Posted by: mattcolvin | July 3, 2013

What Sort of Scholarship?

(Another repost from 2005 that still holds good.)


Above: David Daube

“Daube’s intimacy with the Judaism of Bible — the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament — and Talmud, on the one hand, and his intensely intellectual, detached approach to these documents, on the other has led to a remarkable result. Opposed as he is — although he rarely if ever expresses himself in such terms — to the large claims made by adherents of the religion, there is a sense in which he reverses matters. He often begins a study with an observation about some detail in a text. This detail is scrutinised from an angle unique to him and made the basis for the illumination of other details in the text. An argument, or a thesis, is built up with compelling logic and often the end result is indeed a large claim about a particular topic or literary work.”

“The effect on the reader is often mesmerizing: the startling nature of the observation, the brilliance of the arguments, the dazzling array of supporting evidence, the erudition on display, and, especially in his later work, the crisp, brief, even cryptic manner in which all this is communicated. If the reader participates in his mode of analysis he finds that much conventional opinion, whether in religious or scholarly circles, is overturned. More assured results on large issues seem to lie in his positions — if only because they are argued so convincingly — than in the often unexamined, or only superficially examined, received ones. He is a master of his sources and if these sources are to be regarded as the font of received wisdom, his line of reasoning about this or that topic is to be followed. To engage him, however, in a discussion of his views on a large issue is inevitably to be steered away on his direction from the general to the particular. Never does he wish the “big to beat up the small” as happens, he is so acutely aware, at every level of human (and animal) existence. He invariably directs us to the stance, “Would’st thou read Riddles, and their Explanations?” The beguilement of curiosity, the charm of a puzzle laid out in every which way to indicate just how real a puzzle it is, and the magic of the pursuit of a solution that proceeds down one interesting path after another: that is the beginning and, in many ways, the end of the enterprise.” — Calum Carmichael, preface to Collected Works of David Daube I: Talmudic Law

This is the sort of scholar I want to be. I too have lost patience with the “large issue” men and their huge systems, always aiming at power over the minds of others who happen to be less knowledgeable. The explanation of details is actually far more powerful than the large systems, while being far less hubristic.

I want to proceed in the same way as Daube: I am attracted to a text of Epicurus or the Stoics or Plato because it contains a puzzling hapax legomenon or a word that has been emended by various editors trying to construe the passage. I attack the passage from various angles, trying the results to see whether any solution to the problem will also shed light on other details of the text. In the end, I step back and display the consistency of the proposed solution with the larger drift of the author or text in question. I do this for ancient philosophical authors, who provide both numerous puzzling and misunderstood details begging for elucidation, and also a tighter-than-usual logic and structure that aids greatly in testing the proposed solutions. More so than in other sorts of literature, the solution to a difficulty in a Greek philosophical text will tend to ring with a clear sound of rightness: grammar and diction will be healed; any misguided butchery by editors and emenders will be healed; absurd proposals and controversies of past scholars will fall away moot; and the ancient author’s argument will suddenly make sense where before it did not.

My goal as a scholar is to increase the ambit of my reading and my knowledge of the details. The sort of scholarship for which David Daube was praised in the above quotation crescit eundo. Reading the sources becomes a lifelong joy and delight, and one becomes ever better able to read and explain. The startling results of this sort of scholarship have superior and lasting value because they do not depend upon trendy or contrived, artful modes of reading. The goal of scholarship is not to impress upon the world how clever you are. Nobody cares how clever you are! But if you can show the world what St. Paul, or Jesus, or Plato, or the author of the book of Ruth really meant, then you have made a contribution. Good scholarship, like love in 1 Cor. 13, does not boast, and does not seek its own.



  1. […] critics from any fool with a computer search engine: to see such connections, you need to have read widely, and recall details of what you have read. It is not enough to use a search engine to find words in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s