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Guess Who? A Quote On Historians And Professional Scholarship

May 3, 2007

I ran across the quote below a few days ago. See if you can guess its author.
“Only the learned read old books, and . . . they are of all men [and women] the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. [This is because of] 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. . . . 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. . . . Great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that ‘history is bunk’ ” (italics mine).

Who said it? Try to guess without googling. I will state upfront that it was neither Mortimer J. Adler nor any other critic-philosopher who has published in the last 40 years.

Does this statement possess some measure of truth? Is being an historian concomitant with cutting ourselves off from the lessons of the past in favor of “scholarly” questions? Are professional historians today who claim to learn and teach lessons from the past “unutterably simple-minded?” Was the writer just a crank? – TL


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  1. Alexis permalink

    Crank, but only in part.

    Not crank:
    I personally have heard a scholar sneer, albeit mildly, at the undergraduate's propensity to “change his mind with every new book he reads.”

    Not all scholars fall into the above category. Some are actually able to change their mind in the face of a good argument, remain (generally) immune to faulty ones, and appreciate the history of a thought over time.

    I actually liked something William Turkel had to say recently (see his blog for the post) on the prerogative, or even need, to change one's mind – the point to stop researching and start writing is when what you read no longer changes your mind. The implication, of course, is that your mind will be changed quite a lot along the way if you are doing things properly.

    Incidentally, I do believe the author of your quote lived when it was still only a woman's prerogative to change her mind. Given that, perhaps his attitude makes more sense for the time in which it was written. Old habits die hard, especially in academia.


  2. Alexis,

    Your “not crank” anecdote scares me somewhat, except that undergraduates are notorious for sophomoric behavior.

    The author of the quote published the most, and was at his peak around the mid-20th century. Given that he was intensely Christian, your noting his ability to act outside the typicalities of his gender might intrigue those readers here who stereotype Christian thinkers as conservative.

    – TL


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