-sense knowledge, has been fragmented into various sectors of discourse with very little communication between them. This is evident in the sciences (specialization) as well as in the sphere of labor and work in general (professionalization). Specialists and professionals are experts in only a small portion of possible knowledge. Outside their limited field of expertise, they are naïve, helpless, if not plain uneducated. Moreover, as we saw in the third chapter, there is enough evidence to suspect that most specialties and professions have exhausted their various fields of expertise and the main work left to be done is compiling abstractions: debates on methodology, theories about theories, piecemeal revisions of existing theories, and research for the sake of research (or because an attractive grant was available). In the different branches of culture (sciences, arts, music, literature, sport, etc.), specialization and professionalization have brought human consciousness to a level of abstraction never before reached by man. The scientist has become slave of his methods, the performing musician has sacrificed musicality for ever-greater technique, the sportsman has exchanged the playful spirit of the game for a grim struggle against the chronometer, and painters and sculptors alike compete nowadays for ever-newer techniques. As a result, they have all delivered their particular field of expertise to the meaninglessness of ever-expanding abstractions.

Again, structural measures can keep this process of intellectual segmentation within certain limits. But it is on the level of individual consciousness that the real change should occur. I would like to emphasize, for example, the wholesome role the amateur could play. In our era of professionalization we have forgotten that much creativeness and quite a number of innovations have come not from professionals but from amateurs. For instance, in sociology, Max Weber was and still is one of the greatest sources of innovation, but he was never a professional sociologist in the strict sense of the word. He was a typical representative of a breed of intellectuals who might be called “professional amateurs.” He was not only economist and sociologist, but also jurist, historian, political scientist, historian of religion, and philosopher. He knew a great deal about music and literature, and was fluent in several languages. Obviously, he was not a specialist in any of these fields.

Goethe, another remarkable professional amateur, allegedly said that dilettantes greatly promoted the causes of science and technology because they knew how to combine play with seriousness. The dilettante, as the etymology of the word indicates, has pleasure in developing certain ideas and in solving certain problems. He is committed to his cause, not because he searches for fame, prestige and professional acknowledgment, but because he has pleasure in pursuing it. The rat race of competition, the grim fight for the improvement of existing records, the stress on methods and techniques and perhaps most important of all, the hunger for money—all these characteristics of the modern professional are alien to the true dilettante. He plays the piano because he loves music, he paints because he takes pleasure in the composition of figures and combination of colors, he does scientific research because he is inquisitive, he engages in sport because he likes to measure his own physical endurance against that of others.

Understandably in an age of professionalization, but nevertheless regrettably, “amateurism” and “dilettantism” have become pejorative categories, used condescendingly by those who are determined to defend their own small field of expertise. Meanwhile, if we really have exhausted our specialties, the spirit of the amateur may bring some very wholesome changes. Among other things, professional amateurism might produce a truly interdisciplinary approach in the human sciences because it would not be restricted by professional blindness but would tend to combine various specialties. This is not an endorsement of mediocrity. On the contrary, much of our professionalism has resulted in mediocrity, whereas the true amateur might open new vistas, new approaches, fresh impulses and perhaps even new substance. He transcends the narrow parameters of a specialty but is not a system builder. He resembles those famous Renaissance men who knew nothing very specific but quite a lot in general.

All attempts to change formal education in contemporary society, it seems to me, should focus primarily upon this aspect. University reform is a perfect example. The discussions on this topic center almost exclusively around changes in organizational structures and in curriculum patterns. This is an outgrowth of our fetishistic belief that all the pains of modem society can be alleviated by changing structures and organizations. But such structural changes, necessary as they are, can be successful only if a change in man’s consciousness takes place simultaneously. All structural reforms of the university must be paired to reform of consciousness if they are to be at all efficient. This reform of consciousness can be achieved through education and is relatively independent of all structural and organizational circumstances. That means that we can begin on it immediately, irrespective of all the structural changes that have to occur. The reform of consciousness I am referring to consists primarily of deprofessionalization and aims at the promotion of professional amateurism. The prerequisite for this is a radical abstinence from competitiveness and longings for professional prestige. This, again, is only possible in the fundamental attitude I shall call “intellectual asceticism,” which leads us to the next issue.

December 1969

SOURCE: Zijderveld, Anton C. The Abstract Society: A Cultural Analysis of Our Time (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), section of chapter 7 (The Need for Intellectual Asceticism), pp. 166-168.  Footnote omitted.

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