Making sense of philosophy in the specialist age

Scrolling Forward was one of our books in Archives a couple weeks ago. My reaction was generally positive, and I have a bunch of little starred notes in my notebook.* A chunk of class was more annoyed, particularly near the end. Chapter 10 is explicitly existential in nature, with much Becker and Loy and a dash of art history.

And here I encounter a bit of a personal conundrum. I’m unfamiliar with Becker and Loy. I know of Kierkegaard, but that’s about it. I never studied philosophy, formally or otherwise, so I feel myself unqualified to judge its deployment in the text. I feel more comfortable with other parts of the book: though I don’t count myself an expert§ in, say, nineteenth century industrialized society or twentieth century information technology or all corners of the web…I’m on more solid ground. I know the shape of things, I can independently think of points that support or counter statements Levy makes; I feel like I can, potentially, offer opinions that go beyond “blue is a nice color.”

It is, perhaps, a problem of specialization: if a field is so deep, how can an outsider usefully participate or evaluate? It’s also an issue of trust and authority. It’s a reasonable assumption that Levy’s read the authors he cited. But is he sufficiently expert in a field outside his obvious academic and professional experience? Making connections is a scholarly value-add. Interdisciplinary study is, IMHO, a good thing, and the trade off for breadth of vision is, necessarily, depth. So how do you peer review Specials?** In a book that is steeped in anxiety, this is one of mine.


* Starred notes are my thoughts, upon which I mean to follow up in either a blog post or paper. Brackets are my asides. Handwritten, mostly legible. Notebook illustrations—in ink and yellow crayon, thusfar—are by The Daughter and make me smile.

Employing vague shorthand because a) we don’t take class minutes, b) it wouldn’t be appropriate to reproduce them if we did and c) vague shorthand is perfectly adequate for my purposes.

I’m not proud of this. Nor am I especially broken up or insecure about it. So many books, so little time and all that.

§ More of a selectively well-informed generalist, perhaps.

** In several of Cherryh’s novels, Specials are a legally protected class of people with a specific set of skills, generally held to be unduplicable; Cyteen is about attempts at duplication.

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