Eclectic Curiosity

Posted on August 12th, 2004, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

A couple very interesting insights in this blog post, The Limits of Generalism, by Swarthmore College assistant professor Timothy Burke upon his return from a too-specialized conference.

I repeatedly extoll the virtues of generalism, but it cannot do everything. The sinking feeling I repeatedly had during the conference was knowing that to even get to the point where I grasped the substantive difference between different algorithms or formalisms proposed by many of the researchers at this conference, where I could meaningfully evaluate which were innovative and important, and which were less attractive, would take me years of basic study: study in mathematics, study in computer science, study in economics, areas where I’ve never been particularly gifted or competent at any point in my life. To get from understanding to actually doing or teaching would be years more from there, if ever.

The reverse movement often seems easier, from the sciences to the social sciences or humanities, and in truth, it is. There’s an important asymmetry that I think is a big part of the social purpose of the humanities, that intellectual work in that domain returns, or should return, broadly comprehensible and communicative insights rather than highly technical ones, and thus, that the barriers to entry are lower.


That debate is an important reminder, however, of what a kind of disciplined drift towards generalism can bring. The intensely fertile contemporary practice of cognitive science draws from all those areas and more besides. It almost seems to me that a good generalist ought to combine an overall curiosity and fluency in the generality of knowledge with a structured search of the possibility space of the intellectual neighborhoods which are just far away enough from their specializations to return novel possibilities and angles of attack but just close enough that those neighborhoods are potentially accessible with a reasonable amount of scholarly labor. To think about generalism in this way is to realize that different generalists are not going to end up in the same place. Their mutual engagements or conversations will have to happen in places of accidental overlap, because the concentric circles of one’s own generalist competency are going to differ because they originate out of different initial specializations.

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