Monday, August 13, 2007

On the Winnowing of Greats

Before about 1950 or so, it seems, academic giants straddled whole fields. They were few and far between. Now, it seems, there are no Greats though a number of Very Goods. Consider 1850-1950: In philosophy: Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Russell, Wittgenstein (and others). In psychology: Freud, Piaget, James (and others). So also in other academic fields. Where are the Einsteins and Darwins of the last 60 years? Have we run dry? (Let's not pretend Hawking and Crick are Einstein and Darwin, please!)

A few obvious factors:

* Fields are much more specialized. Given the number of researchers and articles, it's going to be very difficult to have an expert command of as broad an area as all of psychology or all of physics. Part of being Great might be having command of a wide area.

* Also because there are many more people in each field, one would expect the very best thinkers to have other nearly as good thinkers nearby. Greatness might be in part a comparative measure.

* With improved communication and travel, it's easier to keep atop of the best and latest thinking from relatively remote places. This creates a more competitive, egalitarian atmosphere. It also may make it more difficult for the odd genius to incubate away from mainstream opinion.

But there's also, I think, the following effect, little remarked upon (and somewhat in tension with my Hawking/Watson remark above), which I'll call the winnowing of greats with distance: The farther away your perspective on any body of people varying in eminence, the more isolated and comparatively great will the most eminent among them seem.

Consider the matter abstractly, first. Let's say that a field has 100 eminent practioners, with levels of eminence varying from 1 to 100 -- with most clustered near the bottom of this distribution and tailing off toward the top. For specificity, suppose the 10 most eminent are A (with an eminence of 91), B (80), C (75), D (64), E (58), F (57), G (50), H (46), I (45), and J (40). Suppose you're in the field, and you know of all 100 people. A is the most eminent, but B isn't far off, and all of A-J are among the very eminent -- in the 90th percentile among the 100 most eminent practioners, after all! To the extent greatness involves being head-and-shoulders above everyone else, A, though the most eminent, is only one of a group.

Someone who knows much less of the field might only have heard of A-J. Everyone else, from their perspective, will be a non-entity. Someone who knows still less may know only A-E, or A-C, or A. In textbooks and summaries, where only one or a few people can be mentioned, A will be mentioned almost every single time, and B and C will sometimes be mentioned; D rarely so. Suddenly A, or A-C, are no longer the best among peers but peerless.

Consider early introspective psychology: All academics know James. All psychologists have heard of Wundt. Many psychologists know about Titchener. But only specialists like me know Kuelpe and Mueller and Stumpf and Calkins and Sanford. Though I don't deny that James was the best of the lot and indeed a rare genius, from my perspective he is not a peerlessly great, solitary figure. Similarly, we all know Chaplin, but when I started learning more about silent comedy, I learned about Keaton and Lloyd, and Chaplin no longer seemed quite as peerless.

As we back away from late 20th-century philosophy and our lists get shorter, will Rawls and Kripke (and a few others) look more and more like they stand alone?

One other effect as one backs away from a field: One's judgment becomes homogenized with that of others. An early film enthusiast may not actually think Chaplin is the best. I might think Kuelpe has the edge over Titchener. The implicit uniformitarianism of ignorant distance can produce a unanimous chorus that artificially gives the impression of greatness (though over time this may become the irresistable, self-fulfilling "judgment of history").


Anonymous said...

How about Chomsky? Surely he counts as a great?

If straddling a field means cutting across the sub-disciplines then I'm not sure, because of my ignorance, that Marx would count as straddling philosophy. Of course he straddled disciplines - philosophy, economics, sociology etc.

If straddling is sufficient or nearly sufficient for greatness, then surely David Lewis counts. Of course that Rawls is a candidate suggests straddling is not necessary.

Genius said...

Er - I have read a bit of Chomsky’s stuff and.. I didn't find it very great. Personally in some areas (pretty central ones) I thought he was obviously wrong (rather like some of his political analysis - and possibly perpetuated for the same sort of reasons) still I guess a whole field of people support his views so maybe I should defer to them.

Then again I don’t really believe in "giants" at all. I don’t think any man stands above the fray quite like that, more like a normal distribution in actual talent.

HOWEVER the people at the top get much more/better publications and credit because firstly how society works (which I will address after this) and because rationally they are taken to be those who you are more able to bet that they will have a good idea given how well you know them (i.e. self fulfilling stretching of the top end). Similar effect to what you described, Eric.

What also might be happening then is that the market for ideas could be becoming more competitive, therefore someone like Darwin can no longer take a position in a field and totally dominate thought by dint of his control over the field (i.e. leverage his leverage to get more leverage). If markets were inefficient and there were few blind reviews going on and many articles published based on names etc then the giants might be giants of social networking as well as ‘large people’ of their field.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

What about the effects of merchandising, "hypism" or overrating of marketing and other sociological factors outside of the very standard of talent and greatness.

I consider for example Darwin. The idea of evolution by means of some of mechanism that selects the most adaptbale traits in organisms, was first proposed by Wallace (and even before by Empedocles, Ghoethe...) but Darwin because of his most linkages and ties with the scientific establishment(and also becuase of his great mind!) finally was the co-opted for the annals of history.

In many ways the "star" scholar at the forefront of any field is just to make the field recognizable by the layman, i think that the rest, in the mean percentile, are the real supporters of the course of science and knowledge.

Neverthless, i wonder, like you, where are the new Darwins, and Newtons, i start to worrying and missing them!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks! I like your suggestion of Chomsky, Lee. Certainly, he was historically important to linguistics -- on a par, perhaps, with Piaget's influence in developmental psychology.

You raise a good point, Genius, about the changing politics of academia making it more egalitarian and less amenable to the domination of a few "giants". That seems likely to be one factor.

Although I don't know enough about the Darwin/Wallace thing to have an informed opinion, I do agree with you, Anibal, that to some extent the "star" serves a sociological function of being a name people can attach to a field. Fields need stars for public consumption and will invent them if genuine Darwins and Einsteins and Newtons don't exist. I'm inclined to think that this is what's up with Watson & Crick and with Hawking. I take this idea to fit quite naturally with my explanation of the winnowing of greats with distance: Whoever is mentioned most in summaries of the field starts to be the public representative of the field and to look head-and-shoulders above the rest.