How not to do scholarship – the perils of studying those we disagree with

I trained as a scientist.  Like all scientists, I despised scholars.  I thought that they were just people decorating their prejudices with the results of a library search.  Given time, we all knew, we could do as well or better.  Inspecting the occasional volume of what was sold in Blackwell’s bookshop as “Biblical Scholarship” did nothing to convince me otherwise.

It was only the encounter with Timothy Barnes Tertullian: a literary and historical study[1] that presented me with a piece of real scholarship; something that I knew that I could not have written, however long I spent in the library.  To read it is a liberal education.  To follow the approach taken is to learn something about what it means to try to determine the facts about the events of past times.  Everything that I have ever done since has been influenced by it.

What I had seen, what we had all despised, was not scholarship as such.  Rather it was — and is — bad scholarship.  What made it bad was the contamination of outside factors, and the failure of those who wrote it to maintain an intellectual Chinese wall between data and opinion.  I have seen more of this since.

The mind of a scholar is influenced by many things, most of which he needs to exclude from his thought when practising his trade.  Most obviously, a scholar is influenced primarily by the culture in which he lives.  This is unavoidable.  He is also influenced by the political or religious opinions by which he actually lives his life, especially if these are in tune with the prevailing culture.   The opinions may not be the same as those he professes verbally, of course; but even here, the cultural demand for constant verbal repetition of an opinion will have an effect on the one doing it, as the Chinese brainwashers of Mao Tse-Tung knew very well.

We see the consequence of this in older scholarly literature.  Sometimes a splendid piece of scholarly work is followed by some stale genuflection to some contemporary shibboleth or controversy.  Sometimes a then-dull piece of opinion dressed up as scholarship may today provide a valuable piece of evidence as to the attitudes in vogue and determining the conclusions of “scholarship” at the time.  For, in any controversial subject, the “consensus of scholars” tends, quite naturally, to reflect the opinions of those controlling university appointments in that country at the time in question.

There are other risks for the scholar who also teaches.  Being surrounded constantly by students means a constant position of superiority of information, and often of intellect.  It is terribly easy to become self-important, and to lose touch with reality, and to write twaddle in consequence.

This is no new thought: John Carey famously observed in 1975 in Down with Dons.[2]

From the viewpoint of non-dons, probably the most obnoxious thing about dons is their uppishness. Of course, many dons are quite tolerable people. But if you ask a layman to imagine a don the idea will come into his head of something with a loud, affected voice, airing its knowledge, and as anyone who has lived much among dons will testify, this picture has a fair degree of accuracy. The reasons are not far to seek. For one thing, knowledge – and, in the main, useless knowledge – is the don’s raison d’être. For another, he spends his working life in the company of young people who, though highly gifted, can be counted on to know less than he does. Such conditions might warp the humblest after a while, and dons are seldom humble even in their early years. Overgrown schoolboy professors, they are likely to acquire, from parents and pedagogues, a high opinion of their own abilities. By the time they are fully fledged this sense of their intellectual superiority will have gone very deep and, because of the snob value attached to learning and the older universities, it will almost certainly issue in a sense of social superiority as well. …

In the end I attributed it to the insulating effect of donnish uppishness. Years of self-esteem had, as it were, blinded the Professor to his true economic value. Bumptiousness and insolence are the quite natural outcome of such a condition …

We are not concerned here with the moral state of such scholars.  What we need to think about is whether such foolishness will affect their scholarly work.

It is difficult to imagine that it cannot.  A man accustomed to thinking himself a jolly clever chap is not likely to cultivate the self-distrust necessary to avoid anachronism, to avoid imposing himself, his judgements, his attitudes, on to a world far different in almost every respect.

These opinions and judgements, as we have seen, are not primarily scholarly.  They are the product of the environment in which the scholar operates.  The cleverer we think we are, the more certain it is that we will fail to recognise that, where antiquity is concerned, we are ignorant dumb clucks who don’t know the sort of things that the lowliest and stupidest ancient slave took for granted.  The more bumptious we are, the less likely it is that our conclusions will be correct, or that our work will have permanent value.

There is a further pitfall in store for the unwary academic.  By chance I encountered an example of it on twitter last night.  Here is the tweet that raised my eyebrows:

I don’t intend to pillory the author – otherwise unknown to me – but if I understand him correctly, it is a useful example of where scholarship can go off the rails.

For, on the face of it, isn’t it a very odd statement?  That we don’t care about the truth of what we read?  Is “patristics” important, if it doesn’t matter to us whether anything said by any patristic writer is true?  Indeed let us generalise!  Is any intellectual movement important, if it doesn’t matter to us what they said except as footnotes for the history of thought?  Do we really not care whether something said is right or wrong?  When the early socialists were grappling with the problem of anarchism, do we not care whether they made the right or wrong decision, but only about “how socialist beliefs evolved”?   Or let us look at Cicero’s De officiis, book 3, chapter 12:

12.  Let it be set down as an established principle, then, that what is morally wrong can never be expedient — not even when one secures by means of it that which one thinks expedient; for the mere act of thinking a course expedient, when it is morally wrong, is demoralizing.

But, as I said above, cases often arise in which expediency may seem to clash with moral rectitude; and so we should examine carefully and see whether their conflict is inevitable or whether they may be reconciled.

The following are problems of this sort: suppose, for example, a time of dearth and famine at Rhodes, with provisions at fabulous prices; and suppose that an honest man has imported a large cargo of grain from Alexandria and that to his certain knowledge also several other importers have set sail from Alexandria, and that on the voyage he has sighted their vessels laden with grain and bound for Rhodes; is he to report the fact to the Rhodians or is he to keep his own counsel and sell his own stock at the highest market price?

I am assuming the case of a virtuous, upright man, and I am raising the question how a man would think and reason who would not conceal the facts from the Rhodians if he thought that it was immoral to do so, but who might be in doubt whether such silence would really be immoral.

Cicero asks a very real, and very contemporary question!  (The link to the full text will provide some answers.)  But would we make of a scholar who believes the answer to this is unimportant, and instead treats the writer only as “important for the understanding of the evolution of philosophical teaching”?

It’s a remarkably patronising position to take towards any object of study, surely?  It means that we, glorious us, are placing ourselves far above the object of our study.  Implicit in all of this is contempt for the people we are studying, and anything that they have to say.    Nothing they say matters, except insofar as their remarks help us to advance our own thesis about the “evolution of beliefs”.

This comes about naturally if we start to spend our days studying people whom we disagree with, however mildly.  It is a trap that the unwary scholar can easily fall into.

For these people are under our microscope.  We are the scholar, they are merely material!  First we will tend to look down on them, naturally, for being wrong.  Then we will tend to pin them on cards, like butterflies.  Then we will lose any ability to consider whether what they have to say is correct or not.  At which point, obviously, we have lost all power to produce any kind of balanced assessment of the men and their work.

It is probably difficult to avoid this attitude, when studying some long-dead movement.  But I find that scholars who do study these movements don’t take that attitude.  They seek to find importance in what these movements had to say, to connect them, somehow, with the living world.  When we find this attitude directed, as here, towards a major modern intellectual movement, then the red flags must go on.   We’re not doing scholarship, if we write as if those alive today with whom we disagree don’t deserve a hearing, but are merely insects under our “scholarly” microscope.  This is polemic.

Hate is a powerful force.  Hate-literature is the most depressing of human writings, because the writers have lost their balance.  They can see nothing except the follies of their subject, and their study through that lens magnifies every pimple and defect to enormous proportions, when a more normal perception would see nothing.

It is hazardous to us all, to spend much time disagreeing with people.  To remain balanced, we must love what we study.  The peril of over-enthusiasm may be corrected by more study; but over-scepticism is always reinforced by it.

Study what you love, and listen to those you study.  To decide that we need not listen to our subjects will rot our brains, and prevent us ever writing anything worthwhile about them.

UPDATE: I’ve decided that the name of the author of the tweet is irrelevant, and removed it. I don’t, after all, know whether he intended that which I understand him to say, and let us by all means suppose a misunderstanding.  The point is a general one.

  1. [1] Oxford, 1971, reprinted with important additions in 1985.
  2. [2] 1975. Online here. (PDF)
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