José Ortega y Gasset on the Barbarism of Specialization

In his 1930 book The Revolt of the Masses (Spanish: La rebelión de las masas) José Ortega y Gasset deals with the rise of mass-man and the question of how around the turn of the 20th century the masses have taken over the actual power from the elites.

Ortega’s thesis is that the 19th century civilization, built upon the foundations of liberal democracy and technicism, has automatically and inevitably produced the mass-man. Interestingly, he isn’t questioning the idea of the progress of civilization, having no doubt that experimental science is the greatest achievement in European history. As a point of controversy, one could debate Ortega’s unapologetic elitism. But for him, returning the select minority into the position of power seems to be the only thread of hope for the future. Instead of giving up to a nihilistic outlook, Ortega y Gasset attempts to deal with a particularly unfortunate consequence of the civilized progress – the intellectual decadence brought by the rise of the mass-man.

“To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand. This is the sport, the luxury, special to the intellectual man”, writes Ortega. The opposite is the primary trait of an individual mass-man. Ortega is concerned that the masses have taken this intellectual apathy and made it the norm –“The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.”

Ortega makes sure to emphasize that his division into masses and select minorities is based on intellectual terms, and is not equivalent to division into social classes, as in the hierarchically lower and upper. This point becomes even clearer when Ortega discusses the devastating effects of specialization.

“Civilization becomes more complex and difficult in proportion as it advances. The problems which it sets before us today are of the most intricate. The number of people whose minds are equal to these problems becomes increasingly smaller.” The first consequence of this is that people are unable to keep pace with the progress. We end up being aware merely of the current state of affairs, completely disregarding the historical path to any and all gifts of civilization. This leads to lack of appreciation for history of efforts and decisions made by previous generations while creating today’s world.

The second consequence of the growing complexity is the rise of specialization. Specialization itself gives birth to mass-men even among people that carry the progress of civilization, the specialized technicians – engineers, doctors, scientists, teachers, etc. Making it normative to stay within the bounds of their fields, Ortega’s claim is that specialization produces the primitive, modern barbarian. This barbarism lies in ignorance of mostly everything outside the narrow territory of a speciality. To be fair, we can’t avoid being ignorant about most of today’s world, owing just to its vast complexity. But what annoys Ortega is that hyper-specialization makes practitioners of a craft also ignorant of the inner philosophy and the ultimate goals of their field.

What is then the actual problem with the ignorance of the specialist, except for being out of line with Ortega’s taste for a cultured civilized man? It’s been almost 100 years since Ortega wrote The Revolt of the Masses and the world has become all but less complex. Ortega’s treatise of specialization helps understand the nature of unintended consequences of modern civilization, namely economics and technology. Yes, the world is inherently complex and it’s only becoming more so, but operating in it we have hyper-specialized practitioners. All of them, in author’s words are “radically ignorant” of the wider world in which their fields exist. So, granted that the world is incomprehensible, even when armed the best of intentions a specialist is clueless about the wider implications of his work.

Alarmingly, Ortega doesn’t hold back when saying that the fundamental tragedy of the civilization lies in the inability of the mind to keep up with its progress.

Here’s Ortega discussing this in the chapter titled The Barbarism of “Specialization”:

My thesis was that XIX Century civilization has automatically produced the mass-man. It will be well not to close the general exposition without analyzing, in a particular case, the mechanism of that production. In this way, by taking concrete form, the thesis gains in persuasive force.


This civilization of the XIX Century, I said, may be summed up in the two great dimensions: liberal democracy and technicism. Let us take for the moment only the latter. Modern technicism springs from the union between capitalism and experimental science.

[…]

By mass – as I pointed out at the start – is not to be specially understood the workers; it does not indicate a social class, but a kind of man to be found today in all social classes, who consequently represents our age, in which he is the predominant, ruling power. We are now about to find abundant evidence for this.
Who is it that exercises social power today? Who imposes the forms of his own mind on the period? Without a doubt, the man of the middle class. Which group, within that middle class, is considered the superior, the aristocracy of the present? Without a doubt, the technician: engineer, doctor, financier, teacher, and so on. Who, inside the group of technicians, represents it at its best and purest? Again, without a doubt, the man of science. If an astral personage were to visit Europe to-day and, for the purpose of forming judgment on it, inquire as to the type of man by which it would prefer to be judged, there is no doubt that Europe, pleasantly assured of a favorable judgment, would point to her men of science. Of course, our astral personage would not inquire for exceptional individuals, but would seek the generic type of “man of science,” the high-point of European humanity.

And now it turns out that the actual scientific man is the prototype of the mass-man. Not by chance, not through the individual failings of each particular man of science, but because science itself – the root of our civilization – automatically converts him into mass-man, makes of him a primitive, a modern barbarian. The fact is well known; it has made itself clear over and over again; but only when fitted into its place in the organism of this thesis does it take on its full meaning and its evident seriousness. […]

It would be of great interest, and of greater utility than at first sight appears, to draw up the history of physical and biological sciences, indicating the process of increasing specialization in the work of investigators. It would then be seen how, generation after generation, the scientist has been gradually restricted and confined into narrower fields of mental occupation. But this is not the important point that such a history would show, but rather the reverse side of the matter: how in each generation the scientist, through having to reduce the sphere of his labour, was progressively losing contact with other branches of science, with that integral interpretation of the universe which is the only thing deserving the names of science, culture, European civilization.

[…] When by 1890 a third generation assumes intellectual command in Europe we meet with a type of scientist unparalleled in history. He is one who, out of all that has to be known in order to be a man of judgment, is only acquainted with one science, and even of that one only knows the small corner in which he is an active investigator. He even proclaims it as a virtue that he takes no cognisance of what lies outside the narrow territory specially cultivated by himself, and gives the name of “dilettantism” to any curiosity for the general scheme of knowledge.

What happens is that, enclosed within the narrow limits of his visual field, he does actually succeed in discovering new facts and advancing the progress of the science which he hardly knows, and incidentally the encyclopedia of thought of which he is conscientiously ignorant. How has such a thing been possible, how is it still possible? For it is necessary to insist upon this extraordinary but undeniable fact: experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre. That is to say, modern science, the root and symbol of our actual civilization, finds a place for-the intellectually commonplace man and allows him to work therein with success. The reason of this lies in what is at the same time the great advantage and the gravest peril of the new science, and of the civilization directed and represented by it, namely, mechanization.

[…] previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

And such in fact is the behavior of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of – this is the paradox – specialists in those matters. By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his speciality. The result is that even in this case, representing a maximum of qualification in man – specialization – and therefore the thing most opposed to the mass-man, the result is that he will behave in almost all spheres of life as does the unqualified, the mass-man.

[…]

The specialization, then, that has made possible the progress of experimental science during a century, is approaching a stage where it can no longer continue its advance unless a new generation undertakes to provide it with a more powerful form of turnspit.

But if the specialist is ignorant of the inner philosophy of the science he cultivates, he is much more radically ignorant of the historical conditions requisite for its continuation; that is to say: how society and the heart of man are to be organized in order that there may continue to be investigators. The decrease in scientific vocations noted in recent years, to which I have alluded, is an anxious symptom for anyone who has a clear idea of what civilization is, an idea generally lacking to the typical “scientist”, the high-point of our present civilization. He also believes that civilization is there in just the same way as the earth’s crust and the forest primeval.

Excerpt from The Revolt of the Masses, a book by José Ortega y Gasset



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