Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia: Hugo of Saint-Victor (1097–1141) and the problem of hyperspecialisation in the contemporary concept of science

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Abstract

This article surveys three key concepts in the philosophical output of Hugo of Saint-Victor (1097–1141), namely sapientia, trivium and quadrivium. The three concepts are interpreted within the realm of both Hugo’s and early scholastic philosophical orientations, with the intention to indicate their relevant implications in a 21st-century framework of education. The problem of hyperspecialisation in contemporary science is critically interpreted within this historical framework, with reference to hyperspecialisation as tempo-intensified specialisation, as the logical consequence of inductive specialisation and as focused on the prioritisation of the mechanical.

After a short biographical introduction, opening with Hugo’s leading statement in Didascalicon , Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia – “Of all things that should be sought after, wisdom is the first” – his conviction that “knowledge progresses swiftly, but wisdom slowly” is explored as a form of self-critical and self-interrupting wisdom teaching. This tentative understanding of “wisdom” is situated within the context of the early-scholastic (late 11th to early 13th century) distinction between theology and philosophy, as one of the first manifestations of the division, subdivision and specialisation of knowledge in the central Middle Ages. A thorough exposition of this distinction between theology and philosophy in the early 12th century is afforded, indicating how and when the unity discourse of philosophia as inherited from antiquity (Pythagoras and Seneca) and the early Middle Ages (Augustine and Boethius, with reference to the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium) was transformed at the time in order to clearly differentiate between theology and philosophy (without rigidly dividing them, which would happen only much later in the Middle Ages). It becomes clear from this exposition that Hugo’s self-interrupting and inclusive understanding of the concept sapientia came under pressure in his own time due to the dividing, specialising element in the formal distinction between theology and philosophy.

Hugo’s unique indexing of the seven liberal arts, in four categories, is henceforth analysed: (1) The theoretical arts, consisting of theology, physics and mathematics; (2) the practical arts, consisting of the “private and public disciplines” (for example, jurisprudence and education); (3) the mechanical arts, consisting of domains of material fabrication, construction and production (for instance weapon production and commerce [the Medieval prelude to the study of economics], interestingly including medicine as well); and (4) the logical arts, consisting only of grammar and rhetoric. Hugo’s attempt to recategorise the old trivium and quadrivium is described as the direct consequence of the pressure exerted by the young and upcoming universities of the early 12th century to position every faculty, subject and discipline within the broader scheme of divisions and subdivisions in Aristotelian natural philosophy: his unique four-part index was the first attempt from early scholasticism to deal with the phenomenon of progressive specialisation from those divisions. 

The increasing and seemingly endless subdivision of knowledge Hugo attempted to deal with, is nevertheless not the first characteristic of what in contemporary science is manifested as hyperspecialisation; the problem manifests itself first and foremost in the progressive tempo of these specialising divisions, which put it in direct opposition to Hugo’s central argument for “slow wisdom”. Where the faculty, subject and discipline were rather slowly divided in Hugo’s own time, these sped up exponentially through the later Middle Ages, through the phases of modernity and in contemporary science. Referring to this problem as “hyperspecialisation as tempo-intensified specialisation” the article points out several problems arising from too early and too rapid specialisation, with too many specialists and too few masters of the subject, and too much technique and too little competency. The demarcation of “hyperspecialisation as tempo-intensified specialisation” leads to a second problem because of hyperspecialisation in contemporary science, namely as the logical consequence of inductive specialisation. Specialist research domains are generally inaccessible outside of specialist abilities and interests and are seemingly content to deliver outputs for the sake of the specialist domains themselves, with the consequence that researchers within a particular domain communicate only with one another, and do not seem interested in whether the specialised domain or niche is actually impacting the broader discipline. As necessary and productive as balanced specialisation may well be, hyperspecialisation causes much internal stress in a particular subject, with too many people knowing everything about something (however unimportant) in a particular subject or discipline, and too few people knowing something about everything that is truly important in the same subject or discipline. Again, the notion of slowly developing “wisdom” in the Hugoian sense is impoverished. The third problem stemming from hyperspecialisation has to do with the prioritisation of the mechanical disciplines in contemporary science, where only the domains of knowledge that prioritise the mechanical and support instrumental rationality (and again not “wisdom”) are considered to be crucial, while those disciplines inherently critical of instrumental rationality are progressively deprioritised and soon regarded as obsolete. From these three manifestations of hyperspecialisation in contemporary science, the article concludes with a reconsideration of the extent of the loss of the wisdom ideal in the contemporary idea of the university, speculating about the possibilities of an alternative university for the 21st century. 

Keywords: Didascalicon; contemporary problem of hyperspecialisation as the logical consequence of the strict distinction between philosophy and theology in early scholasticism; hyperspecialisation as tempo-intensified specialisation; hyperspecialisation as the logical consequence of inductive specialisation; hyperspecialisation and the prioritisation of the mechanical disciplines; Hugo’s four-part presentation of the seven liberal arts; sapientia; trivium; quadrivium

 

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Omnium expetendorum prima est sapientia: Hugo van Saint-Viktor (1097–1141) en die probleem van hiperspesialisasie in die eietydse wetenskapsbegrip

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