A bird’s-eye-view is useful to get an idea about a large territory, to survey an extensive swathe of the canvas, but it should be abandoned as soon as precision is required.. And knowledge is about precision, about the large focal lens. After all, the devil, who knows it all, is in the detail.
Most of us, however, don’t have time for the small picture. The big picture is easier, airy, the bird’s eye looks down from an elevation which has the power to convince. We associate distance with objectivity, and objectivity with science. The big picture looks scientific. But most of the time, it isn’t. As we approach the fine detail, we realise it’s not only very fine, but quite elusive. It keeps moving, shifting, it’s hard to grasp and invisible to the naked eye. Tools are needed to distinguish it from its surroundings, to get to know it for what it is.
Nearly the whole field of knowledge is subject to this caveat, but perhaps history most of all. The historical picture looks neat from a distance, and that is why widescreen-type history books are so popular today. Explaining away big change, sweeping hundreds of years of change to fit into neat boxes is what fuels readerships today. But, as any historian working on their tiny little parcel of scholarship knows, things are messy when examined up close and the puzzle pieces seldom fit together. Question marks take more space than full stops.