Monday, 28 March 2016

Critic v. Skeptic

In a previous post I mentioned that “critical” and “skeptical” are not synonymous, and I thought that I would expand on that point a bit here. In order to do so I’ll add a third word, “credulous,” which although usually considered the antithesis of “skeptical” is in fact little more than its mirror image.

Let us parse out these terms, beginning positively with “critical.”

To be critical is to be a critic, which means to be one who judges. More to the point, within an empirico-rational discourse it is one who judges matters on her or his own authority. This italicized portion is crucial. The critic renders judgments upon empirical and rational matters not by appeal to this or that external authority but rather by appeal to her or his capacity to attentively, intelligently, and reasonably evaluate data and argumentation relevant to the matter at hand. The critic proceeds with a robust and earned competence born from years and not infrequently decades of diligent cultivation of her or his capacity to make such judgments within a particular area of investigation. Moreover, having such robust competence in one realm, and knowing how much effort it took to earn that competence, the critic is 1) aware that she or he lacks comparable competence in other realms and 2) respects the competence of those who do work in disparate realms of knowledge.

Neither the skeptic nor the credulist shares in this robust and earned competence. The skeptic or the credulist might think that she or he has such competence, but in fact what one is dealing with is an incompetence so profound that it mistakes its own ignorance and inability to reason for insight. It is the lack of competence that provides the impetus for such people to pursue skepticism and credulity. In each case the way of proceeding is identical: one programmatically adopts an epistemology that allows one in advance to decide all empirical and rational matters in the area of discussion before any actual investigation has taken place. Such a person does this by a sleight of hand involving burden of proof. She or he programmatically assumes (if a credulist) that all must be true or (if a skeptic) that all must be false until shown elsewise. Such a person does not engage in any actual work of judgment where it really counts, namely the attentive sifting of the data, the imaginative construction of worlds that might intelligibly have produced such data, the rational adjudication between such imagined worlds in order to determine which is the one in which we most likely live. Both the skeptic and the credulist, woefully under-equipped for such work, would rather short-circuit the process of investigation by epistemological fiat. That is, after all, much easier than undertaking the difficult work of cultivating one’s own competence.

In practice of course the same person can move between credulity and skepticism at different times. It is not unusual for one to credulous towards biblical and Patristic yet skeptical towards extra-canonical material, or vice versa. The same person who is a rabid skeptic regarding “the establishment” can be utterly credulous when it comes to conspiracy theorists. This is because, as suggested above, credulity and skepticism are just alternative and precisely inverse strategies for handling a lack of competence. Such epistemological vacillation recedes, replaced by the actual, difficult, work of criticism, as the person cultivates her or his competence.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

An addendum to my previous post

Upon rereading my post of yesterday, "Did Paul write Romans?", I realized that it could have been misread as an argument against Pauline authorship of one or more of the undisputed epistles. For clarification's sake, please be aware that this was not my intent. I am quite persuaded that Paul wrote these epistles. My interest really is in asking "Why is it that we all agree on this one point?", because it seems to me that if we can identify what warrants this shared confidence then we can conceivably refine our approach to more contested texts.

As I have been reflecting upon this interest it increasingly seems to me that if one holds the undisputed Pauline epistles to be of Pauline pedigree then one is left with little to no warrant for thinking that James and 1 Peter are pseudepigraphic. Certainly both are attributed to their respective putative authors, and I would argue that both are free from anachronism. There are no anachronisms of which I am aware in James, and the two possible anachronisms in 1 Peter (the use of Christianos in 4:16 and the reference to Rome as Babylon in 5:13) might not be anachronisms at all. The burden would be upon those who would make the positive argument that they are anachronisms, and since what we're really dealing with here is an argument from silence (these terms do not otherwise appear until somewhat later) the burden is going to hard to satisfy. And in fact there is data that can allow us to argue positively that these terms existed during Peter's lifetime. Acts tells us that Christianos was already current as early as the 30s (and remember that Peter lived into the mid-60s), and Revelation (which no one to the best of my knowledge dates later than about thirty years after Peter's passing, and some date as early as the late-60s) too seems to refer to Rome as Babylon. When we place such data against an argument from silence the argument from anachronism looks tenuous at best. An argument from a silence that might not be a silence at all is weak beyond weak.

What about arguments from language and doctrine? Certainly, if it can be shown that either James or Peter could not have written in the language or advanced the doctrines that we see in these texts then we can indeed exclude them as authors. Again, the burden is upon those who would argue positively that such is the case with regards to James and Peter. There are two arguments from language. The first would entail establishing, independent of James and 1 Peter, the characteristic features of Jacobean and Petrine style respectively. As was the case with Paul, the only data available to independently establish a specifically Jacobean style is the Acts of the Apostles, and I see nothing in that text that excludes anything in James as Jacobean. With 1 Peter things are perhaps a bit more complicated because of 2 Peter (which in turn brings in issues related to Jude), but no more so than is the case with adjudicating the authorship of the undisputed Pauline texts. If the existence of 2 Peter poses a potential linguistic problem for deciding the authorship of 1 Peter than the existence of disputed Pauline texts poses a potential linguistic problem for deciding the authorship of the undisputed Pauline texts. Again, watch out for special pleading.

The second argument from language assumes that James and Peter are typical Galileans, and that typical Galileans could not have written the Greek found in these texts. This is a virtual non-starter for several reasons, both logical and empirical. First, an argument from typicality is really an example of the gambler's fallacy. Even if we established that, say, 98% of Galileans could not write in the Greek that is in these texts it would not follow that there is a 98% chance that James and Peter could not write in such Greek. When it comes to statistics one simply cannot move from the general to the individual like that. Second. even if it did follow, which it doesn't, it still wouldn't follow that James and Peter would be in the (hypothetical) 98%. Indeed, whatever else they might have been, they were demonstrably not typical Galileans. The very fact that they become leaders of a religious movement that soon spreads across the eastern Mediterranean shows that they are in fact atypical. If argument from typicality are questionable to begin with, then how much more questionable when dealing with the demonstrably atypical? Third, empirically, we know that people in the ancient world used translators and assistants to aid in composing their. Josephus, for instance, talks about making use of such services, and Papias explicitly tells us that Mark (who happens to appear in 1 Peter!) served precisely in this role for Peter. As such, it is not clear that a lack of strong Greek compositional would in fact prohibit James and Peter from writing these texts.

What about doctrine, or more generally content? Again, we'd need an independent baseline to establish what content James and Peter could have written. The only legitimate baseline is going to be Acts. We can't very well use the undisputed Pauline literature to help establish a baseline, as the purpose here is to establish the conditions by which any epistle is judged to be authentic; as such, we are working at a stage prior to the point before which it is licit to make judgments about which literature Paul wrote. But you know what, let's go crazy and look at this literature as well. I dare anyone to find anything in the depiction of James and Peter in Acts and the undisputed Pauline epistles that contradicts anything in James and 1 Peter. Sometimes it is said that 1 Peter is too "Pauline," but in order to establish that to be probative one would have to establish more precisely that 1 Peter has themes that are exclusive to Paul. Otherwise one has simply identified a place in which Peter and Paul happened to agree. The argument from doctrine perhaps isn't a non-starter, but it's not going to establish positively that James and Peter could not have written these respective texts.

Ah, says the clever reader, you've been stacking the deck by supposing that the burden is upon those arguing for pseudepigraphy to show that James and Peter could not have used such language or written such teachings as are found in these texts. No, such a reader might say, you need to establish positively that James and Peter could have used this language or delivered these teachers. Okay, let's entertain this paper tiger of an objection. My response would be "Lest we special plead, please establish the same with regard to Paul. Show me that Paul could use the language that we see in the undisputed epistles. Show me that he could deliver such teaching." And now we are back at where we were in my previous post, with regard to relying upon Acts. I would note that the language used by Paul in Acts is really quite different from that which is found in the epistles. If my interlocutor says "Well, that's because of how Luke is presenting Paul" I would respond, "Quite so," and observe that if this is a licit account of the differences between the Lukan and epistolary Paul then it should also be a licit account of the differences between Lukan and epistolary James and Peter. I would note that nowhere does Acts present Pauline themes such as justification by faith, and if it is again objected that this is an artifact of Lukan presentation I would again respond with "Quite so, and so too are differences between the Lukan and epistolary James and Peter."

And at this point my clever reader is faced with a choice: acknowledge that the burden is upon those arguing that a writer could not have used such language or made such teaching, or be forced to defend authorship of the undisputed Pauline epistles against the corrosive arguments such as thus advanced by historical skeptics (nota bene: the term "historical skeptic" is not in fact a synonym for "historical critic") against the authorship of James and 1 Peter. And I'm not at all convinced, as I intimated in my post yesterday and again here today, that the consensus position on the authorship of the undisputed Pauline epistles would withstand such an onslaught. As such, although it is of course possible that one could hold that the undisputed Pauline epistles were written by Paul and James and 1 Peter were not written by James and Peter respectively, I'm not entirely sure if it is possible to do so reasonably. I would note further that only by raising the issue of differences between 1 Peter and 2 Peter can one begin to seriously compromise the case for Petrine authorship of 1 Peter, but if that compromises the argument for 1 Peter than the differences between disputed and undisputed Pauline epistles would compromise the argument for their Pauline origin. If so, then the case for Jacobean authorship of James is actually stronger than that for Pauline authorship of any of the thirteen canonical epistles! The take-home message: historical skepticism is a house of cards generally built upon special pleading, which if removed typically causes the whole thing to collapse.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Did Paul write Romans?

There's something I've been thinking about, since my graduate student days, and I've been going back to it recently as part of a larger project. Most all scholars agree that Paul wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. In fact, alongside Markan priority the judgment that Paul wrote these seven letters might well be close to the only "assured results" of two centuries of New Testament criticism. Yet, I wonder: how do we know that Paul wrote these seven letters?

It can't be enough that the letters identify Paul as the writer. Scholars, after all, consider it possible that some if not all of the remaining thirteen New Testament texts that identify Paul as the writer were not written by Paul, and will also dispute the authorship of the epistles of James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude. No, such attribution is certainly not a sufficient condition. It's probably not even a necessary condition: after all, texts such as 1 Clement or, to step outside of early Christianity, Plato's dialogues lack such attribution, and yet they the former is generally affirmed to be Clementine and some of the latter Platonic. So, that seems to be a bit of a dead end.

Perhaps it is because the undisputed epistles do not evince any anachronism. They do not demonstrably refer to anything after the period that Paul is known to have flourished. Is that however sufficient? Probably not. After all, a forgery could have originated during his lifetime, and moreover a text written after Paul's lifetime could still be free of anachronism. Freedom from anachronism is no doubt a necessary condition but sufficient? Probably not.

What about the extent to which these letters cohere with what we otherwise know about Paul, about his language, his teaching, his life? Well, that's a bit of a pickle. We would need an empirical basis for such a comparison, and really the only such basis that can be seriously entertained is the Acts of the Apostles. But here we run into problems. Historically biblical scholars have said that if there is a contradiction between the Acts and the undisputed epistles then the undisputed epistles must take priority. This however is simply to acknowledge that at least in some respects the letters and the Acts do not cohere. If the undisputed epistles and the Acts are acknowledged to contradict then the judgment is not that there is an absent of contradiction but rather that the degree of contradiction does not exclude Pauline authorship. What we find is that an absence of contradiction cannot be considered to be a sufficient condition, nor can it be considered a necessary condition, for it is a condition that is not satisfied despite the judgment that Paul wrote these texts. It is not a condition at all, it seems.

Perhaps it is the early external attestation to Pauline authorship? Well, there is early external attestation to the Markan authorship of the Gospel of Mark. This attestation is roughly coeval with and might even slightly pre-date that with regard to the undisputed Pauline epistles. Yet this is generally dismissed, so I wonder how much weight it can actually be made to hold in the case of any of the Pauline texts. Not to mention, it's hardly difficult to imagine that this early external attestation arose as a direct result of the fact that the letters identify Paul as the writer. Are the Christian writers doing anything more than exegesis here?

I am thus left to wonder? Is there any basis for the judgment that Paul wrote these seven texts beyond the fact that they are ascribed to Paul and are free from anachronism? Is it in fact the case that in the case of the undisputed Pauline epistles New Testament scholars proceed on the functional supposition that if these two conditions are met that it is reasonable to judge these texts to be Pauline creations? Is this judgment rendered even knowing that in fact forgery cannot yet be definitively ruled out? Because frankly I don't see any other grounds for the consensus judgment on authorship, aside from the theological privilege that several of these texts have received in Protestant (both conservative and liberal) circles.

If attribution and freedom from anachronism are the deciding factors then there are some interesting corollaries. The first, this judgment is dependent upon the supposition that the canonical Gospels and Acts present an essentially usable chronology for early Christianity. Why is this the case? Well, it turns out that we only know when Paul lived because of these texts. There is in fact nothing in the Pauline corpus that would allow us to significantly narrow down the period in which he flourished. For that we must turn to the data from the Gospels and the Acts. Yet any judgment about a freedom from anachronism depends upon an awareness of when Paul lived. Indeed, precisely to the extent that one evinces radical skepticism with regards to the basic chronology offered by the Gospels and Acts, to that extent one calls into question the basis by which we judge Paul to have been the author of any of the thirteen canonical epistles attributed to him.

A second corollary, and one more interesting from an epistemology perspective, is that we have decided that certainty is not necessary. Nothing has ruled out the possibility that these letters are frauds. In fact, given the nature of the data, I cannot readily conceive of any empirical test by which one could, beyond any reasonable doubt, rule out the possibility that one or more of the seven undisputed epistles is pseudo-Pauline. I'm not even sure if we can show it probable that Paul wrote these letters. Yet, despite such a limit stemming from our data we are prepared to judge that they are in fact Pauline. It seems to me that when it comes to these letter were are prepared to accept "plausibly Pauline" as functionally equivalent to "Pauline."

Three, we must consider whether we are engaged in special pleading when we then turn to other works of the New Testament and beyond. If "plausible" is sufficient in the case of these seven texts then one cannot insist upon "certain" when considering any of the others. And this is the question that really interests me: are we treating these seven epistles differently than we treat other New Testament literature? Are they are a privileged canon-within-the-canon, inherited from the Reformers, that none dare question, not even the most critical of scholars, whilst all those other texts, the ones that the Catholics loved, have to constantly struggle to prove their authenticity? Because from the perspective of this humble inquirer, it seems that the burdens of proof are differential: the seven epistles are presumed authentic until proven inauthentic, so much so that no one even bothers to argue the case, whilst the balance of the New Testament is presumed inauthentic until proven authentic. And a differential burden of proof is a problem.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Demythologizing and Translation

I recently made the following comment on Facebook, in regard to a conversation about Rudolf Bultmann's demythologizing program, in which James McGrath referred to Bultmann's project as one of translating between the first-century milieu in which the New Testament texts originated into the 20th-century milieu in which Bultmann operated. The comment was well-received, so I thought that I would post it here, with some minor edits to ease the translation from Facebook to blog, and then expanded upon in a way that FB does not allow.

"Translation" is the perfect word for demythologizing, and I would suggest allows us to situate Bultmann's project not as a radical break in Christian theologizing but rather as something right at its core. I think it very enlightening that Luke presents the first major act of Christian proclamation as an occasion of miraculous translation, wherein the Holy Spirit overcomes all linguistic barriers (I refer of course to Pentecost). Then the first significant internal Christian struggle mentioned in the text is between two groups defined by their language (the Hebraists and the Hellenists). Then we see throughout the balance of Acts and the bulk of the Pauline corpus a focus upon how to translate Christianity from its Jewish home into a Gentile milieu. The story of Christianity is the story of how to translate certain initial convictions about Jesus and the God of Israel into the languages and thought-worlds of other peoples. I don't see what Bultmann is doing as any different. In fact, I think that perhaps what many people find objectionable is not that he engages in translation but rather that he does so openly, never pretending to be simply relating what the biblical tradition says.

I would argue that the problems in the specific project of demythologizing, as carried out by Bultmann and his disciples, come not from the theological impulse to translate, which is at least as old as Christianity, but rather from the reality that Protestant theologians often tend to assume that one can jump straight from the New Testament to their own time, neglecting the couple or so thousand years of other translation efforts in between. They quite simply overlook a significant amount of data as they undertake their work. As such, theological translation today cannot be simply of the New Testament material but also of past, theologically-decisive translations of that material. [N.B. the original comment ended here].

The failure to consciously reflect upon past acts of theological translation leads them to unreflectively import much from the history of that translation. For instance, the Protestant Paul tends to be read through an Augustinian become Protestant become modern prism. What we have in actuality is a Paul translated into a fourth-century Latin Christian idiom translated into a sixteenth-century Protestant Christian idiom translated again for the 20th or 21st century. It is this Paul with which the New Perspective tends to engage. Perhaps the question then becomes not "Who today reads Paul best?" but rather "What do modern New Testament scholars need to do with the Augustinian heritage? the Lutheran? the Calvinist? the 19th-century liberal Protestant tradition that most immediately birthed modern New Testament scholarship?"

Monday, 14 March 2016

Again, with the nonsense

Jim Linville shared a post that Creation Film Productions put on FB back in 2011. It reads as follows: "A question that the evolutionist cannot truthfully answer...If evolution is true, how did mathematics begin? Did 2 + 2 = 17 at one point in time? Mathematics seem to suddenly pop with every civilization. For bible believing christians, that's an easy question to answer. God made mathematics and gave it to us." Now, first off, Creation Film Productions, there's two questions there: before professing special expertise on mathematics one might want to learn how to count to two. That notwithstanding, there is a less pedantic observation to be made: Creation Film Productions has made a crucial conceptual error, which has led it to spout off nonsense.

The crucial conceptual error is a failure to distinguish between two senses of the word "mathematics." Like many (probably most) fields, "mathematics" refers both to a set of techniques (in the case of the example given, the technique is known as addition) and the content of the knowledge generated via those techniques (in this case, that two plus two invariably equals four). What they fail to grasp is that it is the case that two plus two have always equaled four, even if our techniques for knowing that to be the case have varied and in fact at one point did not exist at all. As such, given that their question is predicated upon a fundamental conceptual error all the "evolutionist" needs to do is to identity that error. Then she or he can such a person can truthfully answer these questions. The first question ("Where did mathematics come from?") is answered by studying the history of mathematical techniques. It is a life-long endeavour for which the present author is utterly unqualified to speak to. It is also not an endeavour that is properly speaking within the primary ambit of evolutionary science, and as such Creation Film Productions further demonstrates a conceptual inability to distinguish between the fields of biology and history. The second answer ("Did 2+2 = 7 at one point in time?") is answered with a simple "No," although that "No" can be expanded, without any lack of charity, to read "Are you off your rocker? Of course it didn't. That's genuinely insane."

Of course, they're not insane. What they are ignorant. I use that word in the precise sense of uninformed. They are in fact so uninformed that what they think is a gotcha in fact reveals them as utterly unqualified to even formulate a rational question. Consequently they spout off inanities as if they were sage. This is another instance of what, in my immediately previous post, I described as a longer cycle of decline. Here I follow Lonergan, and his argument that the inability to recognize the necessity for specialist knowledge is the most egregious cause of societal decline. That perhaps needs some qualification. The problem is not that people spout off nonsense. There will always be nonsense. The problem occurs when institutions become incapable of distinguishing between the incompetent nonsense-peddler and the competent communicator of hard-won knowledge. Then nonsense, rather than being relegated to the margins where it belongs, becomes the basis for policy decisions. Instead of the persons most knowledgeable about biology determining what should be taught in biology classrooms it becomes persons with little to no knowledge on the matter. Instead of climate scientists adjudicating whether climate change is occurring it becomes, again, persons with little to no relevant knowledge. Instead of scholars of religion defining the diversity among modern of Islam it becomes those who cannot even distinguish between a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh. Eventually a situation arises whereat any sober public discussion of policy becomes impossible. That is the situation which Canadian politics was approaching under our past prime minister, who spent ten years actively attacking the institutions that keep nonsense to the sidelines, and seems to be the situation current in American politics today. It is a dangerous situation, because under such conditions the possibility of reversing the decline becomes greatly vitiated.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Neil deGrasse Tyson made a mistake

Today I read in my FB news feed that Neil deGrasse Tyson made a factual error regarding biological evolution. Truthfully, it was a ridiculously minor error, and in a world where we are watching a bigot openly encouraging mob violence securing a nomination for the presidency of the United States it really doesn't seem that significant. As I reflected upon it though, I realized that it is actually a very instructive moment. I have no doubt that Dr. Tyson is a fantastic astrophysicist. I don't have the competence to evaluate his work, but he seems to be well-respected by his colleagues in the field, so that's good enough for me. But an astrophysicist he remains. The further he moves from his area of specialization the more likely he is to make an error, and as such when he moved from astrophysics to biology he messed up. It happens.

A number of interesting analogies can be drawn. I am a New Testament scholar and as such have the competence to speak with authority about the state of New Testament studies. The further one moves from that field the more reticent I become to do so. I have some but considerably less competence to speak about immediately adjacent fields, such as Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic, or Patristic scholarship. I have a degree in anthropology, and as such have more competence to speak to matters anthropological than most people, but significantly less than any working anthropologist. Get beyond such areas of the human sciences, and beyond the human sciences itself, and my competence begins to drop off significantly. Sure, I can teach a first-year course in World Religions or a second-year course in New Religious Movements, but if someone asked me to teach a graduate seminar in Buddhism I'd laugh out loud. And that's still within Religious Studies, the official title of my doctorate. Even within NT studies I've much greater competence to speak to historical Jesus or Johannine studies than to, say, Pauline studies. That's because knowledge is specialized: one can learn a great deal about a very narrow amount of material, or very little about a lot, but one cannot learn a great deal about a lot.

Now, let's think about many of the extremes of the new atheism. If Dr. Tyson, astrophysicist, is liable to error whilst speaking outside his area of specialization but still within the physical sciences how much more might a Dr. Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, be liable to error when he crosses into the social sciences or humanities? I'm sure that Dr. Dawkins could have been a fantastic scholar of religion, had he pursued such a specialization. But he didn't, and he is no more competent to pronounce upon matters related to the study of religion than I am on matters related to the study of biological evolution. That's why I won't be writing any books on evolution any time soon. In fairness to Dawkins, fundamentalists opened the door by engaging in evolution denialism, but the fact that they have overstepped their competence does not give him grounds to overstep his own. The very fact that he and his followers seem unable to recognize theological diversity but instead think it adequate to critique a generic "theism" (by which they seem almost invariably to mean fundamentalist Protestant theology) speaks to the fact that such persons are very far out of their area of expertise. What you end up with is a whole bunch of people saying a whole lot of stuff about a whole lot of things that they simply do not understand.

Now, let's think about denialism. Denialism has an invariant structure. Specialists in an area of knowledge uniformly agree that is the case: climate scientists say that climate change is occurring, biologists that species evolve, historians that the Holocaust took place, New Testament scholars that Jesus existed, etc. Then, non-specialists come along and say "No, specialists, you are all mistaken." So rarely is denialism driven by actual specialists that denialists of all stripes love nothing more than to trot out the one or two specialists in the entire world who actually agree with them: and in most cases a closer examination reveals that these persons are not specialists in the area at all (the classic example in my own field of studies is Richard Carrier: yes, he has a Ph.D. in Ancient History, but he's a specialist in Byzantine not New Testament studies, and certainly not in historical Jesus studies). Of course, Dr. Tyson is not engaged in any sort of denialism. I'm sure that he will acknowledge that he spoke in error, if he has not done so already. But the basic phenomenon, of a person speaking beyond their area of primary of competence and thus making an egregious error immediately evident to all actually competent persons, remains the same.

Lonergan argued that the recurrent, cultural inability to recognize and respect specialized knowledge is the genesis of longer cycles of societal decline. It means that decision-making is chronically made not on the bases of the best knowledge on matters at hand but rather on the bases of half-truths and full-out errors. It is a longer cycle of decline because it will be specialists who most acutely grasp the problems of not paying attention to specialist information, yet it is precisely specialists who are being ignored. I.e. when the problem is the neglect of that very thing that can solve the problem the possibility of finding a viable solution is greatly reduced if not outright vitiated. We are seeing the fruits of that now, painfully, in American politics, and persons is other countries should pay heed because our cultures are hardly immune to the same toxic populism driving what is happening in the US. At a time when the nation's institutions of government are in disarray, suffering obstructionism on an unprecedented scale, many seem to be utterly convinced that the solution lies in finding those leaders with the least familiarity with how those institutions should work. Ignorance of the domain in which the problem lies is seen as a virtue. The possibility that during such a crisis the best leaders will be precisely those with the best knowledge of how the American institutions of government are meant to operate seems virtually foreign to the discussion. Yet any rational analysis would reveal that it is in fact the only solution; it is precisely parallel to the decision-making that leads one to take one's car to a mechanic to be fixed or to go to the physician when ill. Instead what we see are a gaggle of buffoons tripping over each other, trying to prove which of them can act in the way that most clearly demonstrates that they are unfit to hold the office for which they are running.

Neil deGrasse Tyson made an error on a matter outside his primary area of competence. He'll probably acknowledge it. And that's a model for not just how the academy but in fact all of society should operate.

Friday, 4 March 2016

"Keywords" is Back!

Whilst earning my undergraduate degree in anthropology there was one book that I never let out of my reach: Raymond Williams’s Keywords. It is utterly dispensable, and should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the human sciences (I’ve long preferred the French sciences humaines, which encompasses in a single term what English severs artificially into the humanities and the social sciences). It is something between a dictionary and encyclopedia of the human sciences, or as the sub-title puts it, “A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.” Its focus is upon the history of the English terms that human scientists frequently use to describe the phenomena with which we work, such as, for instance, “Culture” and “Society.” Words that we take for granted are treated as themselves objects of historical investigation, with a concern to understand how they came to do the work that they do in our contemporary discourses. Through Keywords I learned two indispensable lessons: one, that language is always undergoing development, and thus many of the words that we take as givens will in fact reference multiple concepts at any given time; two, that words nonetheless have histories and thus cannot simply mean whatever one wants them to mean, except at the risk of discursive chaos. In my mind and without any of my signature hyperbole, Keywords is quite simply the single most important English-language work in the human sciences ever published, because through its meta-investigation it provides an indispensable key to understanding every other English-language work in the humanities and social sciences.

Yet, even by the time I began my university education it was already out of print. I was able to snatch up a copy only because I worked at the university’s used bookstore and grabbed the first one that came through. Already well-loved when I purchased it, this copy fell apart after several years of regular consultation by yours truly. So, imagine my excitement when I recently learned that it was back in print, in a beautiful new edition from Oxford University Press. It lacks entries on words that would be great interest specifically to scholars of religious studies, such as “religion,” but some of these lacunae can be made up by looking at keywords.pitt.edu, the site of the Keywords Project, a collective scholarly effort devoted to using Williams’s approach in Keywords to consider words such as “faith” and “terror.” With this handsome edition readily available and the Keywords Project as supplement students can reasonably expect to find Keywords as required reading on my future syllabi.