It seems evident that many of the most important features of our society are to a considerable extent dependent on the smooth functioning of the professions. Both the pursuit and the application of science and liberal learning are predominantly carried out in a professional context. Their results have become so closely interwoven in the fabric of modern society that it is difficult to imagine how it could get along without basic structural changes if they were seriously impaired.
There is a tendency to think of the development and application of science and learning as a socially unproblematical process. A vague sort of "curiosity" and beyond that mere possession of the requisite knowledge are held to be enough. This is evidenced by the air of indignant wonder with which technologically minded people sometimes cite the fact that actual technical performance is well below the theoretical potentialities of 100 per cent efficiency. Only by extensive comparative study does it become evident that for even a moderate degree either of the development or the application of science there is requisite a complex set of social conditions which the "technologically minded" seldom think of, but incline to take for granted as in the nature of things. Study of the institutional framework within which professional activities are carried on should help considerably to understand the nature and functions of some of these social "constants."
The professions do not, however, stand alone as typical or distinctive features of modern Western civilization. Indeed, if asked what were the most distinctive features, relatively few social scientists or historians would mention the professions at all. Probably the majority would unhesitatingly refer to the modern economic order, to "capitalism," "free enterprise," the "business economy," or however else it is denominated, as far more significant. Probably the only major exception to this would be the relatively prominent attention given to science and technology, but even these would not be thought of mainly in relation to the professional framework, but rather as handmaidens of economic interests.
Not only is there a tendency for empirical concentration on the business world in characterizing this society, but this is done in terms which tend to minimize the significance of the professions. For the dominant keynote of the modern economic system is almost universally held to be the high degree of free play it gives to the pursuit of self-interest. It is the "acquisitive society," or the "profit system" as two of the most common formulas run. But by contrast with business in this interpretation the professions are marked by "disinterestedness." The professional man is not thought of as engaged in the pursuit of his personal profit, but in performing services to his patients or clients, or to impersonal values like the advancement of science. Hence the professions in this context appear to be a-typical, to some even a mere survival of the mediaeval guilds. Some think that these spheres are becoming progressively commercialized, so that as distinctive structures they will probably disappear.
There are various reasons for believing that this way of looking at the "essence" of modern society is a source of serious bias in the sociological interpretation of the situation. The fact that the professions have reached a uniquely high level of development in the same society which is also characterized by a business economy suggests that the contrast between business and the professions which has been mainly stated in terms of the problem of self-interest, is not the whole story. Possibly there are elements common to both areas, indeed to our whole occupational system, which are at least as important to their functioning as is self-interest to business, disinterestedness to the professions. The concrete interpenetration of the two, as exemplified in the role of engineers and lawyers in the conduct of business enterprises would suggest that. The study of the professions, by eliminating the element of self-interest in the ordinary sense, would seem to offer a favorable approach to the analysis of some of these common elements. This paper will deal with three of them which seem to be of particular importance to the modern occupational structure as a whole, including business, the professions, and government.