Human Beings as Polymathic and Specialisation: Solve et Coagula

What follows are a series of basic notes exploring the nature and problems of specialisation in fields of knowledge. This writing has developed from a series of conversations over the years with people who see as a problem interdisciplinary modes of working instead favouring the strategy that people should compartmentalise their interests and range of intellectual practice to a given area.


As a counterveiling opinion, whilst I feel it is important to be able to focus in and develop so-called ‘specialised knowledge’ (i.e. medical biochemistry or law etc), I feel it is in imperative to be able to engage with any knowledge field and experience for a range of reasons. These are rough notes and I hope that there is enough detail here both to stimulate thought and discussion, as well as to offer direction to the determined reader to trace back to some original sources without my having created a formal bibliography.


Since the 16th century, and before, the principle to divide knowledge into artificial component categories and specialisms accelerated. Two significant moments of division came. One where by Elizabethan statute in Britain demarcated who was to be allowed to be involved in which industry (reserving certain industries for the sons of the wealthy); and the second where the academic centres of Britain were reconstructed as places of specialism; in particular in the institutions of Oxford and Cambridge University before later affecting the generalist


Between these points we also see the rise of Political Economy as a subject study, most significantly organised by Adam Smith 1789 who advocated against the monopolies of Mercantilism highlighting the benefits of everyone being able to participate in markets and economic activity.


Smith, who was understood as a moral philosopher at the time, illustrated the benefits of the division of labour as offering a scheme of relationships by which industry could be organised to increase productivity. At the same time Smith identified the issues with individuals being compartmentalised in repetitive, unvarying jobs. David Ricardo, a later economist developed the term comparative advantage later in his 1817 book ‘On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation’.


The Development of Specialism in Higher Education

George Elder Davie documents the transformation of British education towards an increasingly specialised system of education and knowledge management in his book ‘The Democratic Intellect; Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century’. For Scotland, which drew on the continental traditions of learning which valued a generalist perspective holding philosophy as a central pivot, this move to specialisation was completed later than the universities of England. For a deep and more nuanced exploration of this history the reader is directed to read the work of Davie. Here is are two excerpts from Davie’s book illustrating this direction of travel for the purposes of this exploratory essay:


“However, in spite of the differences, Scotland up to 1930 certainly saw a sustained effort to restate well-tried principles in twentieth-century terms. In the schools, every attempt was made to prevent the premature specialisation of the sixth form, according to the peculiar English model, and the pattern of studies followed the all-round Continental fashion. At the same time, in affirming this allegiance to the principle of general education, the country did not forget the twin-principle of democracy, abolishing the inequalities which hampered (and still hamper) denominational schools throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. In this way, at the schools level, there was genuine effort to utilise the autonomy, while, at the same time, in the Universities, native standards still to a certain extent held their own against alien influence. Even in the midst of a growing tendency to extreme specialisation, the philosophy-classes, as taught by men like Bowman and Kemp Smith, still retained in large measure their traditional prestige, and, what was perhaps most important of all, the educational writings and example of John Burnet,1 among others, kept alive not just in the Universities but throughout the length and breadth of the land a continuing sense of the value of the national ideal of the democratic intellect, illustrating its social relevance by reference to Continental and to American as well as to English experience, and showing how the process of its adaptation to the twentieth century might involve the introduction of the foundation year such as A. D. Lindsay, partly under Scottish2 inspiration, was later to try out at Keele.”

Davie G. Paterson L. & Gunn R. (2013). The democratic intellect (2nd ed.). Edinburgh University Press.  (page xix)


“The distinctive feature of the debate before the 1876 Commission was that, as had happened before in the discussion prior to the 1858 and 1830 Commissions, the other party could not conceive of the possibility of introducing the specialisation system they favoured, unless a radical reorganisation took place in the whole of the Scottish educational system, school as well as University. Accordingly they still aimed at instituting a stiff compulsory entrance examination which would raise the school leaving age sharply, and realise in Scotland the peculiarly English ideal of the sixth form, or whatever was its equivalent eighty years ago. In this way they evidently planned to create, and that apparently in one sudden stroke, a system in which the general education was completed at school, and indeed, in the lower forms; in which the Universities became centres of an exclusively specialised education; and in which there was then no further need for the great general classes associated with the Scottish Universities, and for the philosophical approach dispensed therein.”

Davie G. Paterson L. & Gunn R. (2013). The democratic intellect (2nd ed.). Edinburgh University Press. (page 89)


The move to divide learners into specialisms focused on demarcated disciplines may be interpreted and approached from a number of angles. The division of learning into disciplines may be regarded as a natural function of the classification and ordering of stores of knowledge due to the growth of written materials, the accruing commons of knowledge, the development of language and the increased recognition of and investment in centres of learning. Prior to mechanical means of print technologies, texts were dominantly produced and reproduced by scholastic centres where religious clerics would hand write manuscripts. The expansion of stores of knowledge from ancient calligraphic centres to print technologies accelerated the building of libraries and transmission of information via organised bodies of knowledge.

Creating Silos to Divide and Rule

The move to divide knowledge and learning may be understood to simultaneously extend from the drive for bureaucratic management and control. Management from the perspective of coordinating projects required concerted efforts of bodies of skilled people; control of this highly valued area of life was influenced from the age old propensity to divide and rule. Written texts and the capacities to read and write were jealously guarded throughout the ages for the powers which these skills and technologies conferred. Examples of this can be seen from ancient antiquity as written about by Martin and Cochrane in ‘The History and Power of Writing’:


“Writing, which had rarely been used up to that point, became more common under the influence of such men as Livius Andronicus, Plautus, and Ennius, and especially in contact with Hellenism, but the number of inscriptions increased only slowly. The art of writing seems to have served for some time as an instrument of power kept in. This slow assimilation helps us to understand why writing (and for even greater reason, inscription, which aimed at fixing memory for all eternity) retained a magical aspect in Rome—a magic that writing has never totally lost. This was truer in Rome than in Greece, for example Like the sculptures on Trajan’s Column, certain monumental inscriptions do not seem to have been conceived to be deciphered. “

Martin H.-J. & Cochrane L. G. (1994). The history and power of writing. University of Chicago Press. Page 37


As the ability to read and write gave direct access to knowledge – and as a result, capabilities associated with the knowledge stored and bound up with texts – the control of writing as a technology was associated with shoring up the power base of oligarchies. Cultural agency connected with the ability to demonstrate certain and specific knowledge thus gave rise to cultures of secrecy, as should the knowledge become common place hegemonies might become disrupted. As a technology of communication and dissemination, the control of written language served at various times to preserve and maintain a particular cultural order invested in the status quo. Here Martin and Cochrane describe this dynamic:


“The notion bears repeating: writing is nothing by itself. It serves little purpose to introduce writing techniques into closed societies; at best they will just use them to immobilize and set down sacred words as secrets that give an oligarchy its power.”

(page 507, Martin H.-J. & Cochrane L. G. (1994). The history and power of writing. University of Chicago Press)


The example of the Tyndale Bible exemplifies this. In this history, one of the first credited translations of the Bible into English was produced by William Tyndale between 1522 and 1536. Due to innovations in print technology in the preceding century, Johannes Gutenberg with his mechanical movable-type printing press had enabled the subsequent mass production of such texts without the extended apparatus of the clerical centres which had until then had dominion over the printed word.


In response to this emancipation of the written sources of Christian theology and authority, William Tyndale was arrested in 1535, and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels before being convicted of heresy in1536. The sad end to his life was execution by strangulation, after which his body was burnt at the stake. The notion of common access to the knowledge base of the church and country upset the ecology of power which was used to lend authority to those in leadership positions.


So it is in these kinds of senses that the division of knowledge can be understood in terms of command and control bureaucracies – organisational structures which centrally manage activities associated with cultural production. The control exerted over knowledge and technologies is a theme which Harold Innes explores in his work ‘The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power’ where he looks at various forms of media and the power networks which enclosed them.


The strategy to divide a process across a chain of individuals so as to esoterise power and capacity was known and understood by some no doubt. We see this kind of practice as the foundational strategy of pharmaceutical companies such as GlaxoSmithKline on production sites in order to protect intellectual property and industrial secrets. The creation and curation of silos through chains of command and levels of authorised access is a key tool in the managerial tool kit.  Gillian Tett’s work problematises silos in the modern world.


Knowledge, skill and capacity has been esoterised by the holders to maintain social power since antiquity. This can even be seen in the ritual ceremonial magic documented by Malinowski for example whereby ‘magical knowledge’ is passed on in the same manner as intellectual property rites are in modern times. The exchange of value resources marks the contract and agreement, and as such the community looks to the person who has taken ownership of the given magical knowledge (i.e. the rituals invoked to make a seaworthy boat) as holder of that knowledge or power. Thereafter that individual maintains their status in the community via the esoterisation of knowledge ensuring that they are always called upon when a given type of social production is carried out – such as the creation of a seafaring vessel.


The division of knowledge can also be understood from a perspective of social engineering which parallels the enforcement of who was allowed to practice which knowledge. In the British context we can see this codified in the Statute of Artificers (aka the Statute of Apprentices by Adam Smith) but also the guild system later structured by assent of Royal Warrant. In this way people and populations have been controlled, profits concentrated by monopoly forces, economies managed from centralised plans; but this has also served corporate coordination used to force individuals and bodies working together in comparative advantage relationships due to the requirement of cooperative expertise.


The continental origins of Democratic Intellect, the pedagogical tradition of Scotland, alludes to a history and legacy of more generalist, naturally polymathic and interdisciplinary nature of the human mind and experience. Knowledge – relating the word to knowingness – is apprehended in situ not as neatly bound into categorical forms but as tangled phenomena interacting and interrelated. It, as described by George Elder Davies, holds that arguments to demonstrate knowledge and learning hold at their centre philosophy – the love of wisdom – and that an argument may be synthesised eclectically drawing on all disciplines to produce clarity of proposition. Not only this but it may be understood as a good way to check facts and falsify propositions by drawing from different subject fields and specialisms which have social ecologies distinct from each other. An advantage of this approach is the capacity to not have a discourse dominated by a sociological configuration which constricts or monopolises social production in a given area.


Education, knowledge and learning since the passing on from the Democratic Intellect, have become largely, increasingly divided and fractured from each other through disciplines. In modern times this patterning has been extended through the introduction of competitive managerial practices to accentuate holding patterns in the advance of fields of knowledge, chiefly to control economies of industry. This is particularly vivid in the conscious and deliberate command and control structures which generate silos where cultures of competition impress themselves on terrain which naturally benefit from collegiality.


The increasing specialisation in human society has acted to dissolve many of the connections which previously functioned as means of collegiality or reflective dialogue. Individuals in professional environments and managed academia are encouraged to stick within their given domain and to set out stall by ‘looking for the gap’ in the knowledge. This given ‘gap-in-the-knowledge’ approach, along with cultures of competing over resources (not uncommonly through the artificial production of scarcity) promotes territorialism and ingroup/outgroup identities.


This no doubt encourages academics to seek doing work which is to complement existing work but it also has a specialising action in the scheme of attribution of expertise. The move to specialise is only one half of an ancient formula to – solve et coagula; to dissolve and recombine was an axiom of early science. The separation into constituencies, whilst bringing into exclusive focus a particular abstraction also causes the loss and damage of meta-knowledge – knowledge which is a result of a Gestalt effect that can further inform the select focus.


The cultural propensity to divide and specialise may be seen in the silo effects that so often manifest as as intractable issues which recur and seem to alter their form (so called ‘wicked problems’) but are in fact a result of complex tasks being met with simple responses.


This can be an unintended systems effects, wrong engagement or wilful ignorance of repeating problems that demand more time/energy than a person/group is willing/capable to give. Intersectionality is an expression of this type of specialisation and/or speciation – obviously of the same etymological root, the first denoting the adaptation, the second denoting the differentiated end points.


Kimberlé Crenshaw uses this formulation to articulate how people’s experience and ultimately their humanity as specifically ‘holistically manifest’ and real becomes erased by use of administrative siloing; when single issues are dealt with in relation to a complex person with complex needs and experiences, responses are concretely deficient precisely because a single aspect of that person and their experience is being exclusively attended to – meaning that all the other correlated issues are not being attended to. Crenshaw documents this in terms of cultural, bureaucratic and legal processes surrounding individuals who face multiple issues which must be dealt with in conjunction with each other elsewise responses are ineffectual and often inappropriate. They have become erased through the theoretical lenses they are being seen through and reduced to cyphers which no longer bear resemblance to their lived reality.


The principle of unity which Crenshaw expresses has relevance far beyond the setting she has published it for and identifies a key principle in the context bound nature of knowingness and knowledge, and how manifest experience necessarily has parity in union, which only an interdisciplinary mindset and approach might effectively engage for successful mapping of phenomena as found in their natural setting. In other words, a categorical perspective is a human fiction which only exists cogently within the minds of humans rather than in the natural world and it is in cases where the fiction of the human mind is given precedence over the first principles of the universe as-it-is that significant problems arise.


Alfred Korzybski, the theorist of General Semantics, identifies a similar aspect about the reality tunnels through which we all, as individuals, perceive the world formed via the use of language. He sets out his theory in general semantics problematising categorical language and the cognitive maps we make. A key point he raises is how categorical statements bring about categorical perception which encodes information as maps which often get confused/conflated for the actual thing (or territory) it was based on. He puts a significant amount of this down to the western tradition and over reliance on Aristotelian formulations of the world; that is, that each ‘thing’ has a unique form, an essence which distinguishes it from all others, a form which can be understood as a sort of soul which sets it apart from all other ‘things’ and their unique ‘thingness’.


Korzybski suggests we should exercise the capacity to move beyond this simplistic notionalisation of our encounters with reality promoting the recognition and search for non-Aristotelian ways of valuing the world to accompany our encoded cyphers of encounter supplementing the notion of infinitely more complex means of understanding our tangled experience in the universe.


By nature of the universal and interwoven nature of experience human beings have arguably developed as polymathic in nature because of their relationship with tangled knowledge. That tangled knowledge is the innate habitat of our intellectual, emotional and sensate development. Untangled knowledge, divided accounts found as disciplines are artificial – artefacts of perception and human culture which must be reconstituted by boundary crossing and emersion in the world if they are to be at all meaningful.


Critical thinking and corrections are welcomed from people if you think that there is some aspect which I have misapprehended. Much of this writing serves as a public sketch book to run alongside the experiment(s) in education which the Ragged University project involves.


Best wishes

Alex Dunedin