The Ruricolist is now available in print.


In the twentieth century, better a professional and wrong than an amateur and right. A lie in the high tower commanded the respect and attention of the world. It shaped the textbooks and the encyclopedias, it directed the cameras and the microphones. A truth in the street had to recruit and organize, had to keep the heat on and blow the lid off.

In the twenty-first century, better an amateur and wrong than a professional and right. A lie in the street finds friends everywhere. It supplies interests and activities, it bonds a community: the less self-supporting, the more room for supporters. A truth in the high tower must patiently plait its proofs until they hang long and thick enough to support the perilous climb down.

The distinction between the amateur and the professional is not necessary or ancient. It is a conclusion of the philosophy of pragmatism, one of pragmatism’s dynamic alternatives to the statics of classical philosophy. Everything used to be much more like cooking, where the difference between professionals and amateurs – the difference between livelihood and pastime – is one of better ingredients, better equipment, and wider experience – a difference not of kind but of degree.

The distinction does not divide one scale of practice into the amateur and the professional; it removes professional practice from amateur judgment. Success in all practice had been judged against something prior to practice. There were judges then because there were standards. But the professional, having some arduous qualification, defines the profession as what professionals do. Professionalism is not a standard; professionalism is an alternative to standards. Now there are standards because there are judges. Who are you to tell someone instructed and trained, tested and proven – to tell a doctor, a lawyer, an artist, a scientist – who are you tell them what to be? They are not told; they show. If you must have a system, describe them; but do not expect them to notice. Apes do not care about primatology; scientists do not care about philosophy of science.

We do not recognize this division as pragmatism because it has left pragmatism behind and become, instead of a conclusion, a postulate – no, more than a postulate, it has become its own form of logic. The necessities of professionalism define reality. Professions do not serve purposes; purposes serve professions. Not that professionalism is priestcraft. The professional is not the priest of the god; the professional is the very god, and unanswerable. It is difficult to read Job today except as God the Professional shutting down His critics.

Professionalism won; but professionalism is not self-sustaining. Like nature around technology, amateurism grows up in all the cracks of professionalism, and encloses all of its structures. One of the wonders of the early web was to see, in all its private seriousness, the wider ecosystem of amateurism inside which professionalism lives. Until then professionals, like migrating birds, came from somewhere, somehow, and went somewhere, for something. Now we saw the grave mimicry of the professional manner by which postulants committed themselves; we saw the ingenious criticisms by which they kept themselves involved; we saw how the necropolis of obsolete methods, dead-end theories, and abandoned movements was refurbished and inhabited.

But nature around technology is not just what remains of nature before technology; it is something different. Prey becomes pest; wild becomes weed. Amateurism around professionalism is something different than amateurism before professionalism. Separation from money made it resourceful; separation from recognition made it incorrigible; separation from responsibility made it reckless. These changes cannot be reversed. To let go of professionalism would no more restore Renaissance men, gentleman scientists, scholar-adventurers, or philosopher-legislators to mankind, than to remove mankind would restore to nature the mammoth, the aurochs, or the thylacine. There are lines of descent in human varieties as much as in natural species. With these too, extinction is forever. Sometimes backbreeds and hybridization revive the traits; but without a niche to inhabit the result is only a curiosity. In an ecology, if a niche is extant, something will fill it, and if the niche is gone, some other ecology has displaced it. Effectual amateurism has been re-opened; but what we get from it may as little resemble what we had before, as the kangaroo resembles the deer.

Professionalism is an evident pathology. Its privileges are too tempting for us. All professionalism decays toward the asymptote of the DSM. But for now, there is no alternative. Professionalism and amateurism have coexisted too long; they require one another for correction. One cannot be right unless the other is wrong; for now, to be right at all, we need them both.