The vast resources devoted to research and education or at least schooling today seem to ensure that we’re in a position to carry on everything intelligently. That turns out not to be so. We can’t grasp the world as a whole in thought, and the assumption that we can do so through expertise divorces our thought from the realities of our situation and keeps us from grasping as much as we otherwise could.
Part of the problem with expertise is mechanization. Thought requires a certain lightness of touch. It steps back from categories, at least on occasion, and asks if they need be taken quite seriously. It questions what a particular study has to do with the world, and what’s known from other sources. It makes use of everything available to the knower, including things that can’t be articulated. That’s the way perspective and common sense creep in. The scale and bureaucratic organization of expert thought make those things much harder to do. Each sticks to his specialty and obeys its standards, providing a brick or two for the tower of knowledge, but the design of the tower can’t be made an expert specialty so it’s left to chance or the collective interests or prejudices of expert investigators as a class.
To do their job, expert investigators try to reduce all things to simple uniform principles they can grasp and use to control outcomes. That means, for example, that modern investigations of religion and family are generally useless to religion and family. Religion deals with things that can’t really be grasped, and family life when healthy excludes external control. When experts reduce religion to nonreligious categories, or treat family life as a branch of politics or economics, they miss the point and distort what they are studying. It’s no accident when they make obvious blunders like failing to distinguish marriage from cohabitation in analyzing issues such as child welfare and domestic violence.
More abstractly, modernity increases the power of thought by simplifying its principles and narrowing its focus. It develops Pascal’s esprit de geometrie at the expense of his esprit de finesse. The conclusions of the latter, everything that can’t be demonstrated, become subjective opinion not worth taking into account in serious affairs. Nothing is treated as knowledge unless there’s a study behind it.
Naturally, not everything can be proven, so the demand for demonstration makes critical thought difficult in connection with things that require experience, intuition and judgment. Consequences include:
- The decline of the ideal of connoisseurship, and more generally of qualitative distinctions of all kinds.
- Reduction of thought to ideology and power. When an expert studies thought and tries to reduce it to simple principles that can be clearly understood, excluding intangibles that can’t be proven, that’s what it looks like. The thing that makes it actual living thought escapes him.
- The spread of mindless dogma that can’t recognize itself as dogma and so seems to form the limit of possible discussion. Examples would include principles of equality, “diversity” and “inclusiveness” with regard to race, sex and gender. As the recent upset regarding Larry Summers and feminism demonstrates, those things can’t be questioned and so set the boundaries of what can be treated as truth.
- Ultimately, the death of thought. The idea of truth that transcends and serves as a standard for thought, and of rationality and evidence that don’t reduce to arbitrary decisions of the experts who control the relevant part of the intellectual bureaucracy, drop out.
The moral: expertise is a good and useful thing, but it can’t be the ultimate test of what’s real. For the latter question we need a more general intelligence that can be developed and refined but can’t be expert, because it can’t reduce the things with which it deals to a demonstrative system, and therefore has difficulty finding respectability or a home in today’s intellectual world.