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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

Superficial Knowledge

Title:     Superficial Knowledge
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

It is asserted that this is the age of Superficial Knowledge; and amongst the proofs of this assertion we find Encyclopaedias and other popular abstracts of knowledge particularly insisted on. But in this notion and its alleged proofs there is equal error--wherever there is much diffusion of knowledge, there must be a good deal of superficiality: prodigious _extension_ implies a due proportion of weak _intension_; a sea-like expansion of knowledge will cover large shallows as well as large depths. But in that quarter in which it is superficially cultivated the intellect of this age is properly opposed in any just comparison to an intellect without any culture at all:--leaving the deep soils out of the comparison, the shallow ones of the present day would in any preceding one have been barren wastes. Of this our modern encyclopedias are the best proof. For whom are they designed, and by whom used?--By those who in a former age would have gone to the fountain heads? No, but by those who in any age preceding the present would have drunk at no waters at all. Encyclopedias are the growth of the last hundred years; not because those who were formerly students of higher learning have descended, but because those who were below encyclopaedias have ascended. The greatness of the ascent is marked by the style in which the more recent encyclopaedias are executed: at first they were mere abstracts of existing books--well or ill executed: at present they contain many _original_ articles of great merit. As in the periodical literature of the age, so in the encyclopaedias it has become a matter of ambition with the publishers to retain the most eminent writers in each several department. And hence it is that our encyclopaedias now display one characteristic of this age--the very opposite of superficiality (and which on other grounds we are well assured of)--viz. its tendency in science, no less than in other applications of industry, to extreme subdivision. In all the employments which are dependent in any degree upon the political economy of nations, this tendency is too obvious to have been overlooked. Accordingly it has long been noticed for congratulation in manufactures and the useful arts-- and for censure in the learned professions. We have now, it is alleged, no great and comprehensive lawyers like Coke: and the study of medicine is subdividing itself into a distinct ministry (as it were) not merely upon the several organs of the body (oculists, aurists, dentists, cheiropodists, &c.;) but almost upon the several diseases of the same organ: one man is distinguished for the treatment of liver complaints of one class--a second for those of another class; one man for asthma-- another for phthisis; and so on. As to the law, the evil (if it be one) lies in the complex state of society which of necessity makes the laws complex: law itself is become unwieldy and beyond the grasp of one man's term of life and possible range of experience: and will never again come within them. With respect to medicine, the case is no evil but a great benefit--so long as the subdividing principle does not descend too low to allow of a perpetual re-ascent into the generalizing principle (the [Greek: _to_] commune) which secures the unity of the science. In ancient times all the evil of such a subdivision was no doubt realized in Egypt: for there a distinct body of professors took charge of each organ of the body, not (as we may be assured) from any progress of the science outgrowing the time and attention of the general professor, but simply from an ignorance of the organic structure of the human body and the reciprocal action of the whole upon each part and the parts upon the whole; an ignorance of the same kind which has led sailors seriously (and not merely, as may sometimes have happened, by way of joke) to reserve one ulcerated leg to their own management, whilst the other was given up to the management of the surgeon. With respect to law and medicine then, the difference between ourselves and our ancestors is not subjective but objective; not, _i.e._ in our faculties who study them, but in the things themselves which are the objects of study: not we (the students) are grown less, but they (the studies) are grown bigger;--and that our ancestors did not subdivide as much as we do--was something of their luck, but no part of their merit. Simply as subdividers therefore to the extent which now prevails, we are less superficial than any former age. In all parts of science the same principle of subdivision holds: here therefore, no less than in those parts of knowledge which are the subjects of distinct civil professions, we are of necessity more profound than our ancestors; but, for the same reason, less comprehensive than they. Is it better to be a profound student, or a comprehensive one? In some degree this must depend upon the direction of the studies: but generally, I think, it is better for the interests of knowledge that the scholar should aim at profundity, and better for the interests of the individual that he should aim at comprehensiveness. A due balance and equilibrium of the mind is but preserved by a large and multiform knowledge: but knowledge itself is but served by an exclusive (or at least paramount) dedication of one mind to one science. The first proposition is perhaps unconditionally true: but the second with some limitations. There are such people as Leibnitzes on this earth; and their office seems not that of planets--to revolve within the limits of one system, but that of comets (according to the theory of some speculators)--to connect different systems together. No doubt there is much truth in this: a few Leibnitzes in every age would be of much use: but neither are many men fitted by nature for the part of Leibnitz; nor would the aspect of knowledge be better, if they were. We should then have a state of Grecian life amongst us in which every man individually would attain in a moderate degree all the purposes of the sane understanding,--but in which all the purposes of the sane understanding would be but moderately attained. What I mean is this:--let all the objects of the understanding in civil life or in science be represented by the letters of the alphabet; in Grecian life each man would separately go through all the letters in a tolerable way; whereas at present each letter is served by a distinct body of men. Consequently the Grecian individual is superior to the modern; but the Grecian whole is inferior: for the whole is made up of the individuals; and the Grecian individual repeats himself. Whereas in modern life the whole derives its superiority from the very circumstances which constitute the inferiority of the parts; for modern life is _cast_ dramatically: and the difference is as between an army consisting of soldiers who should each individually be competent to go through the duties of a dragoon--of a hussar--of a sharp-shooter--of an artillery-man--of a pioneer, &c.; and an army on its present composition, where the very inferiority of the soldier as an individual--his inferiority in compass and versatility of power and knowledge--is the very ground from which the army derives its superiority as a whole, viz. because it is the condition of the possibility of a total surrender of the individual to one exclusive pursuit. In science therefore, and (to speak more generally) in the whole evolution of the human faculties, no less than in Political Economy, the progress of society brings with it a necessity of sacrificing the ideal of what is excellent for the individual, to the ideal of what is excellent for the whole. We need therefore not trouble ourselves (except as a speculative question) with the comparison of the two states; because, as a practical question, it is precluded by the overruling tendencies of the age--which no man could counteract except in his own single case, _i.e._ by refusing to adapt himself as a part to the whole, and thus foregoing the advantages of either one state or the other. [1]


[1] The latter part of what is here said coincides, in a way which is rather remarkable, with a passage in an interesting work of Schiller's which I have since read, (_on the Aesthetic Education of Men_, in a series of letters: vid. letter the 6th.) 'With us in order to obtain the representative _word_ (as it were) of the total species, we must spell it out by the help of a series of individuals. So that on a survey of society as it actually exists, one might suppose that the faculties of the mind do really in actual experience show themselves in as separate a form, and in as much insulation, as psychology is forced to exhibit them in its analysis. And thus we see not only individuals, but whole classes of men, unfolding only one part of the germs which are laid in them by the hand of nature. In saying this I am fully aware of the advantages which the human species of modern ages has, when considered as a unity, over the best of antiquity: but the comparison should begin with the individuals: and then let me ask where is the modern individual that would have the presumption to step forward against the Athenian individual--man to man, and to contend for the prize of human excellence? The polypus nature of the Grecian republics, in which every individual enjoyed a separate life, and if it were necessary could become a whole, has now given place to an artificial watch-work, where many lifeless parts combine to form a mechanic whole. The state and the church, laws and manners, are now torn asunder: labor is divided from enjoyment, the means from the end, the exertion from the reward. Chained for ever to a little individual fraction of the whole, man himself is moulded into a fraction; and, with the monotonous whirling of the wheel which he turns everlastingly in his ear, he never develops the harmony of his being; and, instead of imaging the totality of human nature, becomes a bare abstract of his business or the science which he cultivates. The dead letter takes the place of the living understanding; and a practised memory becomes a surer guide than genius and sensibility. Doubtless the power of genius, as we all know, will not fetter itself within the limits of its occupation; but talents of mediocrity are all exhausted in the monotony of the employment allotted to them; and that man must have no common head who brings with him the geniality of his powers unstripped of their freshness by the ungenial labors of life to the cultivation of the genial.' After insisting at some length on this wise, Schiller passes to the other side of the contemplation, and proceeds thus:--'It suited my immediate purpose to point out the injuries of this condition of the species, without displaying the compensations by which nature has balanced them. But I will now readily acknowledge--that, little as this practical condition may suit the interests of the individual, yet the species could in no other way have been progressive. Partial exercise of the faculties (literally "_one-sidedness_ in the exercise of the faculties") leads the individual undoubtedly into error, but the species into truth. In no other way than by concentrating the whole energy of our spirit, and by converging our whole being, so to speak, into a single faculty, can we put wings as it were to the individual faculty and carry it by this artificial flight far beyond the limits within which nature has else doomed it to walk. Just as certain as it is that all human beings could never, by clubbing their visual powers together, have arrived at the power of seeing what the telescope discovers to the astronomer; just so certain it is that the human intellect would never have arrived at an analysis of the infinite or a _Critical Analysis of the Pure Reason_ (the principal work of Kant), unless individuals had dismembered (as it were) and insulated this or that specific faculty, and had thus armed their intellectual sight by the keenest abstraction and by the submersion of the other powers of their nature. Extraordinary men are formed then by energetic and over-excited spasms as it were in the individual faculties; though it is true that the equable exercise of all the faculties in harmony with each other can alone make happy and perfect men.' After this statement, from which it should seem that in the progress of society nature has made it necessary for man to sacrifice _his own_ happiness to the attainment of _her_ ends in the development of his species, Schiller goes on to inquire whether this evil result cannot be remedied; and whether 'the totality of our nature, which art has destroyed, might not be re-established by a higher art,'--but this, as leading to a discussion beyond the limits of my own, I omit.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Superficial Knowledge