Courageous Specialization

“Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair,” Annie Dillard says of writing; reading often has a similar self-propelling precarity to it. Page 271 of the Phenomenology of Perception was one of those diminutive daily passions. Two hundred and seventy pages in, my eyes were crossing as, ironically, they tried to follow a description of depth perception. I could almost see the teeth of my mind’s word-recognition gears as they ground past one another, catching for choppy instants before the tense grip of my gaze would again tremble and the whole mechanism shoot apart with a screech and the description disintegrate once more into something like a very long fridge-magnet poem. There had been more difficult passages in the book—more abstract ones, certainly, which propose their own particular sort of headache—but what brought me to crisis now was the level of detail to which Merleau-Ponty was daring me to descend. Having hitherto followed him down into minute crevices of the mine of experience, I was already unsure that my brain would squeeze back up to the ordinary world without permanent deformation. Was it unreasonable to suspect that the next turn might be an irreversible passage into psychosis?

Yet dark and narrow as they were, the mines were churning up silver. Merleau-Ponty put glinting words to things that I’d only ever yet glimpsed as shadows in the corner of my mind. Potential damage to my synapses aside, I really wanted to be here. In fact, part of the terror was that I felt so at home. This left the fear that then both I and my chosen field of study merited the contempt or indifference of the billions of sensible and charming people who would never encounter the word phenomenology in their lives. I dreaded dedicating my life to something someone was going to call my Emperor’s bluff on. Yet what was I to do? Abandon all trains of inquiry that generated specialized vocabularies? Cultivate only a superficial acquaintance with every field for the sake of keeping my hands clean of “servile knowledge”?

It’s obvious that excellence in the hard sciences or in music or art or athletics is unattainable without careful attention to the most minute details, yet the results are anything but trivial. On the surface of it, specificity may seem harder to justify in the humanities. Aren’t we supposed to be studying the human condition, addressing the big questions, not dissolving ourselves into mere facts, losing ourselves in the minutiae of discs and cubes seen from different angles, scattering our mental resources across lists of names, arguments, and literary devices?

Merleau-Ponty, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Aristotle would be ashamed of me for neglecting the fact that not even philosophy is a disembodied activity. We slip into the sublime through the tiniest cracks, catch on to patterns through particulars, learn Tree from trees. The vital link between the detail and the scheme of things is at the heart of human knowing. Naturally, the process is threatened by extremes in either direction. On the one hand, the intellectual packrattery of, for example, the Enlightenment Encyclopedists (or Fun-Fact-firing cereal boxes) is worse than a dead-end: it’s a long, flat road into a bad infinity. Pure abstraction, on the other hand, is unsustainable. Besides promising its human host an early death from lack of exercise, it stultifies without the fodder of experience and the purifying demands of practice. Neither, alone, is true human knowing.

We’re called to truth, the conformity of thought to thing. For us, truth is not merely a possession, but a practice, one at which we can be better or worse. Thus, though exalted by their subject matter, all our studies are humbled by their fleshly practitioners. Like a plumber, a violinist, or a biologist, a philosopher has a craft to master if he is to direct whatever profound insights he may have toward communicable conclusions. The point in following along as a student isn’t ultimately an acquisition of the details of so-and-so’s account of reality, but what’s been done to our eyes when we turn to look at the real thing. Cutting corners in Merleau-Ponty’s perceptual puzzles isn’t only going to cost me the chance to acquire tour-guide-level acquaintance with the metaphorical mines; it’s going to leave my powers of analysis weaker and my imagination poorer than it might have been.

One fear remains unaddressed. Even if I like it down here, not many of us can fit. Does excellence come at the price of isolation?

The panicky scrawls across the text on my page 271 (“THIS IS NOT ME. THIS IS A BOOK I’M READING RIGHT NOW”) quiet themselves into a gentler marginal meditation by the bottom of the page. People say, “I’ll spare you the details,” I ruminated, not because details in themselves are worthless, but because they are allotted to each of us in turn. You take on yours and I take on mine, but we both do so, in some sense, for the sake of each other. You alone must change your one-year-old’s diaper and no one else really cares to hear about it, but there, as you embrace your lonely responsibility, you are most deeply and archetypally Mother.

As we specialize, we do not do so as slaves to details nor consider ourselves—any more than Christ did—as too transcendent for material life. You may be human qua neuroscientist or human qua ethical theorist or human qua historian, but you and your audience will all always still be human. Thus any time we address each other we should do so with an underlying respect for the universally true and the universally humanly true. Even in the most technically challenging realms of philosophy that I’ve yet encountered, the writers who stand out are those who, while masters of their craft, are not so dissolved into the conventions of their discipline that they forget that they are humans talking to humans, that their models are models of reality, and that their thoughts belong to things.

We can’t escape the toil of mastering details, and we shouldn’t try. What makes our studies liberal and human is that we are always holding the contingent details in a live relationship with the whole, remembering that no professionalization can strip us of our humanity, and that ultimately all our pursuits, if they’re worth it, find their justification in a framework that is broader than any one of them, but not shallower.

Madeline Johnson is a sophomore studying philosophy.

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