Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on Kinds of Scholarship

Continuing from this recent posting on kinds of scholars: But it's even more complicated than that. In philosophy, the line between primary scholarship and secondary scholarship blurs. This may not be so much the case for other disciplines. For example, the distinction between literature and commentary on that literature is generally pretty clear. And the distinction between primary sources in history, and the later writings that reflect back on that period, forming interpretations based on the primary source material, is also generally pretty clear.

In philosophy, it is different, because even those scholars who work historically by referring back to early philosophical works are usually doing something different from what historians of ideas do. In fact, throughout history (at least in the Western philosophical tradition), philosophers have tended to refer back to others' ideas as part of developing their own. And so many "primary sources" in philosophy tend to include "secondary" commentary on earlier "primary sources." Yet they still count as primary sources in themselves because they offer new philosophical insight.

And this pattern traces all the way to the present.

In a way, this blurring of lines may in fact apply to literature and history too. If there is literary criticism of literary criticism, for example, then the literary criticism now being criticized would count as primary source material.

Or, if a historian were to engage in a study examining old history books, in order to gain insight on how a culture in a previous time understood itself historically, then the old history books would count as primary source material.

But now add to both of these latter examples the additional expectation that the writing produced might later on count as its own primary source material! Some day in the future, a scholar might study "the literary criticism of literary criticism" and use that first literary critique of other literary criticism as a primary text. Or, a historian might study "the historiography of historiography," examining that first historical study of past history books as a primary text.

All of this is already the case in the academic discipline of philosophy.

So, the distinctions I drew in that previous posting were over-simplified.

And I'm even more overwhelmed as I try to clarify precisely my own philosophical scholarly identity. I have a lot of different ideas I am working on, but what exactly do I really hope to accomplish in my scholarly work?

Good ideas can be helpful. Good ideas can change the world. Sometimes new ideas emerge that help clarify a situation and offer new strategies or new direction. Sometimes old ideas, re-shaped to show their applicability to present times, are transformative. The question of "old" vs. "new" is not so important as the question of relevance and applicability (that is, if one's task is presenting ideas in an attempt to be helpful).

What gets complicated is how to do justice to all of the good thinking that has preceded your own efforts. When do you decide to stop reading and start writing? When are you sure that you have something new to offer that hasn't already been said (at least in a way that matches up with current issues and problems you are trying to help solve)? If you have a hunch about what would be helpful, when do you stop searching for whether someone else has worked on this angle, and pause from reading to develop the ideas more fully yourself?

And more complexity: there are so many arenas for publication. There are scholarly publications. There are mainstream, popular publications. There are alternative presses. And, of course, there are publications that straddle these boundaries.

In the past, I've tried to fit myself into niches that are clear. But what I have come to realize is that my scholarly agenda does not really fit clearly into any category I already know. There may well exist niches in which I would fit well, but I just haven't found them yet. Or maybe there are not. Maybe I am trying to do something too new.

Young scholars just starting off may find this idea of breaking new ground exciting and romantic. I'm just getting old enough that this is not how I see it at all. I feel like I've been swimming against the tide all my life, and, well, it gets lonely and tiring. It doesn't feel like an efficient use of time and energy.

It comes back to a question of faithfulness vs. effectiveness, that I've also written about in a previous post. I've done well in trying to be faithful in how I feel called, but I haven't broken through to being effective in getting my scholarly work that most excites me finished or published yet. So, I want to do both: continue to be faithful, but also start to become more effective.

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