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What is a Generalist?

A generalist is a person whose knowledge is dispersed over a wide range of subjects. The generalist is usually contrasted with the specialist, whose knowledge is particularly deep in a specific field. But, in reality, these terms are not mutually exclusive. A man who specializes in one field may generalize in many, many others. And that is exactly what he ought to do. Because he has knowledge of a great many diverse subjects, a generalist has the ability to integrate that knowledge into a consistent world view. He can trust his ability to judge and therefore has confidence and integrity.

That being said, specialists are important people. They are the embodiment of an ever widening division of labor that raises the standard of living for everyone. But while specialization is a good thing, it is, like all good things, subject to the law of returns, which states that, for every good thing there is an optimum.

A very extreme example of the specialist is the “idiot savant.” These are people who, because of brain damage or birth defect, are unable to generalize. They can only specialize. Hence, they get very good at one particular thing. So good that they become objects of awe. They are seen as having special talents beyond what a normal person could do. In truth, it’s what they lack that allows them to accomplish so much in their singular specialty. The idiot savant can do nothing that a normal person couldn’t do if only he had the time. Getting good at something requires time and dedication. But time, our most precious commodity, is limited for all of us. Taking time to acquire specialized knowledge in one area means giving up the time to acquire specialized knowledge in another. This is why the division of labor is so essential for human civilization. The idiot savant can’t use all of his brain, so he has plenty of time to devote to what he can use it for. So, he might be able to draw a detailed scene from memory after seeing it only once, or play a complicated piece on the piano after hearing it only once, but, he can’t dress or feed himself or engage in normal human relationships. He is too specialized.

A less extreme example of a specialist who is too specialized is the scientist, or engineer, or businessman, who thinks he does not need to have knowledge of philosophy, or politics, or of history, or of how an economy runs. Worse, he might imagine that he knows enough because he “feels” it. He “knows it when he sees it.” He’s wrong. He doesn’t know it. And he desperately needs to. His life and his work depend on the smooth functioning of the marketplace of other specialties. And they depend on him and his specialty.

We must all be generalists, whatever our special fields might be. Ultimately, I am hoping that this site will grow and spark an interest in people to become generalists. Yes, you can understand philosophy, politics, economics, psychology etc. and you can and must judge for yourself.

For more on this subject: Leonard Read said it before me, and I think he said it better. Read his article here at the Foundation for Economic Education.

2 Comments · Post your own.

  1. kevin

    greetings, i just stumbled upon your site and after grazing around a bit I am compelled to compose a brief note commending you for your thoughtful, intelligent and eclectic site. Thank you for making the effort to share your knowledge and opinions. Very thought provoking. Please keep up the good work.

    rock on

    kevin

  2. Candy Emrys Agbottah

    Thank for this site may God bless u

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