Stefan Collini's lecture

Specialization and its Discontents: Intellectuals in Britain

The first annual lecture of the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts, Bristol University, 24 October 2005

Section 1

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has become common to single out two forces in particular as largely responsible between them for the alleged 'decline' or 'disappearance' of the intellectual. These two forces are taken to be distinctive of the present time, or at least to have assumed by this point a peculiarly intense and determining power. Indeed, so great is that power according to some accounts, especially of the two forces working in sinister combination, that it is held not merely to have led to the temporary or local disappearance of the intellectual, but actually to have made the performance of the role impossible. The two forces are, first, the process of intellectual specialization, especially the subdivision of knowledge into an ever-multiplying profusion of mutually incomprehensible and inward-looking academic disciplines; and second, the rise of celebrity culture, with the dynamics of the popular media increasingly governing the public sphere of modern societies, leading, it is said, to the displacement of the intellectual by the media personality. It is possible to see a relation at work between these two forces which, if not exactly dialectical, works by a logic of mutual repulsion, each stimulating the momentum, and exacerbating the effects, of the other. As these two juggernauts drive the relevant aspects of society in their opposite directions, the terrain on which the intellectual was supposed to have stood breaks apart and the species tumbles to its death in the resulting crevasse.

It will not, I suspect, surprise you to learn that this lecture will be devoted to questioning rather than endorsing this fashionable account. I want to suggest that these current claims should be seen as the latest instalments in a long tradition of denial where the question of intellectuals in Britain is concerned, of denial that intellectuals have existed or been of any consequence in this by comparison to other societies, of denial that there can be any intellectuals in the present who measure up to the giants of the past, of denial of the very possibility of the role under modern conditions, whenever 'modern' is supposed to be. You'll immediately see that the various elements in this tradition of denial are not all logically compatible: claims that 'real' intellectuals have never existed in Britain sit quite happily alongside claims that today they are a shadow of their former selves. But always, whenever these claims are being advanced, the here-and-now is depicted as peculiarly unfavourable to the flourishing of the intellectual. It is typical of the alarmist and even apocalyptic character of such diagnoses to operate with only the skimpiest or most foreshortened sense of historical transition, in which an undifferentiated 'yesterday' of lush abundance suddenly gives way to an homogeneous 'today' of arctic scarcity. But where the topic of intellectuals is concerned, it is also characteristic of such accounts not just to ignore or under-state the extent to which the two developments that I have just mentioned have long histories, but also to appear entirely oblivious to the fact that the despondent conclusions drawn from these developments also form part of a repetitive pattern themselves, stretching back over many decades.  

This lecture is an attempt to mitigate some of the more pernicious effects of this kind of polemical amnesia. I shall concentrate upon the responses to just one of these processes, that of specialization, and I shall try to place it in a very long historical perspective, one which deliberately stretches back even beyond the beginning of the twentieth century. But I also want to propose to you that there is an intrinsic and not merely contingent connection between laments about specialization and  the concept of the intellectual, at least in the most common sense in which that vexed and polysemous term is now used. For, on my analysis, both specialization and celebrity may be seen, under other descriptions, as defining elements in the operation of what is usually (though not unproblematically) termed the cultural authority of the intellectual. That authority requires both an element of achievement in a particular creative or anaytical or other non-instrumental activity (which can, seen from a particular angle, always appear as a form of 'specialization') and an element of acquiring a reputation for addressing a non-specialist public (which can similarly always be represented as a form of 'celebrity'). The role of the intellectual, on my analysis, is constituted by the movement between these two poles, and it is hardly surprising, therefore, if its very existence is always thought to be vulnerable to the over-weighting of one at the expense of the other.

But the notion of 'specialization' itself also contains complexities of its own, of course. In principle, a process of specialization can be described as taking place in almost any area of life. There is always the same implication of a domain once held in common being broken up into smaller plots; a range of skills, functions, knowledge and so on that were, allegedly, at one time within the competence of a single individual but now require the separate labours of several. Such a claim necessarily involves comparison across time, but the process itself never supplies an ur-state or external standard against which measurements can be made: the starting-point for comparison is always a matter of choice. Any state of affairs can be represented as more specialized than the state which preceded it, and there is no obvious terminus to the series.

Some degree of specialization of function must be present in any complex group or society. But just as there is no way of locating an original condition which is 'pre-specialization', so, by the same token, there is no general or a priori way to specify how much specialization is too much. It is one of those processes which, classically, each generation feels has gone too far in its own time. However, not only is any such discussion always haunted by intimations of decline, but the standpoint from which such general evaluative assessments of the process are made is in effect assumed to be somehow outside the process. Commenting upon specialization, above all when deploring its harmful consequences, is not taken to be another specialism. So, the very act of identifying it is premised on the existence, if only for the duration of that act, of a perspective which is 'outside' it and hence more general.

This is partly why I suggest that there is an inherent and not merely contingent relation between reflections on specialization and the idea of the intellectual. The notion of 'specialization', as a developmental process, signals a movement from general to particular. The concept of the intellectual (to use for the moment a brutally truncated formula) could be said to signal a movement from particular to general. As a result, specialization, understood as an historically located sociological or cultural development, always simultaneously generates a need for the role of the intellectual and threatens to extinguish it. The very identification of specialization as some kind of problem is already premised on an intuition of loss, the loss of some more general perspective or capacity which is assumed to be desirable or even essential. Specialization and anxiety-about-specialization are thus joined at the hip, fated to hobble together across the landscape of cultural diagnosis. What, exactly, is alleged to be being lost will always be context-specific. Sometimes the emphasis falls on the deformation of the humanity of the specialist, sometimes on the disappearance from view of larger purposes, sometimes on the way the process cramps intellectual creativity, sometimes on the way communication between specialists or with some non-specialist audience becomes impossible, and so on. But what is constant is the presupposition that there is some more general perspective from which these dangers can be identified and perhaps resisted, as well as an implication that there was once, somewhere, a more desirable state of affairs not yet ravaged by this insidious process.

These rather abstract considerations bear on how the question of intellectuals has been asked and answered in twentieth-century Britain, but they do so, characteristically of this topic, in ways that are often oblique or disguised. Far from specialization being a force that has only recently begun to have destructive impact, diagnoses of the sickness of specialization have, I want to suggest, long been occasions for intellectuals to validate their function. For, as we shall see, the theme of specialization and its discontents is nearly always taken up by those who are already committed to bringing some more general perspective to bear in public debate. But many of those who have partly manifested their identity as intellectuals by their very engagement with the topic of specialization have at the same time been among those who have most loudly proclaimed the 'absence' of intellectuals in Britain, insisting that, for better or worse, the genuine article is only to be found elsewhere. In this sense, the theme of specialization is at once an enabling trope and an alibi  - and an alibi is, after all, an explanation of absence, of how one was 'elsewhere'.

Section 2

We cannot identify a single point at which the intellectual division of labour was first perceived as a problem: the fear that the republic of knowledge becomes ungovernable as individual scholars and scientists each come to know more and more about less and less is of very long standing indeed, and pre-dates its conceptualization in terms of 'specialization'.  Certainly, laments about the effects of this process had already become something of a critical commonplace by the second half of the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth universities were, with increasing vehemence, identified as the villains of the piece, accused of breaking up the fondly-remembered 'common culture' supposedly displayed in the mid-Victorian periodicals. In part, this was a response to the closely-related notion of 'professionalization', as career patterns, genres of publication, and forms of recognition assumed a degree of autonomy from the mechanisms at work in the wider society, among the clearest indications of which were the formation of discipline-specific professional associations and the founding of the scholarly journals which corresponded to them, events heavily clustered in the last quarter of the 19th century. But just as the process could be deplored before it was given its modern name, so nostalgia for a form of public conversation that had been lost pre-dated the currency of the term 'intellectuals' and the specific anxiety represented by the juxtaposing of this process to that role.  

The terms 'specialism','specialization' and their cognates entered standard written English in the mid- and late-nineteenth century; the earliest recorded uses of the relevant senses given by the OED cluster around the 1860s and 1870s. The first definition given of 'specialism' is 'restriction or devotion to a special branch of study or research', and similarly the second sense of 'specialist' is 'one who specially or exclusively studies one subject or one particular branch of a subject'. Appropriately enough, Herbert Spencer is quoted as lamenting and Mark Pattison as lauding the processes signalled by these terms, both in the 1860s. The medical sense of 'specialist'  -  the first sense given  -  acquired its autonomy at about the same time, and in most everyday circumstances it soon became the single, unambiguous sense, so that from the late-nineteenth century onwards a reference to someone as 'an eminent specialist' could only refer to a physician, not to a physicist or philologist. (As always, such a notion entails a corresponding notion of the 'general' or unspecialized, as in 'General Practitioner' or GP, dated to the 1880s). But any air of neologism the more encompassing scholarly sense might have had seems to have worn off by the time J.A. Symonds could write in the Preface to his Shakespere's Predecessors in the English Drama in 1884: 'I cannot pretend to be a specialist in this department [sc. Elizabethan dramatic literature]; nor have I sought to write for specialists'. Clearly, Symonds assumed there was no danger that anyone would think he was disclaiming the intention of writing exclusively for an audience of doctors. In any event, the now-familiar dichotomy between the 'specialists' who devoted themselves to particular branches of knowledge and the 'non-specialist' public beyond, together with the anxiety this contrast was always prone to evoke, was already well established before the noun 'intellectuals' became current, which did not happen till the first couple of decades of the twentieth century.

The self-conscious cultivation, from the late-nineteenth century onwards, of the identity of 'the man of letters' was itself a form of deliberate resistance to the perceived operation of specialization. As the ice-floes of history, philosophy, literary criticism and so on broke off from the once-mighty continent of 'letters', there came to be something rather wilful about the attempt to govern all these disparate territories armed with nothing more than a little belle-lettristic gracefulness. Inevitably, the main divide came to be figured as that between the men of letters and the academics, although in practice specialization and resistance-to-specialization cut across this too-easily identifiable divide. Nonetheless, as the twentieth century wore on, the history of the anxiety about the damaging consequences of specialization became largely a history of anxieties about universities, both their internal curricular organization and their external impact on the wider society.  

One helpful way to come at this aspect of the subject is by recognizing that all those figures with whom we might associate this theme focussed on its lamentable consequences. No-one attracted any kind of attention or fashioned any kind of public role out of applauding and encouraging the process of specialization, since it is a process which is scarcely thought to require a helping hand. It is only constituted as a topic for public commentary by a pre-existing concern over what is being lost, neglected, or excluded. But since such matters are, by definition, not the professional focus of any one of the specializing disciplines in question, this concern tends to be voiced by those who have already positioned themselves as speaking from a wider perspective and to a wider public. Engaging with the issue of specialization is implicitly to occupy a role which is, structurally, that of the intellectual. But many of those who have taken up this theme in twentieth-century Britain have repudiated or scorned that role, at least when so labelled, providing us with several further examples of what I term the paradoxes of denial.

The model for intellectual specialization has long been provided by the natural sciences. As one modern authority puts it: 'The primary fact of all scientific work is specialization....  By its very nature, scientific work is minutely specialized.' A degree of specialization is recognized in most walks of life, 'but no other occupation is so finely and distinctly sub-divided into "specialties" as science'. As a result, every scientific 'discipline', such as physics, chemistry, and so on, is actually divided into over a hundred 'specialties', and the research careers of the majority of scientists rarely engage with more than two or three of these. In the course of the twentieth century, this model of 'research' imposed itself more and more forcefully on, first, the social sciences, and then, more awkwardly, on the humanities. We all appreciate the good reasons why the term 'research' figures in the title of your new institute, but we should perhaps also be aware of the risk that the term can bring with it expectations and criteria of significance that may in fact be alien to the fundamental nature of that individual cultivation of understanding that is at the heart of the humanities.

Interestingly, these subdivisions within the natural sciences are in themselves scarcely ever the occasion for general hand-wringing (as opposed to comment among the relevant scientists); attention has far more often been focussed on the alleged divide between the sciences and the humanities, and then, more consequentially still, on the divide between the increasingly specialized humanities and general educated discourse. In practice, and despite many pious protestations to the contrary, it had already been accepted by the late nineteenth century that original work in the natural sciences was no longer part even of that fiction of the common educated conversation that sustained the general cultural periodicals. But this certainly did not mean that a kind of meta-discussion about the relation of the sciences to the posited general culture was excluded from that conversation. Thereafter, not only did certain individuals make names for themselves as intellectuals on the basis of their willingness to draw upon their scientific standing to address a non-specialist public on matters of general concern  -  and here a proud lineage stretches from figures such as J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, and J.D. Bernal earlier in the century to those such as Richard Dawkins or Steven Rose at its end  -  but, beyond that, one or two leading scientists or former scientists actually achieved a certain additional prominence by addressing the problem of specialization itself, including such names as C.H. Waddington, Jacob Bronowski, and Peter Medawar.  

C.P. Snow provides a somewhat complicated instance of this pattern, partly because he might more accurately be described as a 'failed' rather than a 'former' scientist, partly because he achieved far greater standing as a novelist than as a scientist or administrator of science. Nonetheless, his 1959 lecture on 'The Two Cultures' has probably received almost as much attention as all other statements on specialization across the century put together, even though that theme forms only a part of his lecture. (It is worth recalling that Snow thought this cultural divide was 'at its sharpest in England', partly on account of 'our fanatical belief in educational specialisation, which is much more deeply ingrained in us than in any other country in the world, west or east'.)  

But Snow is, for my purposes, a revealing case, because his call to modern societies to find ways of overcoming the divide signalled in his title and to make the contribution of science more effective in the world was couched in the form of an attack on the group he thought principally responsible for the most pernicious consequences of the division, namely 'the intellectuals'. Usually, though not invariably, Snow qualified this term, speaking of 'the literary intellectuals', though he added somewhat resentfully that they had taken 'to referring to themselves as "intellectuals" as though there were no others.' It was the self-described 'intellectuals', in his view, who were resistant to the claims of science and hostile to the benefits brought by industrialization. Snow, celebrated novelist as well as leading public commentator, was very firmly talking about Other People when he concluded: 'Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites'.

Although there have been recurrent calls, both before and after Snow christened it, for the division between the 'two cultures' to be overcome, in reality anxieties about specialization have not chiefly fastened themselves onto this single fault-line. For the most part, commentary has tended to dwell on the way the narrowness of focus entailed by disciplinary specialization within the 'literary culture' has cramped the capacities and interests of those subjected to it and rendered them less able or less willing to contribute to general public debate. In itself, therefore, this strain of lament actually posits the condition of participating in such debate as the norm, and the 'withdrawal' from it into a purely disciplinary concentration as the pathology.  

One of the recurrent snares of polemics against specialization is the tendency to drift, or at the very least to seem to drift, into a sententious, intellectually vapid, mixture of holism and uplift which merely asserts that everything is connected to everything else. The pressure exerted by concentrating on the evils of specialization is necessarily towards generality; by contrast, taking a stand on the basis of one specific form of enquiry or vocabulary too easily looks like a defeatist acceptance of another kind of specialization. In twentieth-century Britain, several of those whose identity as intellectuals was partly constituted by their self-conscious attempts to transcend specialism were to fall victim to this snare.  

Aldous Huxley provides a particularly striking, and hence sobering, example. He once warned that even the man of letters might be prey to a form of specialization  -  'The man of letters is tempted to live too exclusively in only a few of the universes to which, as a multiple amphibian, he has access'  -  but that was not a danger by which his writing ever seemed seriously threatened. Few figures in the twentieth century have so insistently laid claim to the title of 'polymath'. In 1936 he was proposing to produce, in collaboration with Gerald Heard, what he described as 'a kind of synthesis, starting from a metaphysical basis and building up through individual and group psychology to politics and economics'. This is, I fear, the kind of 'synthesis' that can make specialization start to look compellingly attractive. These ambitions led him to publish books with such titles as Ends and Means: An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization, a title which was simultaneously wholly uninformative about the book's contents and dispiritingly accurate about its approach. It seems appropriate that within the Peace Pledge Movement, which he joined in the 1930s, Huxley became Chairman of the wonderfully named 'Research and Thinking Committee'. (Or is it just our weariness, from a life spent in contemporary universities, that makes us regard a phrase such as 'thinking committee' as an oxymoron?)

It was an essential part of his role as a 'general intellectual' that Huxley should not be a specialist in any particular field, but it seems curious that the one thing he was always thought to speak with special authority about was the future. At times it is hard not to feel that it is the cultural role of the generalist that animated Huxley as much as the desire to occupy that role for specific purposes, but the danger, as Huxley's career indicates, is that 'the generalist' has to write too much, on subjects about which he is radically under-informed, undisciplined by the bracing effect of belonging to a critical community. Huxley was the consummate 'anti-professional', but it has to be said that some of his writings risked giving 'professionalism' a good name.

A somewhat different set of dangers have beset those who have deplored the effects of specialization from secure positions within the university  -  indeed, necessarily from an original base within one particular specialism. Such figures always risk losing caste among their scholarly peers while simultaneously seeming to others to be practising a form of disciplinary imperialism, using the language and methods of one subject to make the general case. Understandably, this course is most often embarked upon by those who have least to lose professionally speaking, perhaps because their reputation has already been established beyond challenge, perhaps because they hold some post which takes them outside and in a sense 'above' everyday scholarly activity, perhaps because they have retired. Here, one could assemble a distinguished company, running from figures such as Gilbert Murray or H.A.L. Fisher in the early part of the century, through such names as A.D. Lindsay, F.R. Leavis, and Herbert Butterfield, up to individuals such as Noel Annan or George Steiner. As I indicated earlier, each generation persuades itself that specialization has reached a particularly acute, even terminal, stage in its own time, so by way of a modest antidote to the alarmism and lack of historical perspective in the current versions of this anxiety, I want briefly to re-consider the salience of this theme at a single, much earlier point, indeed more or less the mid-point of the 20th century.

Section 3

The 1940s witnessed a surge in publications debating the nature and future of 'the university', focussing on the problem of specialization. A brief list of some of the titles which received considerable attention at the time (even if they have mostly now disappeared from view) would include Adolph L?we, The Universities in Transformation (1940), 'Bruce Truscot' [E.A. Peers], Redbrick University (1943), Walter Moberly, Crisis in the University (1949), as well as books which appeared to have a more modest scope though in practice they, too, drew up broader charges of over-specialization, such as F.R. Leavis's Education and the University (1943). A symptom of the currency of this theme in Britain at the time, as well as a stimulus to further thought about it, was the English translation in 1946 of Ortega's influential polemic, Mission of the University. In the second half of the decade the theme was aired in the press and debated in Parliament; the government announced its desire to find ways to make British universities less specialized.

These books and the debates which they provoked were clearly not just addressed to other academics: the problem was presented as one which concerned society as a whole. In other words, the issue of specialization was thought to endanger precisely that level of public discussion which was taking place around this issue itself. An oblique illustration of this point is provided by an article by Harman Grisewood, then Controller of the Third Programme. Writing in 1951, Grisewood could assume that the books published in the previous few years had established something of a consensus on the topic: 'It will probably be agreed', he wrote, 'that the dangers of specialisation are now to a large extent admitted and have been pretty well explored by recent discussions and factual evidence. The emphasis now seems to be upon the remedies, rather than upon diagnosis.' Grisewood's concern, as we might expect, was with the part to be played by the Third Programme, which had then been in existence for nearly five years, and he emphasised that its ambitions embraced the universities and went beyond them: 'If, therefore, the Third Programme has a part to play in diminishing the dangers of specialisation, this role exceeds the university sphere.' He instanced the wide range of the talks and lectures that could be heard on the Third including whole series by such celebrated lecturers as Fred Hoyle or Herbert Butterfield.  

Grisewood here touched lightly on one of the central tensions of the topic: as a way of combatting the fragmentation assumed to be consequent on academic specialization, he was citing talks by figures whose standing rested on their achievements as specialists. His blithe assumption appeared to be that such specialization was not in itself a barrier to communication provided the listening public could be kept abreast of the latest research: universities were here not being regarded as a distinct 'sector', but as part of a single national culture, perhaps as its apex. Indeed, the publication in which his article appeared, the Universities Quarterly, reflected similar assumptions: it was not the house organ of a single profession, carrying news of and to its members  -  as with our own unlovely THES  -  but, rather, a forum in which the significance for society as a whole of ideas within and about universities could be debated.

If there was one academic figure who, in the middle of the century, was more closely identified than any other with the cause of combatting specialization it was A.D. Lindsay. Lindsay provides a telling example of how the theme of specialization is mostly taken up by those already committed to trying to make their intellectual activities count with a non-specialist public. At the same time he is a rather poignant illustration of what I have been calling the paradoxes of denial, since Lindsay's preferred headmasterly idiom of 'character' and 'judgement' gave short shrift to those who might be seen as members of what he dismissively termed 'a so-called intelligentsia'.

In one sense, Lindsay had never been a specialist. He had, it is true, initially made his mark as a philosopher, and that was the subject he had been appointed to teach, first as a Tutor at Balliol, then as Professor at Glasgow. But not only had he been reared in the Idealism of T.H. Green which, for all its rebarbative Hegelian vocabulary, conceived of philosophy as the broadest form of communal self-understanding, but it is also important that he had studied in, and went on to teach for, the Oxford 'Greats' school, combining philosophy with the study of classical civilization as a whole. In addition, Lindsay had an exceptionally strong sense of social duty which translated into what, for his time and class, were regarded as pronounced left-wing views. From quite early in his career, he became a leading figure in the Workers' Educational Association, and he went on to become an active member of the Labour Party. His election as Master of Balliol in 1924, at the age of 45, gave him the perfect platform from which to promote his characteristic blend of educational and political good causes, as well as freeing him even further from conventional disciplinary pigeon-holing.

Lindsay was relatively unusual not so much in his combining of academic and public roles, but in the fact that, although he was to prove notably effective in that kind of committee-work and behind-the-scenes lobbying and networking characteristic of the so-called 'Great and Good' in British public life, he also took bolder public stands on contentious political issues, stands that led to his being seen as a dangerous radical. For example, he made himself unpopular in some quarters in Oxford and outside by his attempts to secure some form of negotiation more favourable to the side of the workers in the General Strike of 1926, while the most notable of his public protests came in the Autumn of 1938, just as he was completing a successful but trying three years as Vice-Chancellor, when he stood as an independent anti-appeasement candidate in the celebrated Oxford bye-election of that year. In the event he narrowly lost to the official Tory candidate, Quintin Hogg, the future Lord Hailsham, but it was an emblematic moment in Lindsay's career, indicative of his strong sense of public duty.

The attempt to combat the evils of specialization was the informing thread of Lindsay's more purely (though never very purely) academic career, from his earliest efforts to establish some modern equivalent for the 'Greats' course at Oxford around the time of the First World War up to his founding of the new University College of North Staffordshire (soon to become Keele University) in 1951, a few months before his death. The 'Modern Greats' school, better known as PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics), set out to overcome disciplinary divisions and to study the modern world as a whole, with a broad Idealist notion of philosophy informing its approach. But in time Lindsay came to acknowledge that, as he put it, no mere 'change in examinations is going to cure departmentalism'. 'As knowledge advances', he declared in 1936 at the end of his first year as Vice Chancellor, 'the need for specialisation increases; as the boundaries of the various branches of knowledge grow less definite, the need for some corrective to specialisation also grows.'

His earliest plans in the mid-1940s for what was to become Keele were based on this idea that more general studies were needed to counter the effects of disciplinary specialisation. It is striking that the four things Lindsay thought principally wrong with existing universities were all forms of over-specialization. They were, in his own summary:

  1. the separation of specialist studies from the general understanding in which they should be rooted;
  2. the separation of intellectual development from all-round development of the individual;
  3. the separation of the 'intelligentsia' from ordinary life; of the privileged elite from the community which they should serve;
  4. the separation of different specialist views of the world which should balance and correct each other.

Accordingly, a general 'Foundation Year', providing an introduction to the characteristic approaches of various different disciplines, was to be a distinctive feature of the new university. Lindsay himself remained a committed, if increasingly beleaguered, champion of a conception of philosophy which attempted to provide this kind of general perspective, a conception which by this date was already finding more favour among educationalists and those proposing broad schemes for teaching in the humanities than among professional philosophers. Regretfully, he had to concede that, as he put it, 'philosophy ... had become a specialty among other specialties, and he saw no place for it as a unifier of knowledge.' Thus, although it was a strong presence in the original curriculum at Keele, it did not, as once may have looked likely, form the common unifying element.

One of the first students at Keele saw Lindsay, in a topical post-war comparison, as 'fighting to form a battalion of college Chindits so that he could lead them in a completely new strategy against the Imperial Guard of specialisation'. But Lindsay himself recognized that the rot of specialization set in even earlier, in the schools. Boys who came up too narrowly crammed were, in his words, 'liable to become what I call "an intelligentsia in the worst sense of the term" or sometimes in rougher words, "Clever asses"'. (His commendation of the physically strenuous regime at Gordonstoun was couched in similar terms: 'If we adopted it we might save the universities from producing an intelligentsia.') Here, what may be seen, for all Lindsay's own Scottish origins, as a characteristically English inflection can be detected: the opposite of being too specialised is to be 'rounded', a state of character nurtured by and expressed in games and leadership as well as in studies, a state which always trumps that of being merely 'clever'. Expressing himself in this idiom, Lindsay, undeniably one of Britain's leading intellectuals at the time, could easily seem to be adding his voice to an always-powerful native strain of anti-intellectualism. The last speech Lindsay made just before he died was at a school prize-giving: as his biographer reports it, 'what he said at that prize-giving was his usual message about Keele; he talked to them about the evils of specialisation and about what was needed in the modern world. "We have got to have people who know one thing frightfully well, but they must also have some general understanding"'. No doubt both he and his audience would have been deeply affronted by the thought that this could be seen as a recipe for having more intellectuals.

And perhaps the fate of Lindsay's own reputation is emblematic of the cul-de-sac which apparently awaits all those who sally forth to slay the dragon of specialization. The relative obscurity of his name among philosophers half a century after his death, even among political philosophers, owes something to the fact that his brand of Anglicized Hegelianism has never again enjoyed real standing among professional philosophers, something to his having published almost no technical philosophy in the second half of his career, and something, too, to the tone of windy Christian uplift that suffuses his larger pronouncements. But specialization has a way of taking its revenge on those who would flout or repudiate its logic. This aspect of their careers is disregarded by subsequent generations of specialists and they come to be written out of an intellectual history conceived in terms of disciplinary contributions  -  left, perhaps, to be recovered by historians of intellectuals?

Section 4

The call for intellectuals to act as a counter or antidote to the damage caused by specialization had, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, more often emanated from those outside universities who represented themselves as having inherited the mantle of the older man-of-letters tradition. However, in the closing decades of the century this theme was increasingly taken up by certain categories of academic, among whom two main responses were discernible. The first was from those who not only aimed to write for a non-academic (or, in publishing terms, 'trade') readership themselves, but who also exhorted their colleagues to do so and berated those, always the vast majority, who did not, on the grounds that they were failing to discharge their responsibilities to 'the public'. The second was from those who imputed to their scholarly work, even in its densest and least accessible form, a 'political' character. This sometimes involved signalling an ambition to contribute, albeit by an extremely indirect route, to some larger social movement, but it more often took the form of claiming a 'radical' or 'dissident' purpose for any work, no matter how abstract or recondite, that could be said to be disturbing conventional assumptions about reality and its representation.  

Both these responses have tended to be confined to scholars working in a relatively small number of subjects  -  above all, History or Literature in their various guises; less commonly, Philosophy or Politics; and, just occasionally, some of the other social sciences. This obviously reflects the fact that the protocols of various disciplines stand at different distances from the relevant forms of non-specialist discourse. No research scientists would expect the publications in which their most recent findings were announced to be read by any but a highly specialized readership. The same scientists may, in some cases, also publish works of popular science that reach a wide non-professional readership, but this involves practising two clearly distinct forms of writing. Something similar is true of most scholars in the social sciences and humanities, but as one moves further away from the scientific model of 'research', the possibility that the same piece of writing may both be the foundation of professional recognition and be read by a wide non-specialist readership starts to raise its siren head. We are often told, especially perhaps by that handful of historians who have enjoyed considerable media success, that we are 'abdicating our responsibilities' unles we write for this general public. This seems to me a mistaken prescription. Whatever our field, we have to try to match up to its most demanding criteria in terms of rigour, conceptual sophistication, familiarity with other scholarship and so on, criteria which trade publishers fear (perhaps wrongly) will deter casual browsers in Borders or Waterstones. But the reality surely is that we are all of us used, to a greater or lesser extent, to practising a kind of multi-lingualism as far reaching different audiences is concernd. After all, we all read as non-specialists a good deal of the time, and it surely helps to keep our experience as such readers in mind when addressing publics that may be partly made up of people who, though they may be described as 'non-specialists' in relation to a particular topic, are highly educated and sophisticated readers who may well be specialists in something else. We cannot, by a mere act of will, dispose of the complexities attendant upon specialization and assume that we start from some neutral space from which we can address a similarly uninflected, but actually entirely imaginary, 'general reader'.  The coexistence of the recognition of the benefits of specialization and an awareness of its dangers is, I suggest, a desirable coexistence, one of those many tensions which do not just require us to maintain the two poles in some kind of balance, but which also require us not to regard tension as wholly negative.

If the first response I identified  -  the call to write for a wider public  - seems often to be hankering after appearances before the TV cameras and on broadsheet opinion pages, the second  -  the claiming of a 'political' character for even the least accessible work  -  tends to manifest itself in the very deepest recesses of academia at its most Masonic, in position papers at conferences and in prefaces to monographs, though the impulse at work in the two cases may not, ultimately, be that dissimilar. In the last generation or more it has become increasingly common for academics in certain fields in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences to represent their intellectual work as being intrinsically 'oppositional'. When this impulse is combined, as it often is, with that style of reading that has been called the 'hermeneutics of suspicion', it bestows a special cachet on the activity of 'unmasking', that is, of revealing the hidden oppressiveness of narratives and categories which less enlightened or less critical sections of society are alleged to accept or take for granted. Such work may not actually aspire to be read by any but the few hundred other specialists in the given sub-field, but it nonetheless represents itself as performing a political function by uncovering what are sometimes termed 'the discursive foundations of oppression'.  

From one point of view, this can be seen as an attempt to provide a form of justification for work that can be directly of interest to none but a handful of colleagues, and hence a legitimation in the eyes of a wider public for a career that can at times seem uncomfortably privileged and functionless. But in that case it is an interesting question to whom this attempted legitimation is really addressed, since no real efforts are made to communicate it to a non-professional audience, most of whom would presumably be distinctly unimpressed by this as a justification anyway. It would certainly not be a great recommendation in the eyes of those who do largely control the power and wealth of the world. Of course, any scholarly work can draw attention to the social function it aspires to perform, and on occasion it needs to. In the past, for work in the humanities, this may most often have taken the form of claims about preserving and transmitting a cultural heritage, or extending and enriching people's experience, or upholding standards of accuracy and objectivity, and so on. These are still relevant justifications for the most part, but they could be mounted more persuasively, or at least with an easier conscience, when society was less insistently egalitarian in its cultural responses and judgements. The prevalence of the currently fashionable form of political self-legitimation for even the most arcane scholarly work in the humanities surely owes something to the sense that this is the most 'democratic', even 'radical', purpose one can serve. In effect, it accepts the constraints of specialization, but still seeks to move beyond them in the way the term 'intellectual' has traditionally signalled, not perhaps by speaking directly to a non-specialist public but certainly by speaking for one, especially that 'public' which confers a kind of automatic validity on the efforts of its champions, 'the oppressed'.

Reliance on the identity of being 'oppositional' can, it has to be said, represent a real impoverishment of intellectual and scholarly life. For one thing, to set out to be oppositional is to prefer a flattering self-description over a responsible assessment of the effects of one's activities. Not everything can be opposed nor should be, and to claim to take a stance against wherever 'power' resides in any society, institution, or relationship is simply to become irresponsible about outcomes. It is also logically self-defeating, for insofar as one's efforts are devoted to persuasion (as they must partly be), one cannot really want to be successful. As soon as one's views did carry the day either by persuading those who have power or by contributing to a transfer or redefinition of that power, one would then, to remain consistently oppositional, have to oppose precisely those who now agreed with one's earlier position. The attempt to attribute an irreproachably democratic character to a career spent in the most specialized forms of research can produce paradoxes of its own.

Such thoughts, and the disapproval they are bound to attract in some quarters, are surely indications of the complex reservations and ambivalences we feel about the very role of the intellectual itself, and it is with these that I want to conclude. That role involves perpetually tacking between the Scylla of timidity, hermeticism, and over-specialism, and the Charybdis of exhibitionism, philistinism, and over-exposure. We want our intellectuals to engage with the world, not to live in monkish withdrawal, but we also want them not to be tarnished by the vulgarity of the world. We want them to have achieved indisputable intellectual standing, but we also want them not to be narrow specialists. We want them to speak out, but we also want them not to be all mouth. As I have argued on other occasions, I take these tensions and ambivalences to be indications that there is an object of desire at issue here, a barely-acknowledged longing that disciplined intellectual enquiry or aesthetic creativity might yield us some guidance about how to live. Perhaps it's no wonder we are so resistant to allowing that individuals who are more or less our contemporaries could ever be getting this right.

Of course, by no means all, or in some times and places even the majority, of those termed 'intellectuals' have been academics, nor should they be, but it seems highly likely that an increasing proportion of the coming century's intellectuals will have some kind of academic connection, and even those who do not will have to acknowledge and take account of the authority that academic scholarship in general will continue to possess. The very nature of disinterested scholarly enquiry provides a huge fund of resources to be called upon in criticising all that is superficial, fashionable, and merely interest-driven in the agenda of the day. In this respect, academics do still have a deep well of resources to draw from, but such resources can only be made effective in the wider society if enough individuals are willing to try to tread the fine line that I have been discussing between self-effacing specialism and self-promoting vulgarity. Academic intellectuals will have to continue to foster the rigour, the respect for evidence, the disinterestedness, and the wider perspective which are among the animating ideals of academic scholarship while at the same time managing to break out from its self-referring hermeticism to bring these qualities to bear in wider public debate. Doing this successfully would not mean trying to ape the street-cred of some strains of Cultural Studies, nor would it mean descending to the Sunday-paper opinionatedness of the occasional don with strong metropolitan literary connections. But the very processes which may appear to make it more difficult for reasoned argument, informed judgement, and a broad perspective to get a hearing in the public domain simultaneously generate a corresponding hunger for those qualities. In a headline-swamped, opinion-heavy culture, the hard currency of well-grounded analysis becomes more valuable, not less. In attempting to meet these needs, academics, like other kinds of intellectual, can rely less and less upon the deference formerly accorded to irrelevant or merely contingent social attributes and connections. They have to prove their title to be heard by showing that they have something to say which is worth listening to.

This will no doubt strike some as the most wilful kind of optimism and others as a dispiritingly unambitious job-description. It is true that, on the one hand, I have no wish to encourage that picture of the intellectual as condemned to do nothing more than putting messages in bottles and throwing them overboard, a picture that denies effective agency in the present and consoles itself with the prospect of vindication by a very select posterity. That picture surely bespeaks not just cultural despair but self-dramatisation as well. But nor, on the other hand, do I think that much good can come from promoting that heavily romanticised conception of the intellectual as the acknowledged legislator of the world, marching at the head of mass movements, political or other programme in hand. Self-dramatisation of another kind beckons here, and actually, for all their symbolic appeal, the barricades have never been a very good platform from which to try to conduct rational argument. Instead, I am suggesting that the sign under which the contemporary intellectual's rather more realistic dealings with the tension between specialization and anxieties-about-specialization should be carried on may be that provided by Beckett's wry formula: try again, fail again, fail better.

Please note: not to be cited or quoted without written permission of the author.