The terms "profession" and "professional" began with specifically religious meanings. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, profession is "the declaration, promise, or vow made by one entering a religious order; hence, the action of entering such an order". The various extensions of the root "profess" retain similar meanings: "professional" is that which relates to such an entrance, and "professor" is the name given to those who facilitate the process and control access to the profession.
Over the past few centuries, many more possible activities have emerged that can be represented as professional. This increase in scope accompanied various thresholds of modernity. Developments in other fields such as medicine, law, the arts, science, and advertising, made it possible for the same controlled act of declaration and entrance once reserved for a religious order to be applied to other activities and discourses. In this way, the University was expanded from a place for the study of religious texts to a place for the study of many other fields. The concept has been applied retrospectively unto the ancient world, as done by drawing on texts and belief structures that contain similarities to modern day professions. A few examples of this include the Hippocratic Oath and Aristotle's Poetics, which provided structured and agreed upon methods for conducting medicine and literary arts, respectively.
Across all of these diverse activities and concepts, the use of the root "profess" entails a number of commonalities.
To represent something as professional produces and requires a degree of legitimacy. This was the case with the Catholic Church, and this continues to be the case within many modern fields, as evidenced by the exclusive ability of a lawyer to represent another person in a courtroom, or of a doctor to practice medicine on another person in a hospital. Similarly, only the expression of a professional is considered important in the public sphere: professionals are always the legitimate experts in news reports. Along these lines, the concepts of expert and professional entail the same meaning. For anything-whether it is a person or an object-to be professional is to have agency and authority.
To "profess" is to hold a focused belief in a particular way of life and expression-a belief in a particular worldview and a particular language, at the exclusion of other worldviews and other languages. Whether this way of life is the peaceful and chaste life of a Priest, or the frenzied and fast-paced life of a New York City stockbroker, both professions involve a decision to live and communicate in a particular and distinctly structured manner, at the exclusion of other forms of life or communication.
Both the legitimacy and the focused belief and lifestyle of a professional are generally arrived at during an intense and controlled period of study, generally in a University, convent, or apprenticeship setting. As evidence from the shift from the religious space to the broader possibilities of commerce, law, and medicine, the possibilities for professing evolve over time, and often it is new combinations of what it means to profess that prove to be the most successful. For example, if marketing associates who watch hours of sports on television fair better than marketing associates who read literature, one could imagine a not-so-distant future where the University experience in order to become a marketing associate is comprised largely of learning how to watch televised sports.
Profession involves a certain means of material support, whether it is via the ability to charge high rates for services, as in the case of an engineer or a graphic designer, or the guaranteed support of a large institution, as in the case of tenured professors or Priests.
Criticism of profession and professional are as old as the terms. And, just as the concept of profession can be retrospectively transposed to the ancient world, criticism of the phenomena onto which profession is transposed can be read as criticism of professionalism. In this manner, Socrates' criticism of the Sophists can be deemed an ancient criticism of the traits of professionalism. The Sophists professed to know how to live, think, speak and act, and were willing to take part in relationships whereby they would teach others how to live, think, speak and act in exchange for payment. The Socratic method could be seen as a counter-method to expose that the claims of sophists and, by likeness, professionals, do not have the degree of legitimacy and certainty that they claim to have. Immanuel Kant continued this criticism of sophistry and professionalism by representing the claims to authority of such people as resting upon a logic of illusion, which merely mimics the form of true transcendental knowledge.
This criticism of sophistry and professionalism leaves us with some enormous problems, problems that are linked to the issues of media theory. If the activities of philosophy and critique stem from a criticism of sophistry and professionalism, what are we then to make of the situation of modern philosophy professors, or media critics, who exist as professional anti-professionals? There is an unavoidable tension between the need for professionals to act with total certainty in order to maintain our material world, and the need amongst Socratics to expose the degrees of uncertainty always present in professional expressions. This represents one of the oldest conflicts of rhetoric, a conflict that reemerges time and time again in different forms and spaces.
Criticisms have been made of all the fields of professionalism that have arisen with various thresholds of modernity. While by no means exhaustive, what follows is a summary of a few of the most influential criticisms.
French philosopher Michel Foucault created and employed the technique of discourse analysis to criticize the medical and legal fields as they have evolved over the past two centuries. Foucault argues that members of the medical and legal fields use the legitimizing force of their professional status in order to represent certain segments of the population, including individuals with different conceptions of sexuality and pleasure and individuals of different social-political backgrounds, as criminal and/or diseased. In this way, Foucault argues that these doctors and lawyers worked as points of crystallization for the implantation of certain relationships of power between supposedly normal members of society and supposedly abnormal deviating members.
Another important issue involves the critique of advertising and mass media by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as part of what they describe as The Culture Industry. Under the guise of professionalism, advertisers and manufacturers produce and impose crude media and products unto an all too eager mass audience. Adorno and Horkheimer represent this ongoing phenomenon as a violent and indefensible misapplication of modern communications technology, which is made possible by the manner by which the proponents and disseminators of such media and consumer products legitimize themselves as professionals in the public sphere before those same masses whom they dominate.
A third conflict, particular to the arts, involves the utility of various mediums, such as sculpture, painting, photography, poetry, or literature, to name a few. Up until various moments in modernity, artists had a tendency to work in one of these forms, and defined themselves as a professional within their specific medium. But in modern and post-modern art a post-medium approach emerges. The rigid structures and technical knowledge bases that once defined artists disappear, leaving only the vague criterions of affect, fame, and money to identify artists. Some examples of this include the minimalist paintings of Mark Rothko, or the neo-Dadaist work of Robert Rauschenberg or John Cage. On the one hand, one could argue that this signifies an entrance to a post-medium age, as argued by Rosalind Krauss. The emphasis of today's successful artists has shifted from the understanding of a particular medium to something less predictable and more theatrical that is embodied in worldviews rather than through the ability to produce crafts. And from this point of view, artists must become more professional than ever in order to be considered artists at all. For, without the possibility of technical skills, the artist of the post-medium age can only rely on their focused belief, or, in other words, their professionalism, to identify themselves as artists.
Martin Heidegger and Thomas Kuhn point out the contradiction that emerges within the profession of scientific research. In order to maintain professional status as a scientist, a scientist must constantly reaffirm his or her belief by researching and discovering new knowledge. However, the path by which to discover new knowledge is far from clear. Often times, new knowledge is only discovered by disavowing hegemony, that is, the paradigm of current beliefs and structures. Yet, scientists are only granted the professional status to conduct research after having mastered and incorporated the current hegemony into their worldview. This is yet another point of tension, as without a legitimizing process scientists cannot be trained, yet any such process inevitably stifles the rate at which new discoveries are made.
These examples from the medical, legal, advertising, artistic, and scientific fields demonstrate the manner by which the activity of professing inevitably moves from an initially unique and transcendental calling to a very pedestrian sort of knowledge and practice. Clement Greenberg gives a narrative of how the profession of the artist is periodically reinvigorated. At singular historical moments, individuals adopt lifestyles that stand against the hegemony of current methods, that later come to be adopted by many others. Individuals identified as possessing a great potential for forging such new forms are represented as members of the avant-garde. Once deemed successful, in that their departures are adopted within the framework of a profession, such a deviator is deemed a genius.
The opposite or negative of professional is an amateur. As evidenced by the place of the genius, what is at one historical moment represented as not professional or amateur can at a later moment be represented as at the height of professionalism. Such was the case with the supposedly amateur experimentations with electricity and magnetism as conducted by Franklin or Edison, or with the painterly explorations of the French Impressionists.
Amateur takes on another connotation within the electronic mediums. The nature of these mediums make for a situation where many non-professionals engage with photographic, video, and computer mediums, by mimicking the approach of their professional counterparts, while lacking the focused belief and lifestyle associated with professionalism. Marshall McLuhan argues that this growing amateur engagement, coupled with the spread of electronic media into all professions, demonstrates that these mediums are or will become as universal as the oral and verbal mediums. Electric media already does or soon will sit alongside the written and spoken word as types of literacy necessary for every sort of professing.