Hedda Gabler and the specialist

In Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890), Hedda has no love for her husband because he’s a “specialist.” Her husband, George Tesman, is just starting his career as a scholar of medieval history, specializing in “the domestic industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages.” Hedda complains that his specialty is all he knows how to talk about. He’s not a generalist in the old European style, a renaissance man. His profession limits him and he will never be–and doesn’t aspire to be–a bon vivant. 

Here is an exchange between Hedda and Judge Brack:

HEDDA. Tesman is—a specialist, my dear Judge.

BRACK. Undeniable.

HEDDA. And specialists are not at all amusing to travel with. Not in the long run at any rate.

BRACK. Not even—the specialist one happens to love?

HEDDA. Faugh—don’t use that sickening word!

BRACK. [Taken aback.] What do you say, Mrs. Hedda?

HEDDA. [Half laughing, half irritated.] You should just try it! To hear of nothing but the history of civilisation, morning, noon, and night—

BRACK. Everlastingly.

HEDDA. Yes yes yes! And then all this about the domestic industry of the middle ages—! That’s the most disgusting part of it!

Hedda goes on to say that she’d like a friend with “a fund of conversation on all sorts of lively topics,” to which Brack adds, “and not the least bit of a specialist!”

Tesman is a product of functional differentiation. He is a scholar. But scholarly disciplines are forever differentiating out from other disciplines. Any successful scholar must specialize; otherwise, s/he is just and amateur.

The only way to manage the explosion of knowledge in 18th-19th centuries was through specialization. In premodern Europe, the amateur or “gentleman scholar” could be respected. A person of wide learning who studies for the pleasure it, not as a profession, would be much sought after in upper class society, which is the world Hedda Gabbler is accustomed to and wants to return to. When she can’t find it–and other characters’ desires start closing in on her–she shoots herself.

Hedda and her friends might call Tesman a pedant. In pre-modern Europe the dilettante or gentleman scholar would be preferred over the pedant, who doesn’t understand the true purpose of learning. Here is a quote from the letters of Lord Chesterfield (1748) where he draws a distinction between a gentleman scholar and a pedant:

DEAR BOY: I have received your Latin “Lecture upon War,” which though it is not exactly the same Latin that Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid spoke, is, however, as good Latin as the erudite Germans speak or write. I have always observed that the most learned people, that is, those who have read the most Latin, write the worst; and that distinguishes the Latin of a gentleman scholar from that of a pedant. A gentleman has, probably, read no other Latin than that of the Augustan age; and therefore can write no other, whereas the pedant has read much more bad Latin than good, and consequently writes so too. He looks upon the best classical books, as books for school-boys, and consequently below him; but pores over fragments of obscure authors, treasures up the obsolete words which he meets with there, and uses them upon all occasions to show his reading at the expense of his judgment.

In a broader sense, a society that specializes in one function limits itself and loses flexibility. For instance, if the economy becomes the only serious concern of a society, it risks destroying itself. Or if everything becomes about winning political battles, urgent social problems are ignored. If the mass media becomes dominant, the only thing that matters is the latest news headline.


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