The statement that knowledge is domain specific has the ring of something blandly matter-of-fact and dull. It is, in fact, of earth-shattering importance and it explains a great deal concerning the limitations of human cognition.
For instance, professors of statistics and probability are generally unable to apply their knowledge to ordinary, everyday affairs and they come up with the wrong answers. They know how their expertise applies to certain domains; perhaps reverse mortgages, or the likelihood of chimpanzee number three getting to mate, but do not know how it applies to used car purchases, dating apps, or paint prices.
If even the professors are unable to apply what they have learned, it seems rather pointless to insist that psychology undergraduates learn the concepts and methods. However, this is simply the situation of all of us in every field. Those psychology students should potentially be able to apply stats to certain kinds of experiments, though possibly completely unable to apply the same concepts to anything outside that narrow topic.
The domain specificity of knowledge explains the need for explanations. Explanations take something a person is already familiar with and relates it to something unfamiliar. It is not possible to explain the unfamiliar by appeal to something also unfamiliar.
If it were possible for someone to extrapolate automatically from something he knows to all circumstances where the concept might usefully apply, explanations would be redundant and human beings would get a lot closer to omniscience.
Ironically, even the insight that knowledge is domain specific is domain specific and it is necessary painfully to learn, typically one domain at a time, how it applies. It is fascinating to recognize how the concept applies yet again.
Creativity is sometimes described in this way; as often taking something known and using it in a novel way, which would mean applying it in a new context.
There is a tendency to think of examples as expendable nothings that serve only to communicate a point or principle. However, showing how principles apply is often where all the real work is done.
Students sometimes consider an article or book repetitious because they focus on the principle and do not realize the work being done by showing how the principle applies to one domain after another.
The phrase “knowledge is domain specific” can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile. Antifragile is a neologism coined by Taleb because he knows of no word in any language that refers to something that gains from stress, uncertainty, variability and the random. There are things that are robust; that hold up well against stress. But then there are things like organisms and the economy that benefit from stress. Exercise, whether it be walking, running, weightlifting, yoga, is stress. So long as the stress is not too extreme, it is extremely beneficial. In fact, the less exercise someone gets, the more fragile he becomes. The immune system needs stress in order to stay healthy and strong. It is not merely a matter of resisting harm. It needs small “harms” just to keep functioning properly.
One not every good student commented about Taleb – “he keeps repeating himself” – not realizing that to simply learn the definition of “antifragile” or “optionality” is nearly worthless. It is seeing how the concepts apply and to what they apply that is the interesting part.
The notion that knowledge is domain specific is very hard to write about because its wisdom has infinite application and each example of knowledge being domain specific can go on forever – showing over and over again how each concept applies in one context after another. Each example can potentially fill endless books.
A failure to realize the domain specificity of knowledge ruins what would otherwise be a very brilliant book. The book is The Systems Bible by John Gall, the first edition having been called Systemantics. Gall compiles a list of general principles of very wide application and of significant truth. Examples include the tendency of systems to get bigger and bigger at the rate of 6% a year. The bigger and more complex a system gets the more unpredictable its results. If a job can be done without a system, do not start a system. Systems are attempted solutions to problems. Systems create their own new problems. If a new problem is encountered it will usually not be possible to apply a preexisting system to solve the new problem because that will not have been the problem the system was designed to fix. Most large complicated systems do not work. E.g., systems for assessing “learning outcomes” for students. If a system does work by some chance, leave it alone. Often people try to make a system work by pushing on it and trying to get the system to work harder. This usually just makes things worse. It is not possible to judge what someone is actually doing by his title within the system. A “shipbuilder” of giant ocean-going ships does not actually build ships. At most he arranges financing for them. Systems become their own reason for existing. Most effort is put into maintaining the system, typically at least 90%. If a system is 10% efficient it is working wondrously well. An example would be charities, or businesses. Most of the money produced by a business goes back into the business in the form of salaries and other expenses.
Thomas Sowell worked for the Labor department in 1960 as a summer job, studying the minimum wage in Puerto Rico. He found that as the minimum wage was raised, employment went down. Unions blamed lower employment rates on hurricanes that had harmed the sugar plantations. Sowell realized that to test this theory statistics were needed to show how much sugar cane was left standing after the hurricanes. His more senior colleagues were horrified because the minimum wage law was providing one third of the income of the department of labor. His question threatened the self-interest of the government department. Sowell then realized that the Labor department’s business is primarily about maintaining the Labor department, not about solving problems. In the Labor department’s defense, this is true of nearly any system – that is why there should be as few systems and government departments as possible.
The huge problem with Gall’s book is that he lists the principles but makes the enormous mistake of then saying, to paraphrase – “now that you are familiar with the principles you will now see how they apply to very wide aspects of life.” Despite all his insights, he failed spectacularly by seemingly not being aware that human beings are unable to extrapolate to widely varying domains, and certainly not all of them. Gall treated the extrapolation/application as though it were a matter of course and would take care of itself. It does not.
In the first edition of the book he solicited examples of applications from his readers. He did in fact receive some. Disappointingly, in the revised versions, these examples were ridiculously brief. Sometimes a line or two and there were still very few of them. Of course, a library could be filled with examples of malfunctioning, metastasizing systems. It would have helped, however, to show how the principle applied just to, say, government departments, or university administration. Readers could then hope to get ideas about further applications in other possible domains.
If someone were paying for ideas it might make sense to pay five dollars for the idea, but one hundred dollars for each successful application of the idea, depending upon profundity.
Sometimes an idea is applied too broadly. It becomes an idée fixe. Many years ago Ken Wilber wrote of a mindset he called “leveling.” It is egalitarianism run amok. When confronted with nearly any sort of hierarchy whatsoever, the hierarchy is rejected, including the distinction between good and evil (moral relativism,) between one culture and another (cultural relativism), grammatical English and ungrammatical, income distribution, prizes, awards, Valentine’s Day cards; on and on and on. It can get to the point where practically whatever someone says, if the utterance “leveling” were made, it would amount to the same thing. A similar phenomenon can currently be seen with labels like “sexist,” and “racist.” They become bats to hit people with, with no thinking or arguing required.
Since radical egalitarians rank “leveling” as better and higher than ranking, and view themselves as morally superior to those who explicitly believe in moral superiority and inferiority, their view involves a contradiction and is thus false.
The leveling idea is normative in character. It is a desire to obliterate distinctions and to turn everything into a goopy mess of “acceptance.” Except, many deviations from leveling will not be met with acceptance at all but violent denunciation.
By being aware of the phenomenon of “leveling,” it is possible to connect seemingly disparate phenomena and see that they are all part of one pathology.
Unfortunately, in trying to write about the domain specificity of knowledge, the proof is in the examples and the examples never end. I, like John Gall, must hand the ball off to the reader and remind him to keep the idea in mind – particularly in the context of pedagogy. Do not imagine that very much work has been done if only a principle is communicated – and paradoxically – the notion that knowledge is domain specific is just one more example!
A Musical Analogy
Recently, a friend of mine, Thomas F. Bertonneau, and I found that we shared a common musical fascination. He with the musical form passacaglia [the “g” is silent] where a “ground melody” plays while over the top another melody is layered, somewhat similar to the musical form chaconne, or ciacone, where a chord progression plays underneath variations in the treble.
Blues, rock, and some jazz solos therefore are chaconnes where a musician improvises over a repetitious chord progression played by other members of the band.
Since I was a teenager, I have been attracted to and interested in an inverted version of that where the treble stays the same and the chords or bass line changes. What seemed interesting is the way in which the meaning of the musical phrase in the treble kept altering as the rug was pulled out from under it – as the fragment was layered over context after context; an interesting combination of repetition and novelty by continuously reframing the picture. Each time the musical connections, harmonies and associations varied.
When I recently gave a musician the CD version of a “mixed tape” he commented that several of the songs had this feature. I had not even noticed. I just knew that I liked the songs.
This application of the domain specific nature of knowledge is taking place on a poetic and intuitive level.
Meaning involves connection to context. Place the same item in a different context and the meaning changes. Singing a happy song at a children’s birthday party or in a death camp mean two quite different things.
I repeatedly had the experience while working on my dissertation twenty two years ago of realizing how a familiar idea applied to multiple phenomena. There would be a sense of things clicking into place; like some kind of semi-mystical experience. It even seemed to have a visual component in my imagination. The original concept seemed like a brand new idea again. In a way it was because it now meant something quite novel.
Each time a principle is applied, if done correctly, a new meaning of the principle is revealed; a new connection to context. It is insight.
 I imagine someone has had this thought before, about the relationship between knowledge being domain specific and explanations. If so, I would like to know about it.
 Comments from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQhUXOg5wDk titled “Thomas Sowell: I started as Marxist and Dept of Labor changed my view.” How the department’s income and the minimum wage law were related is not explained.