Uncertainty in Scholarship

Not talking Science! here today, just more mundane scholarship.

On the one hand, I am grateful for all the endless effort many men and women of great talent and perseverance have put into the scholarly investigation of many fascinating topics. I’m counting on R. A. Lafferty, for example, to not mislead me about the Visigoths and Romans, because a) I’ll never live long enough to do the level of research he has done, and b) ditto on learning the languages he seems to know (Classical Latin, at least).

So I trust him. I’ve trusted, more or less explicitly, hundreds and thousands of scholars over the years – the people who have written the books I’ve read, as well as the other scholars those authors have used as well.

On the other hand – where to start? How about toward the deep end: when I read a scholar such as Menand, I am very nearly seduced by his excellent prose and feigned (I think now) sympathy with ideas that might not fly at a typical Manhattan cocktail party. Then he will write, as he recently did, apologetics for Marx – a subject I know enough about from other sources (say, Marx’s own writings!) to see for the craven propaganda it most definitely is.

Image result for Marx
See? A kindly hippy-dude who only wishes peace! Just like Menand himself!

But I so want to trust him on other subjects! Because he writes so beautifully and points out things I find fascinating. Yet, he’s clearly willing to lie (most likely unconsciously, and to himself first, I’m willing to assume) about Marx. So, should I believe him about Harvard and early 19th century America, because I find his take more palatable? And because he pointed me toward topics I’ve since read more on, and found even more palatable? Or am I just playing his game in reverse? Picking and choosing from among the things Menand says, and paying attention to and judging true only the parts I like?

The only solution, it seems to me, is to read broadly enough that one can at least weight the opinions of the scholars relative to each other; study philosophy and logic so that the nature and structure of the arguments can be made clear; and read history – what has happened – to get some context.

Unlike the deconstructionists and other relativists, I don’t think such an approach is completely circular; the philosophy and logic parts allows one to at least eliminate utter nonsense, which then will cause the collapse partial or full of the ideas built upon that nonsense. In this regard, trying to get to the bottom of even a little Hegel makes a lot of the modern world and its addictions much more clear.  It is not man’s lot to understand with complete clarity and conviction, but the world does admit of better and worse degrees of knowledge.

The trouble is even so meager and humble a scholar as I am is still, evidently, an extreme outlier. Do 10% of people actually read, reason, compare, analyze much of anything in life? 1%? 0.1%? I really don’t know, and perhaps the actual life most people are living has much in it that is too important for such digressions. Family, friends, God and neighbors spring to mind.  But unless we are protected by the sort of education and life epitomized by Samwise Gamgee, this lack of interest tends to make us pliable, gullible fools – more so, I mean, than we all are by default already.

On the other hand, back on the shallow end, we – by which I mean I – have the recurring experience of having to listen to people tell us this or that MUST be TRUE since this or that group of scholars have reached that opinion. Often, this undue confidence is mostly harmless. Recently heard a homily in which the lovely priest, for whom I thank God daily, mentioned as fact that the Apostle Peter didn’t write 1 Peter. Now, that’s possible, and has certainly been an opinion I’ve heard before (not as much as with 2 Peter, which all the right people are stone certain could not be the work of Peter).  But the certainty with which such an idea should be expressed is very, very slight – the claim seems to hang on a) not having sufficiently old manuscripts, and b) not seeming like the work of a fisherman from the Levant.  In other words, the oldest manuscripts seem to come from decades after Peter’s death, and the Greek in which the letter is written seems pretty sophisticated from some dumb fisherman.

That these are not particularly strong arguments, and have been shot down repeatedly by other arguments at least as strong (it’s a bit of a miracle that we have ANY ancient documents , and a bit of a crapshoot which are saved and which not, Peter used a scribe, who would have gussied up the language as a matter of course. Tradition as old or older that any manuscripts assigns authorship to Peter.)  And – here’s the point – in and of itself, it doesn’t matter much. But in context, it matters because it spreads the ideas that modern smart people have, once again, overturned what all those ancient dumb people thought. This is pernicious, dishonest – and an assumption upon which the Modern World since at least Hegel has made.  Much woe has resulted.

This is hardly restricted to religious texts. Just about all of the modern ‘soft’ ‘sciences’ depend on this misplaced trust in scholarship to turn, in the best cases, poorly supported claims into hard and fast facts.

If, on the other hand, the views of scholars were presented as informed opinions that might be of interest but must be always be recognized as necessarily carrying a large load of doubt, we might, however unlikely, learn to weigh such opinions with broad scales – to include in the balance however wide a range of items as might be applicable.

It spirals out of control from there: somebody heard Beloved Expert X say that such and such a thing has been proven or disproven by scholars, and then repeats it as fact, which then becomes common sense or at least common knowledge, so that disagreeing make one an ignorant fuddy-duddy at best and a willfully ignorant hater at worst.

Wish I could believe this has all come about through more or less innocent human weaknesses, not cold calculation.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Uncertainty in Scholarship”

  1. I came across this phenomenon recently with regard to something fairly mundane, which is that the nickname of the University of Mississippi, “Ole Miss”, was supposedly chosen because it’s what slaves called the mistress of a plantation (and is therefore offensive and racist). But for the life of me I can’t find a source for this. Is that really what the mistress of a plantation was called? If so, is that really the reason the nickname was chosen, as opposed to “Miss” being short for, say, Mississippi? When I google it I only find people stating it as a fact, no doubt because so many other people state it as a fact that it’s assumed to be a fact.

    1. Yep, that’s it – and, as I concluded, we’d like to assume innocence on the part of the propagators of this idea. But it’s pretty hard.

      And under what scenario does someone call a University his mammy? And, in the unlikely event he did, mean it as anything other than a complement toward one who nurtures and loves us? It’s like how calling a sports team the Braves or Indians is seen as anything other than a complement – we admire their manly fierceness, and would like our team to do the same. This is an insult?

  2. I don’t claim to know how the University of Mississippi got its sobriquet, but the song “Dixie” (which is a minstrel song from the 1850s) contains the couplets:

    “Ole Missus married Will the Weaver/ William was a gay deceiver”,
    “Ole Missus acted the foolish part/ and died for the man who broke her heart”,
    “So, here’s to the health of the next Ole Missus/ and here’s to the gals that want to kiss us”.

    That’s all the “scholarship” I’ve got in me for today. Make of it what you will.

    1. Thanks, John.

      A couple of thoughts for what they’re worth. First, “ole missus” does make more sense than “ole miss” if the referent is the wife of a slave master. What then would “ole miss” refer to? the unmarried daughter of the master? Second, it seems odd that white racist students would intentionally refer to their alma mater by the title of a slave mistress, since that would put the students in the position of slaves in relation to the school, or so it seems to me.

      Quite possibly “ole missus” was a familiar, perhaps nostalgic term to Mississippians in the late 1800s, and they chose “Ole Miss” as something like a play on words. I’m mainly saying that I doubt that they intended its literal meaning to be “slave mistress”. At all events it can hardly be doubted that “Miss” was intended to be short for “Mississippi”.

  3. It seems to this non-scholar that at the root of all of this behavior is Pride. Wasn’t “cold calculation” involved with the effects of Pride since the beginning of man’s current (fallen) nature? I try to avoid this behavior in myself by limiting my comments on blog postings. Too much of Internet commentary is preening self-conscious agreement with “scholarship” or the take-of-the-day. Your blog Mr. Moore (along with too-few others) is usually a counterpoint to that.

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