I was reading a review of a new history of analytic philosophy, Stephen P. Schwartz's A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy, and was struck by a passage in which the reviewer, Aaron Preston, discusses the limitations of a general survey in incorporating all the most detailed recent scholarship:
[A writer’s ] commitment to giving "standard, accepted interpretations"…of the figures and ideas he discusses may not translate into his giving historically accurate interpretations.
…How significant is this type of problem? I admit to being somewhat ambivalent about it. On the one hand, it seems obvious that broad and relatively coarse-grained historical narratives should be grounded as much as possible in the relevant fine-grained historical research. On the other hand, philosophical schools, movements and traditions are not merely collections of fine-grained facts. There are facts about the relations among members, and possibly also coarse-grained, "institutional" facts, relevant to the history of a tradition that do not emerge from fine-grained analyses of isolated figures and factions. And there is no guarantee that the facts at these two levels of granularity will be entirely consistent with one another. As a rule, the more closely one inspects any tradition or school, the more the differences among its members seem to stand out.
Arguably, historians of analytic philosophy face an especially difficult problem of this sort: close inspection reveals differences of such magnitude that one might well wonder whether there was ever an adequate rationale for holding the canonical analysts together as members of a single tradition or school. This, incidentally, is why so many of the monographs that take a more holistic approach to the history of analytic philosophy are preoccupied with definition -- because looking closely at the history of analytic philosophy inevitably raises problems about its unity as a school, movement, or tradition…
The right approach to this problem is not clear. However, it seems clear enough that trying to reduce the history of the school to facts about is members and component factions is a wrong approach. It seems likewise clear that the production of holistic, coarse-grained histories of analytic philosophy is an endeavor both legitimate and needed. However, since one point of such a history is to explain how canonical analysts fit together into a group (a school or movement or tradition), and it is probably not possible to do this without minimizing some of the fine-grained differences -- or at least noting how those differences were minimized as part of the institution's history -- we need to be somewhat forgiving when a coarse-grained work minimizes or even ignores some of the fine-grained facts.
Consequently, I am less offended by problems like the above than others might be. I do not see them as reasons to reject the book, but rather to use it cautiously. (my bolding)
I think this concept of different levels of granularity is incredibly useful. I am presumed to teach my Tec courses in various disciplines at a fairly coarse-grained level; I actually do everything I can to pull them to a medium level; but even as I gather more knowledge at finer levels of granularity, I can't use all of that in class, because it would muddy the delivery, and detract from the clear bright lines you need in a survey course. And if that is a problem in high school, it remains one in the undergraduate world. PhD-holding professors naturally operate at the finest possible level of granularity in their disciplines, and although some of them have a genius for also being able to teach a relatively coarse-grained survey course to freshmen, MANY do not.
The concept of granularity illuminates many matters, I think, including intellectual self-assessment. For example, I can reach finer-grained knowledge in some areas much more readily than others. I haven't got the level of advanced math to reach a truly fine-grained level in economics, although I'm adequate to teach a course-grained high school survey course (and actually may be better-positioned to do so than someone who is more specialized). In philosophy, with hard work I can penetrate fairly deeply, except in logic, for which I would need special training. My deepest levels of penetration are in history and literature, unsurprisingly since those were my areas of degree study. My science and mathematics knowledge is obviously fairly coarse.
Overall, though, and saying this without any false modesty, I think that across the board, I'm about as good a humanities generalist as a school would be likely to find. My competitors would outstrip me in some areas (math, multiple spoken foreign languages), but probably not in others. PhDs, in my opinion, almost always become too specialized to function well as generalists, because they get used to operating in the most fine-grained (and narrow) contexts. A generalist can't live there.
I think that the problem that Preston identifies for analytic philosophy - "close inspection reveals differences of such magnitude that one might well wonder whether there was ever an adequate rationale for considering the [individuals] together as members of a single tradition or school' - pertains to ALL fields of study, at ALL times. Frequently, a clever PhD researcher will announce on just this basis that some school or tradition or trend never actually existed, that it is all an illusion and misinterpretation. But of course, that is because he is working at an incredibly fine level of granularity. If one pulls back to see the bigger picture again, the schools and traditions and trends and other forms of intellectual generalization look very necessary. Certainly, you can't teach a coarse-grained survey course without them.
Here is a link to Aaron Preston's full review:
And here is the link to the main page for the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, which are generally very readable and stimulating: