Thursday, November 5, 2009

What to make of "historical" and "constructive" work

My graduate work at Wheaton was in "historical and systematic theology", and I've found that phrase relatively useful in describing what it is I do on a very broad level. I usually tell people that I do "historical and systematic theology" and then throw in a few particular problems, people, or periods that I'm especially interested in, so as to give them a sense of where my work tends to find itself going. I'm "historical" and "constructive". I don't just do "Reformation history" or "patristics", but at the same time I don't just do "christology" or "ethics". And I think this describes most people in theology- current work draws upon a tradition, or a number of traditions, of past work. The conversation is ongoing, so that anyone intending to do constructive theological projects will inevitably be somewhat of an historian of the progress of those projects.

There's clearly opportunity for some bountiful fruit in this pairing. But I think there's also a tendency to dwell on skirmishes between "historical" and "constructive" work, and I think that doing so can be unhelpful as often as it can be corrective. Beyond being unhelpful, it can be downright obstructive for people who are interested in bridging the gap and doing work that's both historical and constructive.

My sense is that these skirmishes can take a few different forms.
  • Sometimes there's a criticism made by historians that constructive thinkers don't know their history. When this is blatantly true and symptomatic of academic sloppiness, I find the critique a fair one to make. But it's also important to remember that there is constructive work to be done- that sometimes a thinker just isn't interested in an exhaustive account of past thought. I take this to be the case for work that usually receives the label of "ahistorical" (usually as a pejorative). Now, I tend to be as critical of analytical work without historical perspective as the next person. But I think there's a point at which we can reasonably grant some room for a person to try their hand with some raw materials. It's not as if they're hurting anyone, and it's not as if their work won't eventually be subsumed into the scrutiny of the wider history of intellectual discourse. Better to let a thousand flowers bloom.
  • Sometimes "you don't know your history" simply means "we have a dispute about how to interpret the history, or how to apply it in a way that constitutes faithfulness to some norm, about which we also probably have a dispute." This gets back to a point I brought up last year about various political "Augustinianisms". As soon as one seeks to employ thoughts that were originally thought by others, there will likely be a dispute about how to receive and employ these thoughts. My sense is that in purely historical work one should attempt to accurately reflect what an historical figure was probably thinking and attempting to do. But when an idea enters into the realm of tradition, it becomes exposed to public use insofar as it's useful. That is, the claims of a person to their thoughts in the original context they were thought are not sacred.
  • On the other hand, and perhaps as a mirror to the first bullet point, constructive thinkers shouldn't dismiss purely historical work as of purely antiquarian interest. We use our editions of the Summa Theologiae and other texts to our own peril if we don't recognize how much of the scholarly iceberg sits underwater. I think it would do any constructive theologian some good to poke around in some of the journals of monastic history, or medieval Latin paleography journals, in order to get a flavor of the sort of legwork necessary to bring us the texts that we use, more likely than not, in conversation with 20th century thomists rather than the 13th century context for which they were originally written. This doesn't mean that a constructive theologian needs to become an historical expert on the period from which she draws her intellectual material, but it does mean that some attention to this literature will be beneficial. In fact it will better allow a person to appropriate old material for present purposes, because a sense of the historical gaps (and continuities) will be better developed.
Finally, though (and here I'm looking at you), let's not be too dour about the whole situation. I take it as a given that we can all name five handfuls of constructive thinkers who do an inadequate job of incorporating historical work, and vice versa. If someone can find me a time where such shortcomings were not present in the scholarly community, I'd be happy to buy that person a beer for their efforts. But it's difficult for me to look at the massive amount of solid scholarly work coming out today that creatively incorporates past thought with present thinking and still dwell on what people are getting wrong. Critical book reviews and the exclusion of certain names from the footnote apparatus (or the inclusion of them for appropriate scrutiny) strike me as more incisive ways to address the inadequacy of a particular project than hand wringing about the state of an entire, sprawling, multi-faceted field.

If it were impossible to find stimulating communities of inquiry with which to challenge oneself, I might be more inclined to embrace the critical spirit. But at a certain point one needs to recognize that when naysayers reach a critical mass, they prove their own thesis (that the state of the field is confused or misguided) wrong by their very presence as a bunch of scholars who supposedly know better. At which point it seems to me most advisable to get back to the task of research and try not to pay too much attention to unedifying academic skirmishes.


  1. Hi Evan,

    I'll probably write a more general response at my blog at some point.

    Depending on who one takes to be your main target, it could seem that you are tilting at windmills. You seem to be attacking a sensibility more than an identifiable position, and I for one am happy to tag along for the joust, as I, too, intend on working in both historical and systematic theology.

    There are surface level issues to be discussed, but there are behind those issues far deeper ones.

    I would suggest that the way you frame thes issues focuses on the surface level concerns, which are rightly "unedifying academic skirmishes," rather than the issues that may underlie those skirmishes. I will raise one of those here, just to put it on the table.

    The first is the value of permanence, or endurance, as a goal and criterion in scholarship. Good journalism is utterly respectable, and we have need of such timely writing in order to understand and engage the immediate present. But I am not sure if scholarship should be journalistic; in fact, I do not think it should be. And I therefore distinguish sharply, as perhaps you do not, between scholarship and "constructive" work. The latter does not require the former and that is no reproach. Philosophy in particular often proceeds with few or no footnotes. There are many different goods to be achieved by intellectuals, and you mistake me if you think I only value scholarly goods.

    It is rather a cluster of concerns around the above and other distinctions that worry me. For example: whether people actually know what they are trying to achieve, for whom their achievement should matter, and what the status of their achievement vis-a-vis broader concerns is. The professionalization of philosophy and theology has not been friendly to these questions, particularly to the question of value. Especially in theology, as a believing Christian, I see utter confusion and contradiction on this point.

    I take "ephemeral" or "faddish" to be damning criticism of a piece of work that claims to be scholarly. If something does not deserve to last beyond the moment of the present, it may have many values, not the least of which is a kind of journalistic value, or the instrumental value of advancing a career, making contacts, et al. but it has failed as a scholarly work if it is deservedly forgotten in a few years.

    Perhaps we disagree about this?

    Anyway, thanks for the stimulating post.

  2. I'd be interested to hear any further thoughts on this. In particular, I wonder about your distinction between "constructive" work and "scholarship". Point taken that reproach of the former is not your intention in separating the two, but I think I still may either 1) simply disagree with you on your distinction, or 2) be operating with a different idea of what "constructive" work means (or, I suppose, what "scholarship" means). Because I don't at the moment see how constructive studies don't constitute scholarly work.

    Also, on the concern that you volunteer as "deeper" than my "surface level" issues, I wonder how permanence and endurance is to be understand alongside the progress of good scholarship that I think we would both affirm. That is, I take your critique of "faddish" work to be obvious and uncontroversial enough, but apart from that, isn't there decidedly good scholarship that won't endure? No one may read Locke as currently very useful for questions of epistemology, but he is still somehow important, isn't he? There seems to be a wide area open for "not enduring or permanent" work before you get to downright "faddish or ephemeral" work. And one can always also be wrong while still being so in an interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful way. I suppose your answer to this might be, "sure, yeah, I'm not saying that good work is always durable work.. it just ain't 'scholarly' in the same way that enduring work is scholarly". What I'm having trouble grasping, though, is what exactly you intend to fall into each of these categories you've offered. And I think your hunch is correct that I would not be so inclined as you are to make sharp distinctions, so maybe that's part of my problem in understanding what you're intending to say here.

    Perhaps clarifying what you mean by "journalistic" work might also be helpful. You seem to 1) distinguish journalistic work from scholarship and 2) distinguish constructive work from scholarship. Are you saying that constructive work is journalistic? Is something "journalistic" when it deals with "timely" matters and is written to "understand and engage the immediate present"? Does this mean that any sort of polemical situation falls into the category of non-scholarly journalistic work because it's dealing with a timely conversation? Or do timely disputes about scholarly matters count as something different? And how would we begin to distinguish this, if there are such exceptions?

  3. Evan,

    Just a few quick clarification (I'm afraid a more substantial response must wait a bit longer).

    Naturally terms have multiple legitimate uses, so my use of "scholarship" obviously has a normative dimension; it is the sense in which we say "that is unscholarly," which is not the same thing as saying, "that person is not a professionally trained and appointed academic who reads journal literature and contributes to it." Thus, there is unscholarly scholarship, something we have all encountered at some point.

    Now, in the above sense senses, analytic philosophy, for example, could be viewed as "scholarship" in a loose sense, but I do not get the impression most analytic philosophers think they are scholars the way, say, Anthony Grafton is a scholar. Many are, in their own minds, more like scientists who are actually solving problems. Again, you could call a scientist a scholar, but unless I'm totally wrong about connotation, I don't think most of us do that or hear it as exactly apt.

    Have you read Gettier's article on justified belief, for example? It's three pages, if I recall, and it blew open a huge debate in epistemology. That's good philosophy, and it is not scholarship on any definition. So, I thought that point would be uncontroversial.

    Theology is more tricky, but again to be too brief: John Calvin was remarkarbly learned and brilliant, but unlike Luther, he was not a theological scholar, had never been professionally trained in theology, etc. And no one doubts that he was a (to be anachronistic) a "constructive" theologian. The question here is not what makes the best constructive theologians, but whether you can do theologically constructive work that is not scholarship, and I think it's obvious that you can.

    Two examples: some of Herbert McCabe's articles and some of Nicholas Lash's articles are not scholarly articles, but they are brilliant, insightful pieces of theology.

    Again, in philosophy, a number of Taylor's or MacIntyre's articles are brilliant but not pieces of scholarship.

    Finally, journalistic. I like Neuhaus's First Things, for example, and I think a good deal of what he did was theological journalism, which we need more of. And while impressively well-read, I don't think Neuhaus claimed to be a scholar.

    Constructive work and journalistic work, in my reply, share this: neither has scholarship as a necessary condition.

    I do not see being timely (a helpfully vague word) as inconsistent with being enduring. Karl Holl's work on Luther was timely in a lot of ways. But it is also of enduring scholarly value, not only for starting the Luther renaissance, but also for contributing to our understanding of Luther. And, yes, in case you're wondering, an exemplar for what I mean by "scholarship" would be Holl and the German tradition in general.

    I final point: I am deep believer in productive misunderstandigns (see Rudiger Bubner's book on Idealism with Cambridge, in which he discusses this idea).

    It does not look like I've answered all your questions, but I must knock off. Thanks for the interaction.