“I was that narrowest
of specialists, the well-rounded man.” Thus speaks Nick Carraway,
the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The remark has a special significance in the novel, but it
can be considered as a free-floating epigram and then we all
know what it means. A friend of mine once described someone
as “shallow, all the way down,” not meant as a compliment,
of course. No wonder philosophy has become its own kind of
specialization with, at least in Anglo-American circles, a
narrowing that can only be called a fault. One ‘does’ logic
or epistemology or medieval philosophy or ontology and gives
a blank stare to those who work outside one’s chosen domain.
Is it mere nostalgia
to recall that once ‘philosophy was a collective noun that
covered learning in general? After all, doctorates in physics
are still called Ph. D.’s so one doesn’t have to go back to
Newton’s title for a reminder that science was once part of
philosophy. And poetry – infima doctrina – too was
part of the package, viz. Aristotle’s Poetics. Of course
philosophers like Hans Reichenbach considered the balkanization
of what had once been philosophy as progress, the turning
of the unscientific into the scientific.
were merely a collective noun, an omnium gatherum of unrelated
specialties, Nick Carraway’s lament would apply. After all,
who can really be well versed in everything? In the
more commodious sense, philosophy is teleological, aimed at
wisdom, and wisdom consists of such knowledge as we can attain
of the divine. The quest is not just to be generally knowledgeable,
to have a smattering of everything, but to undertake any study
with a sense of its relevance to the ultimate telos. Consider
the prologues to commentaries, e.g. those of Boethius or of
Aquinas, and you will be reminded of the way in which particular
topics were sapientially located before they were undertaken.