Ideas Have Consequences Book Club: Ch. 3 – Obsession & Fragmentation

It occurred to me last week that those keeping up with the conversation might be helped if we make sure and comment after adding a post to the linky. I get an email when someone adds a post, but others do not and have to remember to come check periodically. If those who want to be notified of book club posts leave a comment and leave the box checked to be emailed when new comments are made, and then people who add their posts leave a comment saying they did so, then everyone who is interested will be able to keep up much more easily.


I very much appreciated his opening to this chapter, where he clarified that he does not intend a “turning back of the clock” but a “return to the center.” That is a good distinction. We don’t need to return to old
times; we need to return to truth.

Culture’s Authority Figure

Weaver sketches a historical progression away from the center by who the respected, authoritative men were, and at the end of the chapter returns and sketches a possible return, not in time or culture or technology, but in respected positions of authority.

  1. The philosophic (philosophy or theology) doctor: “He stood at the center of things because he had mastered principles”; he clearly percieved reality and the relations of things. Thus, he could speak to areas not in his “expertise.” Secularization of society extinguished the authority of the theologians.
  2. The gentleman: “He was bred up to a code of self-restraint which taught resistance to pragmatic temptation.” He might not be a philosopher, but he at least had ideals. This model suited a secular society better. The Civil War extinguished the gentleman.
  3. The expert: Someone consumed with particulars of a specialized feature, but missing an integrated understanding of the world.

Eventually the question of who within the group, national or international, can be trusted with such means [as atomic bombs] will have to be faced. The conclusion, so vexatious to democracy, that wisdom and not popularity qualifies for rule may be forced upon us by the peril in atomic energy. Wisdom does not lie on the periphery [in specialization].

/2. The gentleman: Perhaps circumstances will cause us to fear the specialist and admire the “aplomb of the gentleman.”
/1. The philosophic doctor: Then, perhaps, we will inquire what makes a gentleman and return in time to the philsophic doctor for “a yet profounder integration of character.”

Modern Obsession

Weaver claims that modern man is obsessed with details and specifics and facts in order to avoid responsibility and consideration of spiritual reality.

Hence proceeds a fanatical interest in the properties of matter which is psychopathic because it invovles escape, substitution, and the undercurrent of anxiety which comes of knowing that the real issue has not been met.

The very possibility that there may exist timeless turths is a reproach to the life of laxness and indifference which modern egotism encourages.

This obsession results in instability. Self-control cannot exist in a fixation upon small parts. Workers confined to small tasks “show a special tendency toward emotional instability,” manifesting itself in fickle admirations, excitability, hypersyggestibility, proneness to panic, and inner tension.

They are kept so compartimentalized that the typical worker cannot “grasp the ethical implications of his task, even if he were disposed to try.”

He then contrasts this to a man who has not lost his center or his grasp of the big picture of the world and reality:

The man who understands has a reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself.

He is able to make decisions for himself. His sanity, independence of opinion, ability to make sound judgments for himself, comes to him because he has had an “access to general responsibility.” As we remove the necessity of responsibility, we drive people toward obsession and fragmentation.

A burden of responsibility is, after all, the best means of getting anyone to think straight.

My Commentary: Specialization is for Insects

This chapter reminded me of a quote by Robert Heinlein that my husband likes:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Weaver takes his stand with the ancients against specialization, saying,

It is an acient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of the ruler.

However, in developing this contempt for specialization, Weaver never grants that not all are rulers. Are we really to shake our heads at the great musicians or scientists? Is there not something special in the particular as well as the general? God made details, and He made them intricately enough that “studying the brain structure of the leech” alone does afford enough material to absorb a lifetime.

However, I think the problem Weaver was suggesting was who we go to for advice. Do we go to the generalist or to the expert? The generalist, with an ability to integrate knowledge, will be more likely to pocess wisdom than the expert in a specialized field.

So, here’s a thought: Do we have our spectacular explosion of technology today precisely because classical education was rejected in favor of “adding to [our] dominion over nature”? Is an implication of Weaver’s propositions that the scientific, medical, and technological advances of this century and the last could not have happened under the classical, the more philosophical, approach?

Like peace, regeneration carries a price which those who think of it idly will balk at.

Your Posts

5 Responses

  1. Dana

    Five years later I’m not sure if this post ties directly to chapter 3, but thought it was worth sharing.

  2. Pilgrim

    I haven’t read the chapter yet – I have started. Dana, even if it doesn’t completely relate, I really appreciated your thoughts. So, since common sense is the least common of all senses I would love your thoughts on two areas you mention. The first is work. I know I fall into your description and I am trying hard to undo it – any thoughts?? Secondly, the area of fragmentation – what types of things did you do to help pull your family together? My kids are very young but I already feel the pull to give them what they need instead of being a family unit.

    Your thoughts about specialization and technology are intriguing. I think part of what is decried is that specialization begins so early (I just think of kids who have to choose their “sport” at age 7!). There is no room to lay a general foundation that then allows for more thoughtful specialization. Professors were always amazed at some of the connections their students were making – not because they were so “brilliant” but because they were taking classes outside of a specialty. Professors were so deep into their own little niche that they knew nothing about the world next door.

    I think that general classical education can and should be pursued – the good, beautiful and true – by everyone. There is room and time to pursue the details later. I think there is wisdom in waiting to get into the details of science until after a child has experienced the wonder. However, if we cannot agree on what is good, beautiful and true then we can’t educate for that and all that is left are “facts” and details.

    I also have some questions about what science “should” pursue but I don’t have time to really think about them now.

  3. Emily

    I’m not reading the book but these ideas made me think of my husband’s experiences in secular academia. There are so many professors with great expertise in very limited fields (experts) who think that because of their position they have the wisdom and knowledge to offer solutions to the latest social or political problems! It is certainly my hope that our boys would have a more well-rounded education, and also have the wisdom to know the limitations of what they know.

    • Mystie Winckler

      Me, too, Emily. There is an extent to which specialization isn’t all bad (do we really want to say there’s something wrong with amazing musicians or artists — or scientists whose specialization have given us amazing medical breakthroughs?), but I do think a specialization is best built on a foundation of the liberal arts. There should be enough time to build that base before specializations and vocational training does need to kick in.

  4. Pilgrim

    After reading the chapter I do see one upside to technology. It opens the door to working from home or “cottage industries” in a way that isn’t possible without the Internet. It provides opportunity for people to find their niche (which is specialization) but at the same time take responsibility for themselves and share their skills in a novel way. I think of Etsy shops and similar forums. I am not sure exactly how this fits into his discussion but I thought I’d throw it out there as a positive of new technology. I guess I am hoping that it is helping to bring families together and more flexibly parent their kids. However, this could also lead to further separation if you just use your computer to work and communicate with the world. Anyway, just a thought.