Posted by: mattcolvin | April 3, 2017

On Daube and Method


The Scottish legal scholar and justice of the Supreme Court of the UK, Sir Alan Rodger, was a pupil of David Daube at Oxford. In a 2004 article he sums up David Daube’s method of reading texts:

…what we do not seem to be taught is a kind of disciplined examination of texts. In Germany, the traditional form was the Digestenexegese, but we have no similar tradition here [sc. in England].
Yet Daube’s work provides endless models of how we should proceed. For it matters little whether the text is a statute, a Digest text or a line of Ovid or Homer. In all cases the crucial thing for Daube is to notice precisely what expressions are used. And then you have to ask yourself why. Why did the draughtsman or author use this word rather than another? Why does that item come at the end of the list rather than at the beginning? Does this text actually make sense or has it been modified and has something gone wrong in the process of modification? These are the kinds of issues which regularly present themselves, or should present themselves, when a reader is trying to understand a modern text just as much as an ancient text.

Elaborating on this point, Ernest Metzger in the same volume puts it this way:

Daube’s work has a quality we can admire even when we are not persuaded by it: he will explain a text in a way which is entirely unexpected, but which seems suddenly to reveal something that had lain unnoticed. How does he do this? According to Alan Rodger, Daube would notice something in a text and ask why it was there; he would then explain the text by answering the question. This essay discusses Daube’s method of reading texts, and discusses in particular why it is useful to begin with a qustion, how Daube finds the right questions to ask, and what makes one answer better than another. I argue that Daube’s method of reading texts produces the explanations it does because it does not rely on inferences from the text so much as prior guesses about what the text means.

Metzger goes on to compare Daube’s method to Karl Popper’s view of science as really driven – contrary to all the school textbooks – by non-inductive, creative, hypothesis-driven research. It is a method only practicable by those who are steeped not only in the languages of the literature they are studying but also in other languages and other literatures, which from ideas and comparanda may be derived.

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