Sunday, February 12, 2012

Imperial Kitchen

For we have now come to a stage of human culture in which we have compartments of knowledge but not knowledge itself; specialization but no integration; specialists but no philosophers of human wisdom. This over-specialization of knowledge is not very different from the over-specialization in a Chinese Imperial kitchen. Once during the collapse of a dynasty, a rich Chinese official was able to secure as his cook a maid who had escaped from the palace kitchen. Proud of her, he issued invitations for his friends to come and taste a dinner prepared by one he thought an Imperial cook. As the day was approaching, he asked the maid to prepare a royal dinner. The maid replied that she couldn't prepare a dinner.

"What did you do, then?" asked the official.

"Oh, I helped make the patties for the dinner," she replied.

"Well, then, go ahead and make some nice patties for my guests."

To his consternation the maid announced: "Oh, no, I can't make patties. I specialized in chopping up the onions for the stuffing of the patties of the Imperial dinner."

Some such condition obtains today in the field of human knowledge and academic scholarship.
Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, Reynal & Hitchcock (New York: 1938) p. 414.

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