By any other name.

Studying the history of ideas can engender a jaundiced perspective on contemporary academic writing.

Weariness can arise from a recognition that each generation is inventing the wheel. To give but one example, every generation since the 1870s seems to have proclaimed that the Anglo-Saxons rather interbred with than ethnically cleansed the older settlers of the British Isles, and then blasted the older generation for not grasping this.

It emerges also from reading the introductory sections of journal articles written by junior researchers who have been taught to begin with a potted history of the problem to be tackled. To anyone who has actually read the older texts so treated (clearly not the junior researchers – when would they have the time?) these histories are a travesty of the facts; but endlessly repeated they work to establish an ingrained miasprehension of a discipline’s own history among its practioners.

Another factor, that which has spurred this post, is the disciplinary myopia that pervades modern academic practice, the partial focus that is mistaken for inter-disciplinary self-awareness. This hit me yesterday following two seemingly unrelated discussions.

The first was a discussion of Tom Shippey’s argument that philology is the key to unlocking the secrets of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Shippey supports his claim with a series of dazzling insights and revelations, which he then uses to bash modern students of English, who have turned from philology to ‘literature’ and, says Shippey, thereby lost the true key to the study of English. I have some criticisms of Shippey’s presentation of the practice of philology in English universities before 1914 (it was not the straight line from the work of the Grimms that he presents, but rather mutated in the wake of various discoveries related to the prehistoric past in the 1880s). But in this post Shippey serves simply to remind us that philology once existed, that it was taught and practiced in English universities, that it  was great.

The second discussion followed a reading, on the request of the editor of a special journal issue, of a paper on the nature-society relationship in psychology. The paper was well-written and, within its world of science studies, more than decent. It began, of course, with a long historical survey, in this case intended to establish that language – all language, even scientific language – is not objective and theory neutral, and is ultimately metaphorical. This introduction, mirroring countless other introductory sections in articles on the history and sociology of the sciences, began with logical positivism and its attempt to establish an empirical language of science that could be demarcated from the language of poetry, metaphysics, and nonsense, and then observed how logical positivism had imploded by the 1930s, its very failure opening the door to a new kind of study of knowledge based on a new understanding of the nature of language.

The new approach to the sciences begins from the conviction that language is open-ended, fluid and inherently metaphorical. Its primary method is to chart local variations in specific terms over time. This the paper proceeded to do with regard to the psychological term ‘inhibition’ – noting early pre-psychological uses, different deployments since the French Revolution, and local variations in French, German, British, and Russian psychology, as well as popular uses through this whole period down to today.

All very interesting. But is it not astonishing that the author of the paper sets his own inquiry within an historical framework and never once mentions philology?

For what else is this ‘new’ method of reflection on the sciences but a form of philology? Of course the onus here is on modern usages (although Aristotle and Galen and other ancients are invariably mentioned). But basically we have a flourishing modern research program dedicated to producing papers and books that could well serve as appendices to the O.E.D.

The new method is only new in relation to a myopic intellectual history that pushes one school of philosophy to the forefront while absolutely occluding those who once held the crown of the social sciences, the philologists.

2 thoughts on “By any other name.

  1. tom hillman

    I have long found tiresome the tendency to begin things by rehearsing what everyone else has said on a subject. It’s one thing in a student paper or thesis, but it should be unnecessary in a paper written by one scholar for others. If we’re scholars, to borrow a phrase, we don’t need no education. It’s as if a student practice designed to check the box that says, ‘yes, Dr Cook, not only have I read all of the scholarship, I have also engaged with it’ has become so habitual that we carry it thoughtlessly on, and on.

    It is part of the elevation of opinion over evidence, of secondary sources over primary, which is what I suppose some would call liberating.

    I think advice from an infinite number of writing coaches and communities also plays a role. All the time I see people re-posting advice on how to write your novel, your article, your dissertation. I must admit that I view these with a jaundiced, and entirely ignorant, eye. I generally snort and move on. How did I write my dissertation? Writing one page a day, keeping in mind all the while that it marks the first, not the crowning, achievement of my scholarly career, got the job done. I knew all the scholarly material, but only cited or engaged with scholars when it was relevant. I could easily have added 40 or 50 pages of padding to my dissertation if I had chosen, or been required, to summarize it.

    1. simon Post author

      “It is part of the elevation of opinion over evidence, of secondary sources over primary”. Yes. Exactly. Its hard not being able to +1 replies here. And yes, too, on the writing advice: the real secret of writing is that you have to have your mind clear about what you are thinking – muddled writing points to muddled thoughts; and there is not that much more to it (but when I taught writing in the States I remember the head of the writing department explaining that the very idea of ‘mind’ was an outdated pseudo-colonialist concept that should not be used in the classroom. Go figure.)

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