T and Ω: a critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization
I have written elsewhere on the deep need that our overspecialized western societies —–which find themselves in a serious ecological crisis, in confusion regarding the question of the divine and in the presence of multiple deep political tensions—– have for T-type kind of people. I myself am part of those few who try to consider themselves “T-minded” individuals. My resume is a “T-kind” of resume. Although this post intended to show both some of the obstacles for the actual generation of T-minded people, as well as some of the essential and more deeply clarified characteristics of such individuals and their complex narratives, the length itself of these reflections has limited me in this post to a more basic goal. This post will merely reflect and puzzle as to why the letter T might be both the best and the worst candidate to graphically represent what I have called “T-minded people” are all about. Subsequent posts will hopefully deal with the very important issues regarding the obstacles themselves which T-people face given their decision both to be seriously critical of overspecialization and its blind, powerful and utilitarian defenders, and also to fight the generalized and very real obstacles which make the creation of reflective-oriented T-people in our hyper-specialized societies almost, and tragically so, impossible. Our reflective path here will lead us from the letter T to the Greek letter omega (Ω). Both letters, as you will see, may provide the graphical basis for a serious critical stance on our dangerous desire for overspecialization.
Classical liberal education stands as a counterweight to such overspecialization. This can even be seen in the way we educate our bodies. Physical education has become an option for those who want to “specialize” in it. In contrast, the classical practice of a liberal education had a central physical component in the area of “physical education”; it was a very important part of a more holistic understanding of what it means to be fully human. Now, in several highly-specialized countries, this “education” appears as an optional goal given our radical tendency to over-specialize our children. This is a tendency for which we are paying the price in terms of our children’s very own physical and mental health. What is the over-specialized society’s solution? Well, seek a health specialist! And moving from specialization to specialization we move farther and farther from another type of understanding of things, a healthier and a happier (in the Aristotelian sense) mode of being. In contrast, a liberally educated society sees that a “physical education program is designed to cultivate physical fitness, basic athletic skills, and an appreciation of the value of recreational physical activity”. Link
What holistic “physical education” allows is an education in moderation as well as in the beauty of the whole. It also prepares the mind for play and the value of leisurely activity. Over-specialization is founded upon a certain immoderation and the partialized beauty of dissection. One could even go so far as to say that overspecialization rarely knows of leisure, for it must constantly seek further specialization in order to gain the upper hand. Its endless desires know of little rest. Many modern athletes, with their dramatic stories of excess pressure and unwise decisions, are a prime example of such differences. Professional cycling, as in the Tour de France,is only one of many such examples. Our athletes are, regrettably,no longer liberally educated.
In a similar vein, it is Aristotle ——a T-type philosopher—- who expresses beautifully this kind of awareness in the culminating reflections as they appear in the Politics. These reflections can be seen as the most developed words on what are the very foundations of a truly liberal education. For instance, there he writes concerning the best possible education regarding drawing as it relates to generating the conditions for a free and virtuous citizenry:
“Similarly they should be educated in drawing not so that they may not make errors in their private purchases and avoid being deceived in the buying and selling of wares, but rather because it makes them experts at studying the beauty connected with bodies. To seek everywhere the element of utility is least of all fitting for those who are magnanimous and free.” (Aristotle Politics VIII *3, 11138a40-1338b3)
For if there is to be specialization, as there must be, it must be of a very different kind. Drawing and learning to see the beauty of our bodily condition go hand-in-hand for Aristotle. Seeing beauty and becoming a nobler and freer type of citizen also go hand-in-hand. In contrast,for us overspecialization goes hand-in-hand with increased utility; the more you specialize the more “you’ll get out of it”. Just think of the way our athletes are recruited nowadays. Or just ask your family doctor. We have thus lost view of a different form of magnanimity and public freedom which stands as a powerful and necessary corrective. And to such type of Aristotelian drawing we shall try to return when looking at the way we draw in our minds the letter T, letter which stands against such dangerous and self-destructive tendencies towards overspecialization.
Or put another way. Shaw is said to have said: “More and more, we know more of less; until there will come a time when we will know much of nothing, and nothing of the whole.” Our informational age gathers and reproduces very specialized know-how endlessly; just think of the hundreds of blogs posted daily on the web. And one hears, first condition for your blog to be successful and be read by many, specialize it! Or think of the important yet endless publications on the most minute issues which are disconnected from all other types of understanding. Our age specializes in specialization. We are knowers indeed; and yet,paused reflection on the serious limitations surrounding this kind of specialized and self-reproductive knowing is mostly lacking. So much so, that of our age it is perhaps true to say that because it sees only the trees it fails to see the forest. In fact, to see the trees without seeing the forest is certainly what has endangered our dwelling in this our planet currently in critical ecological indeterminacy. In contrast, T-minded people seek to see the forest and traverse the changing paths of the forest to have a clearer grasp, if ever incomplete, of the whole. T-people are forest dwellers, rather than merely tree analyzers. Murdered nun Dorothy Stang, who sought to protect Brazil’s rainforest,was one such forest dweller. And if they in fact decide to “analyze” trees, which T-people can, then they do so with a different grounding, a grounding in the poetic. I have looked at one such form of analysis here: Link
But let us return to our privileged letter, the letter T. Why use this letter as a mode of self-understanding? Please look carefully at the letter itself:
Nothing special, right? We know it and know how to use it.
But I must stop. I am truly sorry for so many delays. We haven’t even started, and yet we already encounter our first puzzle. Why? Precisely because I believe only “T”-minded kind of people will actually seek to stop,see and reflect on the letter itself beyond its utility. I might be very wrong, but I think few ofus have actually looked at the letters we use in our daily lives as the pragmatic specialists that we are. We simply use such letters to write, to speak, to designate, to express. Such letters are not ends-in-themselves, they are simply means to other human things and goals. But, what if what is deeply required of us in our “never-ending progressivist age”, were reflection on the basics themselves? We have become so accustomed to using these letters that we have forgotten that once they did not play a central role in our self-understanding as humans. What I mean is, in part, something like this.
Anne Carson’s beautiful Eros the Bittersweet, a short and poetic study of the Greek alphabet in connection to the erotic poems of Sappho and the dialogues in which Socrates’ life is portrayed,recalls how an illiterate man reported seeing some strange figures which for the literate were obviously letters. But he himself could not recognize ——let alone understand—– them as they were foreign to his self-understanding. Here is what the illiterate man, that same one who abounds in our developing countries,reports:
“I am not skilled at letters but I will explain the shapes
and clear symbols to you.
There is a circle marked out as it were with a compass
And it has a clear sign in the middle.
The second one is first of all two strokes
And then another one keeping them apart in the
The third is curly like a lock of hair
And the fourth is one line going straight up
And three crosswise ones attached to it
The fifth is not easy to describe:
There are two strokes which run together from
To one support.
And the last one is like the third.“ (Carson, pp. 57-58)
And Carson goes on to “solve” the riddle which for us literate ones is no riddle at all: “The man has spelled out the six letters of the name Theseus: ΘΗΣΕΥΣ (note: letters in Greek)”.And that is not all, this is a fragment of a tragedy which Euripides himself entitled with the very same letters, the tragedy whose name is Theseus. (Have you ever thought about the letters of YOUR name? Do you remember how difficult it was to actually learn to write it down? How much satisfaction accompanied this act! Have you ever seen your name written down in another language and felt the overwhelming surprise?) Describing them so, we recall that each letter goes beyond its function, each has a form and a unique beauty. A letter hides a mystery, one such letter is “curly like a beautiful lock of hair”. Letters can be ends-in-themselves, even in their simplicity. (I have argued something similar for prepositions here , and for basic lines here )
And we come to realize as well, that uniqueness is not universally shared. So much so that we marvel at the form underpinning the drawing of this Arabic letter: ى .. Do you see its curvy beauty? Do you see its elongated bird-like being? Or else, I once tried to learn Hebrew (the things one does for love!), and I recall I had to see, among many others, this Hebrew letter: ש. I am indeed prejudiced as I have come to love lines given my decision to become a T-oriented person myself; but can you see the perceptual possibilities here? Can you see the musicality, the natural growth, the candle-like presence, the ascending spirituality? Can we for one moment be surprised as the illiterate man was? Can we still learn to draw as Aristotle bids, namely, in wonderment? Or are we immune to such surprises given that we cannot get hold of our own global ignorance given our radical knowledge in what are only individual, localized, self-enclosed and disconnected realms?
Or let me put it thus. In my dear Colombia, people who study philosophy receive a title whose full designation is “Bachelor in Philosophy and Letters”. I recall, as part of a program for social and educational services, that a fellow student went to a remote area of the country. There he said he was studying “Philosophy and letters”. The campesinos (i.e. farmers) and there children were profoundly interested in the second part of his designation, namely, on the letters themselves. They realized that greater possibilities in their lives, economically and socially, were somehow connected to these, for them,quite mysterious and magical beings. These letters somehow endowed their users with special powers, and perhaps even the possibility of a certain type of domination.
Or think of what was behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation of his Elvish alphabets. He even once wrote this Christmas greeting to schoolboy Hugh Brogan in 1948, using different styles of Tolkien’s made-up Elvish alphabets: Link
How useless was it for Tolkien to spend so many hours inventing such an exotic and strange language, wasn’t it? Surely nothing became of him! On the contrary, how precious was his liberated imagination;precious indeed, but not precisely in the sense of Gollum’s “precious”! T-people, then,learn to reorient their lives in a kind of perceptual and conceptual imagination that reaches towards the obvious and points towards unknown and hidden possibilities that arise from the unquestioned and taken for granted.
Having said this, having prepared ourselves a bit more, let us now return to our very own letter, the one we “T-people” can recognize and feel more comfortable with. Here it goes:
Don’t you see it differently now? Do you see its towering height, its extended wings, its elegant simplicity? If you do, then you might just be more prepared for what follows, for you will already have had a sense of the way T-people actually look at themselves, our overspecialized others and the inherent beauty of the world. For one thing, I shall repeat, it seems T-people are more prepared to actually see and puzzle precisely on the basics, at what appears obvious and not worth reflecting upon for it might appear at first glance as “useless”. But what does the letter T reveal for our argument here? How can we use this letter to see the necessity we have of educating more “T”-minded kind of people? It certainly stands against the way our modern technologically-oriented world perceives itself. Such a world sees itself, draws an image of itself, more like that of an ever-expanding upward arrow that sees no limit to its progressive and confident surge. ( ↑ vs. T )
The letter T functions differently. The central column shows people who are indeed highly specialized in one area of life; for instance, in my case Political Philosophy. But at the same time, as the letter “T” shows graphically, many of us believe that in order to gain a better perspective on ourselves and on the world,it is of great importance to go beyond one’s very important specialization into other quite diverse but related, if sometimes accidentally, areas of life. Why engage in such activity? Because this will, perhaps under certain conditions, broaden one’s outlook and will generate a more holistic/deeper/truer/wiser approach to our self-understandings. This,in turn,may bring us closer both to a certain practical wisdom required in cases of complexity and crisis —for surely these situation will test the depth of anyone—-and to a theoretical openness which guarantees, not only, a desire to wonder at our own ignorance, but also at the same time the type of confident self-assuredness required to defend one’s positions.
Two previous posts of mine spoke of the “T” phenomenon. The first by reflecting onmy own multifaceted art and connecting it to a. the admirable nature of those among us who are true polyglots, b. the recognition and economic tension between specialists (who are much more esteemed and receive higher payments) and generalists (who are looked down upon by their own colleagues) in medicine, and finally, c. the ancient athletic ideal of the pentathlon/decathlon link.
In a second post, found in my “About” page here at wordpress, I developed further the ideas behind T-people in connection to the notion of a liberal education in the classical sense of the term. link This is what is also known in academic circles, though unfortunately much less practiced nowadays, as a liberal education. According to this stance, only in a classical liberal kind of education is there a truly liberating spirit. Liberal education liberates. The origin of such stance towards education and life can be found in the Greeks; specially in the work of Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle, all of whom were deeply struck by the life, the words and the actions of Socrates.Just remember Aristotle’s words on drawing.
But does this all mean we can return to an age of under-specialization? Not in the least. We are moderns and therefore the idea of the Rousseauian “noble savage”, if ever Rousseau intended it as real, is no longer feasible. Nor is the idea of the Renaissance sage a viable possibility given the level of technological sophistication we have achieved. Why is this so? Primarily because overspecialization has gained the upper hand to such an extent that to do away with it is quite illusory, a romantic ideal that may move us deeply,but which does not allow us to confront the issue itself. Economically, somewhat against Aristotle’s ideal,it makes absolute sense to specialize for many who have been “thrown “into abject poverty. Such specialization has in fact been part of the path towards ameliorating the condition of many humans throughout the world. And those countries who have not had these benefits, seek them urgently at whatever ecological and political cost (one can think of China and the planet, and of China and Tibet respectively). This is why the letter “T” provides an excellent model for understanding the path of specialization, path which is no longer optional for us as moderns. The central column of the letter Tis truly the path of our age. However, we must ask, is the letter “T” the best exemplifier of the complete position argued for above?
Perhaps, though beautiful, it is not the best symbolic candidate. For if one looks a the letter T itself,its seems to portray that the centre column shows a radical specializing element —-which, once again, is quite important for our aspirations—but the lateral lines only show a very broad, flat and uninteresting generality. In this respect,it seems to portray the following kind of person: a brain surgeon who happens to read a bit of Homer on the side every once in a while. Not good. Or else,a PhD candidate who also likes to doodle aimlessly on paper because bored in his university seminar. Not good.This is why we need some way to express specialization, but at the same time convey that the specialist has undergone a deeper form of preparation in other areas as well; the brain surgeon who takes up courses in painting in order to see better the beauty of the body’s organs; or the PhD candidate who dedicates himself to an ever-growing concern for the role lines play in portraying the complex beauty of our lives. This is why the letter T must be reconsidered. Graphically another possibility is that of the capital Greek letter Delta (or geometrically, an isosceles, or similar-type triangle). This letter looks like this:
Imagine here that a center line would actually represent the area of specialization, but the sides would appear much more developed than the flat generalized lines presented by the letter “T”. Some areas would remain less developed, others more so. For instance, the brain surgeon could truly become a great painter and seek to develop another area much later in life, for instance; the Chinese language to investigate acupuncture more fully, or a dynamic role in political life to ensure better healthcare for her citizens, or the history of the medical enterprise to question her very being. This is why the sides of the triangle would vary in relative growth, but would go far beyond the flat dimensions of the letter “T”. In my personal case the central column would be represented by 20 years in the humanities, while the corresponding lateral areas would show, on the one hand, my 12-year serious dedication to the teaching of English and my 10-year constant dedication to translation, and on the other hand, my 20-year dedication to creation of lines in art, and my latest 6-year dedication to photography.
Here two questions arise: is the generation of Δ-people limited to academic studies/academic reflection alone? Certainly not. Suppose the brain surgeon becomes seriously ill and must develop an understanding from the perspective of her patients; if undertaken seriously, such experience would definitely count! Or for instance, suppose our brain Surgeon marries/lives with a Tibetan man and seeks to seriously understand the basis of the Tibetan way of life and Being (including, but not limited to Tibetan medicine). Such experience would count as well. Or suppose said brain surgeon decides to work with “Doctors without borders” and live in a developing country for many years. That would also count. In contrast, going on vacation for a few days to Mexico, would count very little. In other words, the generation of delta-people is not limited to an academic understanding of things, but involves as well —and very importantly so—- practical events which alone can generate a more well-rounded perspective on things. In my case, living and working and studying in Colombia for 20 years, and living and working and studying in Canada for 10 years certainly allows for an increased awareness of certain issues such as: the dilemmas of dual citizenship, the dynamics of migration, the different relations between parliamentary and presidential forms of government, and of course, the learning of their three official languages. Other such experiences could be brought to bear.
A second, and much more controversial question arises as well. Is there a privileged type of knowing which could/should take the role of the center column? I mean, can brain surgery be the central column we are seeking as the summit of human possibilities? Is brain surgery that column which alone can generate the basis for a broader and deeper way of seeing things? This question cannot be answered here, but suffice it to say that a much stronger candidate appears to be political philosophy. Why is this so? Because it is “politics” according to Aristotle, and in the Greek sense of the term, that makes all decisions regarding the ordering of human ends within a given political community. As he puts it in his Ethics,that area which studies the highest good for humans is a kind of political understanding of things, a kind of political philosophy. For,
“presumably this would be the most authoritative and directive science. Clearly the description fits the science of politics; for it is political science that prescribes what subjects are to be taught in states, and which of the different sections of the community are to learn, and up to what point.” (NE1094a26-30)
An example of this is precisely the role physical education now plays in the manner of educating our young. For surely that physical education is not part of our curriculum is decided in the political arena itself. It prescribes whether it should be taught and to who and to what extent. We have decided that it is optional to teach it, it should be taught to less individuals and if taught, it should be done so in the spirit of radical specialization and utility. Or elsewhere, our brain surgeon —or any physician/dentist— in Colombia has a 1-year obligatory social service duty before graduating; a Canadian brain surgeon has no such duty. Or simply compare the health-care systems, politically arrived at, of Canada, Colombia and the USA. And yet, in a certain contrast to Aristotle, for many religious believers this privileged form of understanding is not primarily understanding but rather can only be seen as dynamically connected to faith, to obedience to divine law and to the unquestioned love of/by a benevolent God.
However, that is not all. To see the letter delta alone is not to really understand the dynamic in which T-people are engaged. The vision generated by T-people is such that it becomes part of who they are, part of the way they see things, part of the way they move about in the world. After several years, the brain surgeon cannot but see the beautiful lines of our brain, or cannot but see the humanity of her patient. She is now both Tibetan and Canadian. She is both and she is neither. In this sense, this combined specialization and generalization develops a certain motion of its own. This new and enticing movement is very different both from that of the person who cannot specialize (for economic reasons,for instance) or from the person who ONLY specializes (in search of recognition or of better economic utility.) To understand this dynamic one would have to picture the following. The letter T, which has now become the letter delta (Δ), begins to rotate on its specialized axis. It spins, primarily because of the very desire to understand which moves T-people to go beyond limited spheres. It would be something like the following:
So when faced with a multiplicity of events in life, the T-person will slowly integrate the different elements of such a ‘triangular” vision so that in each case a broader and richer perspective of things is actually brought to the fore. As we said, not only in academic life, but also in her life as a citizen and in the private life of the family and, very importantly , in erotics. And as the delta/triangle rotates more and more—— luckily given the possibility of more and more years of interconnection and expansion of the elements——- the Δ-person can perhaps , at leastin some instances, generate what can be seen as a much more “well-rounded” perspective on herself, others and the world. This rotation could be graphically expressed, following Aristotle’s words on drawing,thus:
Slowly, what started out as static, has become a rotating living way of being. And to be such a “well-rounded” person is precisely the contrasting type of Being which stands against our privileged over-specialized and self-enclosed individuals. It is in this sense that we speak of T-people, or Δ-people as having a more complete education, of having a more global understanding of issues, of providing a more clairvoyant stance on things, of having a greater depth of analysis, of actualizing more tools in their decisions, of having more paths to access a given topic; in short, of being wiser than us. As a result,a more circular understanding of things could be actually achieved.
Now, the graphic models for such a “circular” mode of being could be these two letters, the capital omicron (our ‘O’ as well) or the capital Greek letter omega. They are graphically represented thus:
Ο or Ω
Which one would be a better candidate to give alphabetic expression to our reflections? The first one, with its complete circularity, shows an absolute roundness. However, the idea of such complete knowledge is much more akin to the divine essence than to the possibilities available for us finite and mortal humans. As was common among the ancients, the superlunary world of perfection was governed by absolute circular motion. In this respect, it is clear that for Aristotle perfect circular motion was a kind of motion with a different kind of reflective grounding: “if the body which moves with a circular motion cannot admit of increase or diminution, it is reasonable to admit that it is also unalterable.” (OH,270a, 33-35) Ours is a different kind of motion, we humans are and will remain forever alterable. It is precisely because of this that we have been able toalter our graphical self-understanding from the letter T to the letter Δ, and now to theletter omega (Ω)! We shall represent this enriched transformation below.
This is then the reason why we turn now to the possibilities arising from our encounter with another letter, one of those letters which do not surprise us anymore. The letter omega, represented beautifully as Ω . It literally means the “Great (mega)-O”! It is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and is much closer to the possibilities of a human perception of things. That it comes last is helpful as well for it would be odd to achieve a more holistic perspective on things early on in our lives. Dramatically, it is in a similar sense that in the New Testament God is declared to be the “alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”. (Revelation, 22:13, 1:8) And graphically it works as well. This is primarily so because it portrays a gained roundness, but with a certain permanent incompleteness to it. This is why it portrays, in contrast to the perfect circle,a permanent assured openness at the same time. Moreover, its lower extensions firmly ground its presence, thus clearly differentiating it from the upward arrow of radical progress in overspecialization. Such arrow seems not to be anchored anywhere. Such arrow seems to have no place. Little wonder such arrow-like view of things can do away with our very own planet, our unique place! In fact, our privileged letter “Ω”, instead truly has the form of a bridge which provides the interconnection between disconnected and disconnecting spaces.
To summarize let us recover the motions of our post. Our walking together trying to find our way through these unchartered paths, searching for the possibility of seeing the forest(s) and not simply the individual and specialized trees,can be summarized graphically thus:
↑ to T to ∆ to ▲ ►▼◄ to toΩ
Or,if more mathematically inclined:
But you might think my formulation is too fantastic, too progressive. Sure, if one is closed to a certain kind of Socratic irony. Well,I assure you it is not the only one! One way to contrast such a formulation would be to bring it up against another way of considering the letter omega. Here is the formula for the calculation of an ohm, which is the unit of electrical resistance:
Ω = V/A = m2 . kg/ s3 .A2
Why would mine, which is simpler, be less valid? It would appear so, because in part, what drives our specializations is our ingrained approval of the scientific way of seeing things. In fact, this second formula can represent the very nature of our mathematical overspecialization in a world in which we do in fact very much understand electricity, and yet little understand how it is that in such understanding we have done away with many trees in order to generate the continuous and extreme electrical currents which power our everyday lives! Perhaps by contrasting both methods of presentation, that of the overspecialized equation and that of the liberally-educated one, we could begin to see the potential paths that might suddenly open to us. Such paths would appear if we made the decision of reaching out beyond our over-specialization into realms which will allow us, for the first time, to feel the ignorance required to generate an erotic quest for a more global and rounded approach to ourselves, to the events of our lives, and to the complex realities of our world.
I hope you yourself can know see a bit better the way a T-minded person or an Ω-minded person might come to orient his/her reflections. These reflections sure might look odd at first, but once you begin to examine your own hyper-specialized (or non-specialized) view on things, and begin to seek broader and deeper connections, you will be “rewarded” by a manner of seeing which allows for an enriched perception, a regained pleasure in understanding, a healthier direction of action and a more serious approach to the crisis in which we see ourselves thrown. In short, such a way of being might allow for a deeper kind of happiness and well-being. The happiness (eudaimonia) of the omega.