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GENERALIST / SPECIALIST: A generalist is someone who has studied a little bit of everything, and in the end knows nothing well in particular. By contrast, a specialist is someone who has studied a single subject, and as a consequence does not even know his own subject, because every item of knowledge is related to other components of the whole system. The good scholar or scientist--like the good chef, manager, clinician, or orchestra conductor--is an expert in one field or craft, and knowledgeable in many. Like a mouse, he can explore the details of a terrain; and, like an owl, he can also soar to get a good view of the landscape--mice and all. He is capable of learning new subjects as needed, as well as placing every particular subject in a wide context and a long-term perspective. He is thus open to multiple inputs and capable of multiple outputs. In sum, the best expert is the specialist turned generalist. This holds in all fields of thought and action, particularly in philosophy." -- Mario Bunge, Philosophical Dictionary
Bunge's definitions of the generalist, the specialist, and the "best expert" are thought-provoking (and may provoke other responses as well). Are systems practitioners, analysts, and theorists generalists, specialists, or the best experts? Because systems science concerns itself with general theories (e.g. graph theory, information theory, control theory, game theory, etc.) that can be applied to a wide range of problems, it appears to be a generalist field; but systems science has its own contributors, jargon, and history and is not widely studied (at least in the U.S.), and so appears to be a specialist field as well. And yet many of the early contributors to the systems project such as von Bertalanffy, Boulding, Wiener, and Ashby did indeed fit Bunge's definition of the best expert, as all were specialists turned generalists. Since systems science is mostly taught at the graduate level, perhaps Bunge's position is an implicit assumption in the systems field.
You may not agree with all of Bunge's assertions (or the conjecture above), but it is clear the views of the mice and the owls are needed for most (if not all) problems. Is the systems view that of the owls or that of mice in owl clothing? The answer may be fuzzy and a good starting point for our discussion. Perhaps a more interesting question is this: How we can use systems thinking to improve our problem solving abilities? A quick look at the jobs graduates of the PSU Systems Science Graduate Program have gone on to (https://www.pdx.edu/sysc/resources-jobs) makes it clear that systems principles are applicable in all kinds of fields. It is also clear that systems science can be useful for framing and solving global problems related to economics, energy, climate, and politics. So whether generalist or specialist--or whether one can meet the criteria Bunge requires of a "best" expert--what roles can a systems thinker fill?
Here are a few questions to get the discussion going:
- Are you interested in being a general problem solver, or do you have a specific (i.e. specialized) problem you'd like to solve using systems thinking?
- Can you describe an instance when your knowledge of systems science gave you an insight you would not otherwise have had?
- What roles can systems theorists, analysts, and practitioners play in national and global debates?
- Do (or will) the public, politicians, and other experts accept systems thinkers as experts?
- Can (or do) systems practitioners and theorists act as liasons between specialists or between specialists and the public?
- Can you think of a field or a problem that is not being considered from a systems perspective but should be?
- (Extra credit) Can you think any field in which systems science would not be useful?
This discussion can also be an opportunity for new students to ask questions about the systems field and discuss what they hope to gain with systems science knowledge, and for other students, graduates, and faculty to share their insights and experiences about the systems field and what they have gained from their systems science knowledge.
Joshua Hughes is a second year, core-option PhD student and graduate assistant in the PSU Systems Science Graduate Program. He is beginning research with George Lendaris on contextual learning and experience-based identification and control; he is also collaborating with Martin Zwick on a few papers that show how systems theories might provide insights into some contemporary problems. He is interested in information theory, cybernetics, reconstructability analysis, neural networks, fuzzy logic, catastrophe theory, game theory, and many other things.
System theory, Specialists, Problem solving -- Applications of system theory to, Mario Bunge (1919- ) -- Criticism and interpretation
Theory, Knowledge and Science
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Hughes, Joshua, "Generalists, Specialists, and the Best Experts: Where do Systems Thinkers Fit In?" (2009). Systems Science Friday Noon Seminar Series. 42.