Experts and Intellectuals: A Monologue on Knowledge

by Mark Wallace

The pursuit of knowledge is an ancient activity. It can be carried out in more ways than one. In contemporary Western societies, knowledge is the province of the expert. The expert – that most contemporary of personages – is distinguished by his or her specificity: one is not an expert in a general sense; one is an expert in some field or on some topic. To achieve expert status, one has to concentrate one’s intellectual faculties very narrowly indeed. This form of epistemology is reflected in the structure of academia, wherein the discipline is paramount: one is expected to be an expert in a particular discipline, and disciplines are defined increasingly narrowly. The common sense of the contemporary academy is that as the world becomes more complicated the useful intelligence is that which can  specialize the most minutely.

This is increasingly apparent in the financial sector. Managing one’s own financial resources has now become such a gargantuanly complicated task that one can’t do it alone. A lifetime of training is needed to understand an average person’s financial affairs. Note this ad from Irish bank EBS, who brand themselves “the mortgage masters” and declare: “Some jobs need a master, with the perfect combination of dedication, focus and expertise … You need someone who can draw on decades of know-how… Not a jack-of-all-trades, but the master of one … For a job as important as your mortgage, that’s EBS.”

 

The ideology of the expert is being offered up here, with an emphasis on the impossibility of the subject being entirely beyond the ordinary individual. What is the difficulty with this? My difficulty is that we are not dealing with a pre-given complexity which needs a sophisticated intelligence to understand it; we are dealing with a constructed complexity (the financial system) whose existence provides financial benefit to the very people who create and uphold it. Certainly, an individual’s finances can be as complicated as you like. The question that the businessperson is unlikely to ask, but that the intellectual should, is: should they be? Or again, need they be? Is it not, rather, the ultimate in alienation that we cannot understand our own financial status and judge our own best interests?

 

So academics and intellectuals more generally should be wary of the role of expert, and his/her self-serving need to increase the intellectual sophistication of his/her position. Another way is possible, and has a long history. Imagine a world wherein knowledge was gained not by a narrowing of the intellectual vision, but a widening thereof. Reading recently Paul Feyerabend’s Three Dialogues on Knowledge (1991), I was introduced to an 18th-century German philosopher and (for want of a better term to describe his all-encompassing intellectual interests) man of letters, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who Feyerabend’s dialogist holds up as the paradigm of the intellectual:

I admire Lessing for his independence, for his willingness to change his mind. I admire him even for his honesty for he is one of those very rare people who can be honest and humorous at the same time, who use their honesty as a guide for their own private lives, not as a club or beating people into submission, not as a showpiece for pleasing the galleries. […] I admire him because he was a thinker without a doctrine and a scholar without a school – every problem, every phenomenon he approached was for him a unique situation that had to be explained and illuminated in a unique way. I admire him because he was not satisfied with sham clarity but realized that understanding is often achieved through an obscuring of things, through a process in which “what seemed to be seen clearly is lost in an uncertain distance.” (123)

For Lessing to approach each phenomenon as a unique situation he had to be free of disciplinary constraints, to be a “scholar without a school”. Still more counterintuitively for a contemporary academic intelligence, he had not to clarify, but rather to show that that which appeared clear was not really so. In effect, this is closer to the defamiliarization technique seen by Shklovsky as being central to the artist’s mission.  So the intellectual had much of the artist about him, and less of the disciplinary intelligence. The task is to return the techniques of the artist and of Enlightenment thinkers like Lessing to the data-driven and micro-disciplinary intellectual landscape we inhabit.

 

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