Quote of the Day: What’s Wrong with Academics

 

Uncle Screwtape (in Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis):

But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn’t bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating The Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question”. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.

The Historical Point of View doesn’t care whether a great book teaches us something true. But at least sometimes it does make an honest effort to explain the meaning of a great book. Sometimes scholars don’t even seem to care much about doing that.

I once wrote a paper on Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology that was rejected by a philosophy journal on the grounds that it didn’t explain anything to scholars that no scholars had ever known before.

Did it matter that probably five or fewer scholars, out of hundreds who had written on the topic, actually understood more than a fraction of it?  Did it matter that none of them had ever written it down before? Did it matter that thousands of scholars care about this topic but don’t understand the heart of it?  Did it matter that hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of people care about this topic but don’t have anywhere to go to read a comprehensible introduction to the heart of it?  Did it matter that I’m apparently the only one on the planet who bothered to write that introduction?

No, apparently that didn’t matter.

Anyway, back to The Historical Point of View.  This is a terrific take-down of academics by Uncle Screwtape.  He continues:

And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.

What could be more timely than this?  The left wants to “contextualize” Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.  I don’t know what that means.  If it means we should understand their context, I’m all for it.  (Conservatives have been saying that for years.)  And I’m all for understanding ourselves in context too.  It’s not like we aren’t dirty rotten sinners as well.

What’s our best chance of knowing when someone like George Washington was a pitiful sinner while also knowing when we are?

I think our best chance is to read old books.

Try to figure out what they actually mean, using the official scholarly debate on what they mean as a sometimes-useful (but usually expendable) means to that end.  And look for truth in what they mean; there is often rather a lot of it.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Samuel Block Support
    Samuel Block
    @SamuelBlock

    That Uncle Screwtape was a crafty bugger.

    Saint Augustine:

    What’s our best chance of knowing when someone like George Washington was a pitiful sinner while also knowing when we are?

    I think our best chance is to read old books.

    They are hard, but I think you’re right. Where’s that introduction to Plantinga? 

    • #1
  2. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Samuel Block (View Comment):

    That Uncle Screwtape was a crafty bugger.

    Saint Augustine:

    What’s our best chance of knowing when someone like George Washington was a pitiful sinner while also knowing when we are?

    I think our best chance is to read old books.

    They are hard, but I think you’re right. Where’s that introduction to Plantinga?

    Sometimes they’re easy. Plato’s Apology, Anselm’s Proslogion.  (Someone else can name the easy books that aren’t philosophy.)

    The Plantinga intro: Here’s a YouTube intro for now; I believe we’ll see the article in print soon, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Saint Augustine:

    Try to figure out what they actually mean, using the official scholarly debate on what they mean as a sometimes-useful (but usually expendable) means to that end. 

    Not until after I’ve read the thing itself, and keeping in mind when I read the “scholars” that the original has stood the tests of time whereas the “scholars” are likely still wet behind their ears if not all wet in general.

    And look for truth in what they mean; there is often rather a lot of it.

    Yup.

    • #3
  4. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Once again, you blew me away.

    A double bind exists in the academic world, in which the latest trends in any field of study are what count the most. Also what counts are the  prime current day movers and shakers of the field of study.

    If Michaelangelo were to take a time machine to our current day world, and he applied at some much lauded Art Institute, he might well be rejected unless his portfolio indicated he would be willing to create art pieces in the  style of  Damien Hirst. If Hirst was the atist du jour at that Art Institute.

    It often is not any difference in the sciences.

    I watched a public TV show about an archaelogical dig in Alaska. At one point the students uncovered a type of sediment buried where it had already been determined that that particular fold of earth history dated back to 40,000 BC. Except that type of sediment had never before been discovered as being from that time period. The geology professor immediately offered his opinion as to what was going on, and all the students murmured their agreement.

    The thing was, I was watching the show with a friend and his father. The dad had recently retired from the USGS. He offered up three or four  other explanations for the anomaly. He was amazed the geology professor so quickly settled on the explanation he had seized upon, so quickly and without further consideration. Shaking his head, he muttered, “His tenure at that university must have gone to his head.”

    Real artists, real scientists – they never lose their ability to remain students of their chosen field. They like to display a sense of wonder and curiosity. They enjoy thinking about things and examining all possibilities.

    It is a shame that often the world of academia stamps out that ability.

     

    • #4
  5. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Saint Augustine:

    What’s our best chance of knowing when someone like George Washington was a pitiful sinner while also knowing when we are?

    I think our best chance is to read old books.

    Amen. 

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    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    If Michaelangelo were to take a time machine to our current day world, and he applied at some much lauded Art Institute, he might well be rejected unless his portfolio indicated he would be willing to create art pieces in the  style of  Damien Hirst. If Hirst was the atist du jour at that Art Institute.

    Speaking of Michaelangelo, here’s Leonardo da Vinci:

    A Critique of Credentialism, circa 1500

    • #6
  7. Brian Clendinen Member
    Brian Clendinen
    @BrianClendinen

    So to clarify. Like for example when interpreting the bible you are not saying using historical context to understand the what a refrences or culture norms were at the time? What is the line. That is what I am missing. You are saying historical interpreting someones heart aka motive for the writing is fullishness. Not interpreting the text with the understanding and knowledge the average reader at the time would of had correct?

    • #7
  8. JamesSalerno Coolidge
    JamesSalerno
    @JamesSalerno

    I always find it odd when the left criticizes Washington, Jefferson, etc. for slavery by today’s standards. Because then they will defend things like the Aztec’s engaging in human sacrifice because those were the “standards of the time.”

    • #8
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    JamesSalerno (View Comment):

    I always find it odd when the left criticizes Washington, Jefferson, etc. for slavery by today’s standards. Because then they will defend things like the Aztec’s engaging in human sacrifice because those were the “standards of the time.”

    Apparently the standard that really matters is the standard of our time, which is apparently to undermine the traditions of the American experiment in limited government.

    • #9
  10. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Brian Clendinen (View Comment):

    So to clarify. Like for example when interpreting the bible you are not saying using historical context to understand the what a refrences or culture norms were at the time?

    We should definitely use historical context to understand the original meaning of the Bible.

    What is the line. That is what I am missing. You are saying historical interpreting someones heart aka motive for the writing is fullishness.

    I’m pretty sure I said the opposite of that.

    Not interpreting the text with the understanding and knowledge the average reader at the time would of had correct?

    We should definitely interpret a text with the understanding and knowledge an original reader would have.

    • #10
  11. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Brian Clendinen (View Comment):

    So to clarify. Like for example when interpreting the bible you are not saying using historical context to understand the what a refrences or culture norms were at the time?

    We should definitely use historical context to understand the original meaning of the Bible.

    What is the line. That is what I am missing. You are saying historical interpreting someones heart aka motive for the writing is fullishness.

    I’m pretty sure I said the opposite of that.

    Not interpreting the text with the understanding and knowledge the average reader at the time would of had correct?

    We should definitely interpret a text with the understanding and knowledge an original reader would have.

    I’m trying to think through what sort of communication problem might have happened here, and I’m not making much progress.  But here’s a summary of some of the relevant points:

    • At some point (though I’m having difficulty recalling any details just now, alas) I’ve heard about the left wanting to “contextualize” the American founding.
    • I was not clear on what “contextualize” is supposed to mean, linguistically.
    • Probably, what the left actually wants is to say something like, “They were all part of a society that had slavery, so let’s cancel those jerks!”
    • I’m against that.
    • I am, however, for understanding their positions and their writings in context.
    • This is a helpful way of knowing where people like Franklin and Washington really were jerks–dirty, rotten sinners.
    • But I think we, too, are dirty, rotten sinners.  I’d like us to be able to understand our own sin and to avoid the sins crouching at the door of contemporary society.
    • That is one reason to read old books and try to understand their original meaning: It can help us not make the mistakes to which our own society is prone.
    • #11