Sunday, August 16, 2009

Scholarly authority

Jonathan Jarrett has a good post on how scholars of the Middle Ages (and other subjects, too) base themselves -- or don't -- on the authority of earlier scholars. Some excerpts:

One of the things I find oddest, and least enjoyable, about working on Spain is the peculiar persistence in parts of its historiography of regula magistri argumentation. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s proceeding with your argument, not from the sources, but by amassing a list of reputable authors who have also held the view you wish to put forward. As a result it’s kind of the flip side of the ad hominem argument, in which rather than impugning the character of your opponent and thereby his trustworthiness on matters of fact and/or opinion, you inflate the reputation of your supporters to show that you are rightly-guided.

Sometimes this is necessary because you have no other legs to stand on. Thus, I remember from years back a heated argument on soc.history.medieval about whether ‘the medievals’ (does anyone else twitch uncomfortably at this usage?) kept animals in their houses with them or whether the livestock was segregated. Nobody involved in the thread knew any evidence worth speaking of, so it degenerated into a series of claims and counter-claims about whether a passing and unreferenced note of the practice in a book by Barbara Hanawalt could be taken on trust based on her reputation as a historian. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but then, very little on s.h.m was.


So this is an old practice; indeed, proceeding from authority at all points and disguising novelty in it is positively medieval. But it’s miles and miles away from what I was taught, and what I’ve taught, which is to always go back to the primary sources, to the exclusion of much else. It’s not enough to tell me that Wallace-Hadrill said this, I tell the unlucky student, I need to know that you know the basis on which he said it and, not less importantly, whether you agree. Now, in another recent post, someone entirely different, Martin Rundqvist at Aardvarchaeology, draws a very similar distinction and reckons the method I’m talking about scientific. He says, among other things, this:

… in most cases the old authors, like Galen on medicine, did not actually have anything truly useful to say about how the world works. Before the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, people had no good way to test that. They believed in the best authorities.

The radical proposition at the heart of empirical science is that there are no good authorities. It doesn’t matter what anyone said about the world a hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago, except in the rare case when someone observed a nova in the 11th century. Observation rules.

Of course it’s not quite the same in history, because a text, even a primary one, is still an authority and not a genuine witness. Material evidence counterbalances that to an extent, which is great when one can bring them together, and of course this is the business of which Martin identifies as part. But, not being raised in the venerable Spanish tradition, I find myself positively encouraged to cut free of my teachers and say things by myself, and the regula magistri argument looks, well, yes, pre-Popperian. (I don’t think ‘pre-scientific’ really works as a term, at least not to anyone who knows the etymology, but I’ve done that rant elsewhere.)


I still get faintly dismayed when I come across a ‘prestigious specialist’ writing as if it were still the sixteenth century. In this respect, some of the disciples could pay a bit more attention to their masters.

Love that (valid for a change!) use of the phrase "positively medieval."

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