Sunday, November 29, 2009

over thanksgiving...

I trust everyone celebrating holidays with family or others had a restful weekend. Apart from visiting, I was able to study a (little) bit, and also introduced my daughter to the work of W.V.O. Quine:



Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Possibilities for conceptual history, theology, and pragmatism

Last spring I was introduced to some current work in conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) through a seminar at the Committee on Social Thought, and it has since been an interest of mine that I look forward to reading more about when I have the time. I think that there could be some significant interaction between theology and the history of concepts, and my recent readings in American pragmatism have also brought up thought-provoking tensions over the very idea of a concept... tensions that might be fruitful for work on their history.

Conceptual history is of German origin, with some important philosophical lexicons and encyclopedias paving the way for the 20th century resurgence of the project in publications such as the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. The international reception of conceptual history has also grown in recent years, and from what I can tell has primarily concerned itself with the history of concepts in political thought. This is the primary focus of the two main publications outside of Germany, the Finnish Redescriptions and the newer journal Contributions to the History of Concepts, which was established following a meeting of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group in Rio de Janeiro. My initial introduction to concept history was through this more recent reception in the history of political thought.

Despite the strong focus on politics, it strikes me as pretty obvious that theology and religion more generally offers a number of places for interaction with this field. Isidore's Etymologies is only the most prominent example of a long interest in a theoretical examination of concepts in Christian thought, extending to the work of Kittel et al. that is such a part of the 20th century biblical studies landscape.

On the other hand, 20th century American pragmatist thought could provide a helpful reconsideration of the very idea of the concept, and suggest some new theoretical avenues for historical work. I'm not aware of the current state of interaction-- there may in fact be some conceptual historians working from a pragmatist perspective. But Davidson's criticism of incommensurability of conceptual schemes or Brandom's concern for the development and use of concepts as they apply to normativity and self-consciousness could probably do a lot of work if read alongside a project of concept history.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Memoriam: Claude Welch


I've just learned that Claude Welch passed away on November 6th. Welch was an exceptional historian of Protestant thought, as well as a translator of Dorner and other 19th century theologians. He also contributed significantly to the development of religious studies in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century; the 1970 Welch Report was an important contribution to the growth in respectability of religious studies as a field. The Graduate Theological Union has a memorial notice for him here.

Recent news on interconfessional relations and religion laws in Russia

Proposed amendments to Russia's 1997 Religion Law and the Administrative Violations Code are facing a lot of criticism, even from some Russian Orthodox commentators. At this point it sounds like the proposals have hit a brick wall or two in committee, they've been pulled from the Justice Ministry's website, and their future in the Duma is unclear.

The Baptist, Pentecostal, Old Believer, and Muslim communities probably have the most at stake in all of this. Certainly foreign missionaries also, but they have been facing a squeeze for some time now, and I imagine that they will continue to face such problems whether or not these amendments move through. As I understand them, the proposed amendments call for increased registration requirements of religious groups, and that would seem to mostly affect established Russian communities.

We've also seen a lot of Archbishop Ilarion of Volokolamsk lately, who was recently made the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Affairs. The Orthodox-Catholic dialogue has been going quite well under Benedict XVI's pontificate (although headlines about ending the schism strike me as over-hyped stupidity), and this will surely have some effect on Russian ecumenical openness, though perhaps a rather limited one as it concerns Protestant and other Orthodox churches.

There is, however, an ongoing engagement with Protestants, and the Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee has further plans for gatherings in 2010. Vitaly Vlasenko, the Baptist representative for CIAC, sounds rather hopeful about Protestant-Orthodox relations. While relations had been frosty since 2002 because of Roman Catholic establishment of four dioceses in Russia, the committee appears to be moving forward relatively ambitiously under Patriarch Kiril.

I think the upcoming CIAC events offer an interesting comparison to ecumenical dialogue based on social issues that has been going on in the U.S.-- the Manhattan Declaration has faced a bit of criticism insofar as it appears to be more a conservative manifesto than a particularly Christian one. However true such criticisms may be, the fact that delicate ecumenical engagement elsewhere in the world often hangs on such agreement over social issues should at least give us reason to pause and consider whether or not there is something worthwhile in these engagements on the level of cultural or ethical correspondence. The value of such basis for discussion is of course contingent upon its conformity to the teachings of Christ, but given that, there seem to be some instances of ecumenical convergence that are deeply indebted to such prior moral agreement.

UPDATE: A reader has pointed out to me the relevance of the recent murder of an Orthodox priest to this conversation. I was aware of Fr. Sysoyev's murder, but didn't realize that he was heavily involved in missionary work and had raised the ire of not only other religious groups, but some in the Russian Orthodox Church itself who were concerned about the threat to inter-religious stability. Not knowing the sort of missionary activity that was involved in this case, it seems unwise to comment about the event... but it is worth noting in light of the questions it raises about Russian attitudes to proselytism even within the established church.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A few items...

  • In light of worries over new FTC guidelines, WorldCat points out their own book review system. This might be a helpful option for bloggers who do reviews frequently, and would provide a larger reader base for reviews that are re-posted to the WorldCat system.
  • The address given by Rowan Williams at the Willebrands Symposium in Rome is worth reading. I think this is Williams as we tend to appreciate him- one can't really blame him for a rather bland initial response to the Vatican when he was caught more or less by surprise last month. Here, however, he lays more out on the table. I think the central point comes in his statement concerning the constitution, "it is an imaginative pastoral response to the needs of some; but it does not break any fresh ecclesiological ground." Williams comes to Rome at the invitation of Kasper and the PCPCU, and this is actually a rather hopeful sign, in my opinion. The conference represents a significant insistence, both within parts of the Vatican and in other communions, that ecumenical dialogue will stubbornly move forward, despite setbacks from other ecclesiastical corners.
  • Some interesting news on collaborations between ProQuest and Scribd. It sounds like dissertations and theses from a number of universities will be available through Scribd, with 20% preview (more than what you can get now on ProQuest) and a $49 charge for the whole dissertation (which is actually a bit more expensive than current pricing at ProQuest). This seems to be good news for those who aren't at institutions with subsriptions to ProQuest. It is also apparently in response to objections raised by ProQuest against the recent Google settlements. Here is the press release from Scribd.
  • The journal Intellectual History Review is increasing from three to four issues a year beginning in 2010. This is always a good indicator for periodicals, and worth making a mental note of if you have an intellectual history piece and you're looking for a place to submit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New study of Priscillian

A new study of Priscillian and Priscillianism is out. Intending to move past questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy and look at Priscillian from a more local level as a nonconformist, Sylvain Jean Gabriel Sanchez considers the influence of gnosticism and particularly of Manichaeism on the movement.

My fascination with Priscillian has always concerned the questions of political theology raised by his trial and the dispute between the bishops and the civil authorities over his execution. In this, I take Chadwick's study to offer more of interest than anything else in English, even though a lot of the literature is more concerned with pitting Priscillian against the orthodox church hierarchy. Sanchez seems to want to move away from the disputes about doctrinal orthodoxy as well, although he will do so by considering the religious sources of Priscillianism itself.

Happily, Sylvain Jean Gabriel Sanchez has a very helpful website set up that is worth perusing. Amidst a lot of other useful information, he has even provided a bibliography of studies of Priscillian... going back to the sixteenth century.


(h/t researchnewsinla)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A few items...

  • A call for papers for Annali della Classe di Lettere e Filosofia, on the theme of "Censorship, Rewriting, Restoration". Submissions are due 15 February, 2010.
  • A call for papers for a graduate colloquium at the Ohio State University, which may be of interest to patristics people... Post Scriptum? Questioning the Status of Greek and Latin Literature in Late Antiquity. Abstract submissions due 4th December.
  • The Centre of Theology and Philosophy has a new website thanks to the work of Eric Lee. Update your RSS feeds accordingly.
  • A piece on the sharing of research articles in situations where journal subscriptions are unavailable. This isn't the sciences, and most readers here aren't from India, but the concept surely applies to pastors or others who don't have a research library at their disposal... "No Journal Access? Email the Author, Colleague". And I'd add for authors who can do so without breaking their contract with the publisher... post your published work on a personal website.
  • Applications are currently being taken for the 2010 Brill fellowship at the Scaliger Institute. Submissions are due 31st January, 2010.
  • I was looking at the journal Pacifica the other day, which I haven't read for a little while. I don't see it cited all that much in the U.S., but it's worth taking a look at. Neil Ormerod has published in there a good bit, and he will have work useful for those researching trinitarian doctrine, ecclesiology, or theological method (an Ormerod article is actually what led me to the journal). Their website is well-kept, and they offer free access to one of the articles in each issue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What advice would you give for someone new to theology?

A reader who is relatively new to studying theology has asked my advice for reading, writing, and publishing. He does not have any plans to study for a degree in theology, but is interested in pursuing it as an independent scholar of sorts. He is a Catholic and has been reading theology for a number of months now, and is also getting into some modern philosophy.

I was wondering what advice others would give for someone in this position. A theologically educated public... people who are not professors or priests but who nonetheless contribute and receive from the theological conversation... strikes me as vital to the continued relevance of theological reflection for the Church and culture.

What would you recommend that this person read? Where would you recommend that this person direct their writing? I'm sure there are other discussions on other blogs that would be helpful as well-- feel free to recommend them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies

One of the more exciting developments here at Wheaton over the past few years has been the creation of the new Center for Early Christian Studies. George Kalantzis has spearheaded the project, and from the vantage point of the library I've been able to see its development in ways that others probably haven't... through the joyful spending of new book fund money on patristics resources.

As I understand it, a Greek Orthodox couple connected with the college felt that it would be important to support such a research center in an evangelical context, and donated a significant amount to getting things started. With a recent conference honoring Robert Webber and the more general interest in patristics that has been growing in evangelicalism, it seemed inevitable that something like this would get planted, and I'm sure similar ventures will follow elsewhere.

The Center doesn't currently have a physical location, and as far as I know there aren't any plans at this point to establish one. Funding is present that should substantially improve (indeed, is already in the process of improving) our patristics material here at the library. There is also a new undergraduate certificate program in early Christian studies, and tuition scholarships for graduate students who plan to pursue doctoral studies in patristics.

The inaugural lecture for the Center was given a few weeks ago by Robert Louis Wilken. I was unfortunately in the city at the time and couldn't make it, but the talk is now available online for those who are interested.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Leiter on "Party Line Continentalists"

Brian Leiter has a great piece up on sophomoric skirmishes between presumed "analytic" and "continental" camps in philosophy.

This is an important piece to read for me, and I assume for many other students of theology as well. I have in the past made sweeping and rather stupid statements about "philosophy" as a discipline, more than anything I think because of frustration at professional and methodological rigidity that I've perceived in some philosophers. And when I'm feeling a little bit more friendly, I usually (and this seems rather typical amongst theologians as well) will make this sort of dumb appeal to the "Continental" tradition against the "analytic" tradition. That is, if I'm going to put up with any philosophers, their work should at least look a bit more like poetry than mathematics.

It makes sense, on a superficial level. "Continental" thinkers often look more like theologians to us, and their work seems to be more amenable to our work. Add to that similarity all of these grandiose proclamations of a "theological turn" in continental thought, and it's easy to see why many theologians snub their noses at the "Analytics" the way that Leiter's interlocutor does.

But I've realized of late that this is all pretty stupid and immature of me to do. I think Kevin Hector's pragmatism seminar has contributed some to my new-found acceptance of philosophical work that would have just bored me to tears a little bit ago. It's not that I know the first thing about 20th century analytic thought, but at least a smattering of readings in some "post-analytic" thinkers has led me to appreciate the broad problems and attempts at solutions that are entertained in real, rigorous, philosophical work. It may not always be my cup of tea, but at least I'm beginning to learn to refrain from making altogether asinine criticisms of it. I'm also learning that if I hope to speak intelligently about these problems, I'd best do my homework and read these people rather than simply make crap up about what sort of thinkers they are on the basis of vague stereotypes and entrenched opinions.

These sorts of suspicions of analytic thought have also come up recently with regard to the recent essay collection, Analytic Theology. Please note- I bring this up not to associate R.O. Flyer with the more superficial reaction to analytic thought by those of the "party line continental" camp. There are surely still critiques to be leveled against certain aspects of "analytic", "continental", or any number of other traditions, even after we recognize that partisan hatchet jobs aren't the way to go.

Anthony Paul Smith has also offered some worthwhile thoughts about the precarious nature of the theological appropriation of certain philosophical concerns, obviously from a quite different conversation than the originally linked Leiter piece.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Amazon.com and predatory pricing of books

Last year Halden offered some thoughts about the need to stop supporting Amazon.com in blog links. The ensuing discussion was helpful, especially Ben's response with some thoughts from his own experiences at F&T.

I imagine my approach to this is pretty similar to others- I certainly buy a lot from Amazon because of the ease and the price, but I try to be conscious of the need to get books elsewhere. I'm sure you can find plenty of exceptions, but here on clavi non defixi I try to link to publisher pages when discussing books.

There has recently been some activity from the American Bookseller's Association concerning Amazon, Wal Mart, and Target that will be of interest to those who are concerned about the predatory practices of massive distributors. A letter has been written to the DOJ requesting an investigation into these companies. From the letter:

We are writing on behalf of the American Booksellers Association, a 109-year-old trade organization representing the nation's locally owned, independent booksellers. A core part of our mission is devoted to making books as widely available to American consumers as possible. We ask that the Department of Justice investigate practices by Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target that we believe constitute illegal predatory pricing that is damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers. We are requesting a meeting with you to discuss this urgent issue at your earliest possible opportunity. [...]

It's important to note that the book industry is unlike other retail sectors. Clothing, jewelry, appliances, and other commercial goods are typically sold at a net price, leaving the seller free to determine the retail price and the margin these products will earn. Because publishers print list prices indelibly on jacket covers, and because books are sold at a discount off that retail price, there is a ceiling on the amount of margin a book retailer can earn.

The suggested list price set by the publisher reflects manufacturing costs -- acquisition, editing, marketing, printing, binding, shipping, etc. -- which vary significantly from book to book. By selling each of these titles below the cost these retailers pay to the publishers, and at the same price as each other, and at the same price as all other titles in these pricing schemes, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart, and Target are devaluing the very concept of the book. Authors and publishers, and ultimately consumers, stand to lose a great deal if this practice continues and/or grows.

What's so troubling in the current situation is that none of the companies involved are engaged primarily in the sale of books. They're using our most important products -- mega bestsellers, which, ironically, are the most expensive books for publishers to bring to market -- as a loss leader to attract customers to buy other, more profitable merchandise. The entire book industry is in danger of becoming collateral damage in this war.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

VITA BREVIS series on doctoral studies in theology

John Penniman has just posted the final installment in his series on doctoral studies in theology, where he discusses the subjective nature of choosing what doctoral program is the "right" place to do theological work. I've also put a complete list of John's series on the right sidebar, with links to each post so that those who are interested can read through the rest of his thoughts.

Many thanks to John for his work on these posts.

A few items (mostly about journals & articles)...

  • Union Theological Seminary has a blog, Union:inDialogue. And much to their credit, they keep the "ue" in dialogue... a pet peeve, and one on which the Lutherans have failed me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

John Marenbom at Notre Dame

The Medieval Institute of Notre Dame will be hosting John Marenbon for the 2009 Conway Lecture. Marenbon will be speaking on Abelard this Thursday as well as Tuesday and Thursday of next week. The conference is free and open to the public, so if you aren't too far away and your schedule permits, do try to make it for this unique opportunity.




Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Emerging scriptural subfields

Over the past few years, there has been a notable increase in subfields and schools of thought concerned with scripture and its communal reception. The development should be celebrated by theologians concerned to ground their work in the biblical text; it is a welcome development for scholarly interaction with religion from outside of a tradition too, insofar as it better gets at what traditions are doing in their day-to-day life. Engagement with scriptures on this level is also welcome as a critical study that may perhaps avoid some of the peculiarities of previous biblical criticism (the "bad" kind... of the sort that gets dismissed as "hopelessly modern" or "historical-critical", etc.). There is now a strong attention to the living text of scripture within communities, and perhaps in the work of theologians so inclined, this communal focus could be taken as congenial to a sense of the Spirit's work in scripture even for those schools of thought that are not explicitly theological or trinitarian.

The blessing is also the curse, of course. It's great that lots of people are talking about scripture, but I wonder if I'm the only one that wonders whether we need yet another way of establishing this posture into umpteen different schools of thought, each with their own theoretical and methodological boundaries (most of which are distinctions without great difference). There is talk of "biblical theology" and "theological interpretation of Scripture", with its attendant taxonomic difficulties (see Dan Treier on the matter). "Scriptural Reasoning" is another wide-ranging attempt to look at scripture anew and from a critical though decidedly scriptural perspective. There is also a new journal out- not specifically concerned with scriptures but certainly worth noting for scriptural scholars- on the practice of commentary. And the monographic studies on commentaries, history of exegesis, theological readings of scripture, etc., are well-known to everyone. Just yesterday I posted on the new Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, which is making quite a splash.

I don't have any useful comments on sorting all of these emerging subfields out. I take note of them because some of my work has involved biblical reception and interpretation as it relates to theological matters, but I haven't at this point really aligned myself with a particular way of approaching scripture or scriptural communities. I'm also concerned with what strikes me as a rush to coin new theoretical approaches, and how quickly these approaches become problematized into the obscurity of stale theory wars a few decades past their expiration date. My sense is that whatever good is being done now has probably been done for a while in some form or another, and one needn't feel compelled to commit to any particular "way forward" in order to make use of good insights from the various methodological camps.

All that being laid out, I thought I'd briefly point out what strikes me as another one of these "new approaches" currently arising at Chicago. Perhaps it will become the "Chicago School of Scriptural Studies". I do hope they'd spare us such grandiosity, but we'll see. In the meantime, I think some useful work is being done, and it's worth noting.

What's going on at Chicago is decidedly comparative in character, and as far as this goes it strikes me as analogous to scriptural reasoning. A distinguishing factor, though, is its historical character. The arms-length approach is perhaps more typical of the history of religions bent that will be found here. If you want a sense of what seems to be going on, look at the description of the upcoming conference Deconstructing Dialogue, and especially the panel on Reading Other People's Scriptures. A course by the same title is being led this semester by James Robinson and Lucy Pick, and another course on "The Body of Christ and the Body of Scripture in Early Christianity" is being led by Willemien Otten and David Nirenberg.

In addition, a new doctoral examination is being offered by the committee on historical studies, focusing on the history of comparative exegesis. This more than anything else is probably a signal from the Divinity School that "history of comparative exegesis" (if we want to throw yet another name out there for the subfield taxonomists) is a growing interest and will be a coherent direction for future work. From what I understand, the first crop of students will be taking this exam some time in the next semester.

Any thoughts from those at Chicago, who may be taking some of the above-mentioned courses or exams? Any related developments from other corners of academia that we should know about?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review of Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception

A little while ago I mentioned an exciting new resource coming out, The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. In the upcoming issue of the journal Theological Librarianship, there will be a review of the first two volumes (of a projected 30), and the journal has put up a pre-print version of this review for interested readers.

The review is up early so that as many people can read it as possible, since the publisher has a discount available on the Encyclopedia until Dec. 31st. I am highlighting the review here because of the importance of TL as a source of information. Reviews from Theological Librarianship are especially important to take into account because the editorial staff takes seriously the mandate of criticism. If a reference title is a waste of money, or does not fulfill its purpose as understood by research librarians, they are not afraid to say so. This sort scrutiny is much-needed in academia today, for and from both scholars and institutions.

The pre-print of the review, by Dianne Bergant and James Dunkly, is available here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A few items...

Many of you are in Montreal at AAR. I'm in St. Louis visiting family friends. Resorting to the good old pre-scheduled "A few items..." post seems in order for the weekend.

  • Communio: International Catholic Review is having a back issue sale. Remaining issues from 1986-2005 are $4 each.
  • Sean the Baptist points out some papers from that other conference that are available online.
  • Recommending books from Edwin Mellen is often treacherous business, and I have no idea of the quality of this title, but it may be worth noting that a new volume is out from their Schleiermacher series- the first to come out in five years or so.
  • Chris discusses epistemic certainty in light of a Roman Catholic critique of a recent book on sola scriptura.
  • Brill has announced its new open access program for journal articles. I can't imagine this will mean much change for most people publishing in theology, as the OA depends upon a payment that just won't be available for fields that don't depend so heavily on grant money. Nonetheless, worth noting.
  • The latest issue of the Journal of Anglican Studies is a theme issue on Lambeth 2008.
  • The Ecclesiological Investigations Research Network, which I presented a paper for at AAR 2007, has a new website up with some useful information for those interested in ecclesiology.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Redeeming the Enlightenment: New Histories of Religious Toleration

Jeffrey R. Collins of Queen's University has a heck of a review article in the latest issue of The Journal of Modern History.

The 30-page article reviews the following titles:


Chris Beneke, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (Oxford 2006)

Justin Champion, Republican Learning: John Toland and the Crisis of Christian Culture, 1696-1722 (Manchester 2003)

Ole Peter Grell and Roy Porter, eds., Toleration in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge 2006)

R. Po-Chia Hsia and Henk van Nierop, ed., Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age (Cambridge 2002)

Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford 2006)

Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Harvard 2007)

John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration, and Early Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge 2006)

Andrew Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (Pennsylvania State 2001)

Cary Nederman, Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100-c. 1550 Pennslyvania State, 2000)

Joris Van Eijnatten, Liberty and Concord in the United Provinces: Religious Toleration and the Public in the Eighteenth-Century Netherlands (Brill 2003)

Alexandra Walsham, Charitable Hatred: Tolerance and Intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (Manchester 2006)

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (Princeton 2003)

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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Using ideas from old texts (and a CFP)

I ran across this CFP while foraging for sources... from Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy. The journal offers an interesting perspective on philosophy and the history of philosophy that I thought was worth sharing and offering for discussion. From their Aims and Scopes section:

Taking classical texts seriously as contributions to philosophy primarily implies investigating the truth behind the claims made, or at least enabling the reader to embark on such an investigation. Precisely this is quite often neglected in traditional interpretations, which, however, comes as no surprise: Many historians of philosophy hold that, for the sake of a correct interpretation, questions concerning truth should not be posed, since any interest concerning the truth (or falsehood) of a given classical philosophical text inevitably prevents us from understanding it, i.e. from understanding what was meant by the author. In contrast, we hold that the goal of systematic philosophy of uncovering and substantiating philosophical truths should not be neglected even when investigating the history of philosophy, especially considering that the authors wrote their works with this goal in mind, i.e. out of an interest in the truth. For this reason we should read these texts as potential conveyers of truths, and if (despite benevolent interpretation) this proves to be unfeasible, then as conveyers of falsehoods. In other words, we should view traditional philosophical texts from the outset with an eye to their truth or falsehood, and be prepared to take a stand on this issue. Only in this manner can a lively dialogue with our philosophical past be initiated, and only thus can we properly pay tribute to it.
The same concerns come up with theological work, I think, and perhaps even more so insofar as theology (I would venture to claim) more readily works constructively with texts that are historically more distant. LAHP provides an interesting niche in philosophical work for a reconsideration of texts that might be normally taken as merely having antiquarian usefulness. I don't think that such a logical analysis of historical texts should discount historical work, nor should it discount the usefulness of rather a-historical analytical study. But a helpful balance seems to be struck in this emphasis on logical examination of earlier contributions to philosophy.

My concern would be that anachronistic interaction with old thoughts would do more to obscure than clarify, and I'm sure this will go on often enough. But posterity presumably receives a tradition in order to do something with it, and I'd much prefer a robust dialogue that is adequately critical to separate the inevitable chaff from the (hopefully also inevitable) wheat to the alternative of a complete disuse of old texts. This looks like an interesting journal for pursuing such projects, and I wonder what similar venues might be available for theologians. My sense is that in any of the major theology journals this sort of interaction with past thought is just assumed to be rather normal.