What is a Generalist Intellectual?

Generalist-vs-Specialist animal flower

At Zeteo we say that we seek pieces that will be of interest to curious, generalist intellectuals. As for what we mean by this, or who we mean, allow us to quote from Jack Miles’s superb 1999 essay, Three Differences between an Academic and an Intellectual. Miles, who is best known for his books GOD: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, draws a distinction between academic-specialists, who have disciplined their curiosity to operate largely within designated areas, and intellectual-generalists who deliberately do otherwise.

The generalist assumes, as the specialist too seldom does, that he is writing for readers no less intelligent than himself but trained in other areas. . . . A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility. Popularization, which certainly has its place, conveys the specialist’s confidence but also his or her isolation. Generalization conveys the generalist’s diffidence but also his or her connectedness and openness to further connections.

Miles’s essay was published in Cross Currents, which, when it published the essay, was a generalists’ journal on religion and related subjects. It has subsequently become a peer-reviewed academic journal, published by John Wiley & Sons. The essay’s subtitle is “What Happens to the Liberal Arts When They are Kicked off Campus?” Miles begins by noting students’ declining interest in humanities study. “[I]f the liberal tradition is not to die,” he proposes, “American culture may need to find another carrier for it.”

At Zeteo we like to think of ourselves, or of this online journal, as one of these carriers. We welcome you, writers and readers, generalists intellectuals of all stripes, to the adventure.



Image is from a blog, Freelancing: Generalist versus Specialist, by one Sally Wood, July 5, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.