A decade or so ago, in David Hall‘s graduate class on method and theory in the study of religion, Hall asked the class why the study of religion in recent years had focused so much on particular historical details in individual places rather than larger issues that characterized or crossed traditions. I responded that the competitive job market and publish-or-perish tenure system require that people take an ever narrower focus, in order to carve out a niche for themselves. Hall replied, “Er, well, yes, that’s the cynical explanation.”
And I thought: cynical? Hall made his name studying the material conditions that gave rise to American “religion,” the economics of printing and text production. Much of his career was about the (often wise) materialist advice to explain the popularity of certain ideas by following the money. And yet suddenly, when that same mirror was turned on his own intellectual environment, of the 21st-century North American university – somehow it became “cynical”? Somehow, unlike all those thinkers we study, we have magically managed to escape the pressures of money-making and live in a world of pure ideas?
I suppose it might not have been so hard for Hall to think that way as a member of the Luckiest Generation: the pre-baby-boom scholars who taught at a time, unthinkable now, of vast expanding opportunities in academia. But for a member of today’s academic proletariat, it’s hard not to think in materialist terms – to follow the money, as one tries to think and write in socially approved ways in order to make it possible to earn a living.
It’s not that contemporary academic thought in the humanities is monolithic; there are at least three major methodological approaches that are very much at odds with one another. But there is something these approaches all share in common, and I think that that something can be attributed directly to the material conditions of academic life.
The first and oldest of these approaches is philology. Philology is devoted to the collecting, editing and translating of old texts – figuring out exactly what it is the text says, more than what it means. There aren’t that many philologists left teaching at smaller or regional colleges, but they often receive the juiciest teaching positions at the big prestigious universities, the Harvards and Pennsylvanias.
The second major approach is analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers devote their attention to analyzing arguments in ever more precise detail, leaving aside as many extraneous issues as possible in order to get one tiny conclusion exactly right. Analytic philosophy tends to be the object of scorn and derision outside of philosophy departments, but it rules those philosophy departments with an iron fist. The philosophy job market is cruel enough to those who are trained solidly within the analytic tradition; if you do anything else, your odds of getting a teaching position in a philosophy department these days are very close to nil.
The third, and surely most widespread, of the three is postmodernism, or the many variants on it. Postmodernists believe, among other things, that there is no definitive interpretation of any given text; a text is certainly not limited to what its author intended. So one can, for example, perform a “queer reading” of a classical text, examining homoerotic dimensions that are more apparent to a contemporary reader than to someone in the text’s own time. Leading postmodernist Jacques Derrida emphasized reading at “the margins,” those parts of a text which the author wished to wave aside. In philosophy, the majority of postmodernists are often quite cagey about advancing philosophical theories that they claim as their own (in the way that analytic philosophers do); rather, their works typically involve the exegesis of someone else’s existing work.
All three approaches are found in religion departments today, and they are typically quite hostile to each other. Postmodernists, especially, are philosophically opposed to the philologists’ attempt to pin down a single fixed text and the analytics’ attempt to find a single truth; analytic philosophers and philologists both disdain postmodernists’ apparently fast and loose readings of texts and of the world.
Beneath this hostility, however, there is one thing that all three schools of thought have in common. And that is the tendency to think small. The philologist focuses on tiny details of a single text, the analytic on tiny details of a single argument. The postmodernist may look at a whole text or even corpus of texts, but with the attempt to establish one single new interpretation among many, no attempt at anything grand or definitive; and talking only about what’s within the text and its historical context, not examining whether the text’s content is true or correct about the world outside the text. (Thus much postmodern work in so-called ethics tends to actually be in ethics studies.)
And that smallness, in turn, brings us back to the material conditions with which I opened. There is endless room to publish new work coming from all three of these methodological approaches. There are always ever more obscure texts for philologists to study, lying forgotten in dusty rooms until someone publishes about them in a journal. There are always smaller and smaller corners of an argument for analytic philosophers to poke at, finding some new detail or twist that has not yet been explored. And there are nearly infinite ways to reinterpret a text in the postmodern manner, taking the many permutations and combinations of applying interpretive lens X to text Y. If you want to publish in an academic journal, any variant of these three strategies gives you a good start for finding something new to say.
What you can’t do is be a scholar in the manner of Confucius, who tried to faithfully pass the received great ideas of the past down to new generations. Such scholars were the norm in the old days; now they are nearly an extinct breed. Sadder yet, the dominance of these three schools leaves no room for the wide-ranging, broad-minded work that pulls together many fields of knowledge into a single synthesis. If a young scholar today were to try to write the contemporary equivalent of Plato’s Republic or the Mencius, she would find herself eating out of garbage cans.
It is for these reasons that I have embraced blogging with such excitement. In academia, I could never have gotten away with asking the big questions I ask here. I would have earned great scorn for saying as much as I do on Greek and Chinese philosophers without knowing Greek or Chinese. Never mind that Thomas Aquinas managed to be one of the world’s greatest Aristotle commentators without knowing any Greek; if written today, his painstaking works would be snubbed as the scribblings of a dilettante. But if one wishes to try and learn, as I do, from all the major philosophical traditions – to learn all the languages involved would itself require a lifetime of training before one could begin to do any actual thinking. Outside of academia, one can start the thinking process as one wishes, and allow oneself to be corrected by people who do know the relevant languages if one gets something egregiously wrong.
I make no secret of being a big-picture thinker. (At least, not anymore.) But I also keep in mind the admonitions of the previous weeks: the details do matter. Ken Wilber is another philosopher who was able to get to the big picture by sidestepping academia; but I found that in his early work at least, he erred in the opposite direction, often writing the same book many times and rarely letting himself be corrected about the things he gets wrong. He could have used some of the detail-mindedness that academia provides. (Though I am currently reading some more recent works of his and finding that he may have started to get better at this.)
For this reason I have some sympathy for all of the approaches I discuss: we need the philologists to collect the texts we learn from, the analytic philosophers to sharpen our arguments’ precision, the postmodernists to remind us there might always be another way of looking at it. All of these approaches risk getting lost in their details, not seeing the forest for the trees; but Wilber (like myself) tends to gloss over the trees that make the forest up. The ideal approach, far easier said than done, is to combine the two. For that reason I’m grateful to have had a detail-oriented PhD training before trying to write about the big stuff on my own. That certainly doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to get it right. But it feels like I’ve got a good shot.