Sunday, August 16, 2009

Scholarly authority

Jonathan Jarrett has a good post on how scholars of the Middle Ages (and other subjects, too) base themselves -- or don't -- on the authority of earlier scholars. Some excerpts:

One of the things I find oddest, and least enjoyable, about working on Spain is the peculiar persistence in parts of its historiography of regula magistri argumentation. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s proceeding with your argument, not from the sources, but by amassing a list of reputable authors who have also held the view you wish to put forward. As a result it’s kind of the flip side of the ad hominem argument, in which rather than impugning the character of your opponent and thereby his trustworthiness on matters of fact and/or opinion, you inflate the reputation of your supporters to show that you are rightly-guided.

Sometimes this is necessary because you have no other legs to stand on. Thus, I remember from years back a heated argument on soc.history.medieval about whether ‘the medievals’ (does anyone else twitch uncomfortably at this usage?) kept animals in their houses with them or whether the livestock was segregated. Nobody involved in the thread knew any evidence worth speaking of, so it degenerated into a series of claims and counter-claims about whether a passing and unreferenced note of the practice in a book by Barbara Hanawalt could be taken on trust based on her reputation as a historian. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but then, very little on s.h.m was.


So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval. But it’s miles and miles away from what I was taught, and what I’ve taught, which is to always go back to the primary sources, to the exclusion of much else. It’s not enough to tell me that Wallace-Hadrill said this, I tell the unlucky student, I need to know that you know the basis on which he said it and, not less importantly, whether you agree. Now, in another recent post, someone entirely different, Martin Rundqvist at Aardvarchaeology, draws a very similar distinction and reckons the method I’m talking about scientific. He says, among other things, this:

… in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Of course it’s not quite the same in history, because a text, even a primary one, is still an authority and not a genuine witness. Material evidence counterbalances that to an extent, which is great when one can bring them together, and of course this is the business of which Martin identifies as part. But, not being raised in the venerable Spanish tradition, I find myself positively encouraged to cut free of my teachers and say things by myself, and the regula magistri argument looks, well, yes, pre-Popperian. (I don’t think ‘pre-scientific’ really works as a term, at least not to anyone who knows the etymology, but I’ve done that rant elsewhere.)


I still get faintly dismayed when I come across a ‘prestigious specialist’ writing as if it were still the sixteenth century. In this respect, some of the disciples could pay a bit more attention to their masters.

Love that (valid for a change!) use of the phrase "positively medieval."

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Exciting views on scholarship

As I look out over the upcoming the full term, I wonder how I will ever have time to contribute to this blog. Michael Drout reassures me. Last year he had a tremendously busy year and blog postings fell off. But now he's back and better than ever -- at least until he actually starts teaching again.

In the last week he wrote two posts that really piqued my interest and may be of interest to others as well. The first was a long discussion about how Drout, an Anglo-Saxonist and world-famous authority on the works of Tolkien, considers one of his most important scholarly influences to be the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, some of you may not know, was "a specialist on Cerion, a genus of land snails from Bermuda and the Bahamas," (I didn't know that) , but

also proposed and argued for some significant revisions of the Darwinian "new synthesis" (which had been developed when Mendelian models of heredity were coupled with the principle of Natural Selection; recent work that is called "Evo-Devo" -- Evolution and Development -- has integrated work in developmental biology into the new synthesis. This is where bio is right now). With Niles Eldredge Gould proposed "Punctuated Equilibrium," the idea that morphologies are static for long periods of time and then change rather rapidly rather than the continuous rate of very slow change that Gould attributed to Darwin (opponents of Gould noted that Darwin had at least made a few motions towards punctuated equilibrium and that Gould and Eldredge weren't as revolutionary as they claimed to be; the truth is somewhere in the middle -- Gould and Eldredge were excellent self-promoters, and not all Darwinians were complete gradualists, but Punctuated Equilibrium did more to change the thinking of theoretical biologists than opponents often admit).
Got to love a literary scholar who looks to evolutionary theory for inspiration. And for that matter, to Gould specifically for insights on method and as an exemplar of scholarly outreach:

I would liken this part of Gould's career to those medievalists, like Scott Nokes and Tom Shippey and Michelle Brown, who make a real effort, in different venues and in different ways, to explain medieval studies, and their importance, to lay people. This work not only helps to recruit new students and spread the word of important intellectual discoveries, but it makes the general public, parents, legislators and donors more willing to support medieval studies. I also think--and here I am not a majority opinion, I think--that if you can't explain the technical materials in terms that a layman can understand (or you choose not to) you are abdicating an important responsibility of disseminating your work as well as doing it.

There is plenty more meat in this post, such as (can't help quoting):

Finally, and here I shill for the liberal arts education yet again, the kind of polymath study that Gould did enables breakthroughs in all areas. The more you know about what is going on in other fields, the more you can apply to the difficult problems in your own field. And the more you stick with your technical projects, the more the other things will fall into place.
Read it all here.

Today Drout posted another prize post. Discussing intellectual method with a promising student, he suggested this guideline is one way of getting into a subject:

He/she asked me for some trick about how to generate ideas for papers and arguments. I came up with a few and thought I would share one here: push the metaphor until it breaks, then look at the broken pieces and figure out why it broke.

So, for example, if you hear Foucault's metaphor of the "prisonhouse of language," push the metaphor: who is the warden? what shape would that prisonhouse be? Do people get work release? Is there parole? Do people in it have just one cell mate? Communal showers? Exercise yard? Etc., etc.

If you can build the metaphor bigger and bigger, and figure out how all those pieces might fit in, then that metaphor might be robust. In Daniel Dennett's terms, it's a good "intuition pump." But if the metaphor collapses when pushed, then you know that perhaps it wasn't a good one, that it wasn't carrying the things you wanted it to carry.

This gives me a vision of Drout as a teacher who would not allow you the slightest refuge in clichéd baloney, but from whom you could learn a tremendous amount. And I'm not talking about facts.