Saturday, December 12, 2009

Burckhardt, In Praise of Dilettantism

In these days of ever-increasing academic specialization, when there is no such thing as a general "expert" even in the seemingly narrow field of Environmental Law - Clean Air Act experts disclaim knowing much about the Clean Water Act, and vice versa - it is especially difficult for scholars to embrace truly interdisciplinary research for fear of exposing themselves as amateurs or, worse, dilettantes. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a "dilettante" as "a person having a superficial interest in an art or branch of knowledge." No serious scholar would want to be described as such.

Fortunately, for those of us who aspire to real, non-superficial interdisciplinary research, the great Swiss cultural historian, Jacob Burckhardt, provided a splendid, if not complete, defense more than 100 years ago:

     Dilettantism owes its bad reputation to the arts, where, of course, one is either nothing or a master who devotes his entire life to them, because the arts demand perfection.
     In learning, by contrast, one can attain mastery only of a limited field, namely as a specialist, and this mastery one should attain. But if one does not wish to forfeit the ability to form a general overview - indeed, to have respect for such an overview - then one should be a dilettante in as many fields as possible - at any rate, privately - in order to enhance one's own knowledge and the enrichment of diverse historical viewpoints. Otherwise one remains an ignoramus in all that lies beyond one's specialty, and under the circumstances, on the whole, a barbarous fellow.
Jacob Burckhart, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen (1905).

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