The Ideal Scholar: Introduction

In a series of articles, I hope to explore the ideal of scholarship. Since scholarship is the activity of human beings, this means exploring the practitioner, the scholar. An ideal, though unattainable, is nevertheless useful both as a standard of comparison and as a spur to improvement. An ideal could be produced more than one way: (1) inductively, by examining recognized great scholars and abstracting from them the qualities that seem jointly to contribute to their greatness; (2) transcendentally, by considering the aims of scholarship and asking what human qualities would be necessary to produce such work.

The inductive method, if carried to the exclusion of the second, could result in non-explanation. The result of such a process would not necessarily tell us why they are great scholars; it would tell us only why others recognize them as such. Unless one is committed to a thorough anti-realism, surely one acknowledges the possibility of a gap between someone being recognized as a great scholar and someone being a great scholar. The problem becomes apparent when one tries to determine whether a particular scholar ought to be recognized as great. To say that she should be recognized so if she is similar to great philosophers is to raise the question  of what makes her similar. To say she participates along with them in the “form of greatness” is an approach unsatisfying to most people since Plato. Rather, a two-tiered explanation is necessary, one that (1) justifiably asserts the correspondence of her work to a standard or greatness and (2) renders the standard of greatness intelligible. The first requires an examination of the formal quality of her work; the second requires an explication of the final cause of scholarship.

The transcendental approach, if blind to the historically situated human limits of scholarship, could easily come to an unrecognizably inhuman ideal. An omniscient, eternal, perspectiveless (or omni-perspectival?) being could easily emerge as the ideal scholar. But these qualities would create a practitioner laboring under such different conditions that no useful comparison to or strategy of improvement for real scholars could be drawn from the ideal. Thus, even the ideal of scholarship is not a pure abstractions, but rather a pure, concrete instantiation of scholarly practice.

What is scholarship? It is the extension of an existing body of knowledge by human beings employing methods appropriate to their respective subject matter.

A few comments on each part are appropriate. First, the goal is extension of knowledge, not merely the reformulation or handing on (teaching) of knowledge. This extension can be by discovering new facts, rendering existing facts more intelligible, or bringing facts and theories in one discipline into meaningful  connection with those of other disciplines. Negatively, it can include elimination of false “facts” or theories, insofar as falsity inhibits the attempt to extend knowledge.

But “knowledge” is a historical product of human activity, not some sort of abstract concept (such as truth). A scholar’s work always takes place within a tradition of knowledge, which renders the work intelligible. The study of particle physics presupposes the creation of the theory of particle physics, which in turn was invoked in order to explain other phenomena. As new knowledge refigures the ontology of the cosmos, the very definition of an entity or field of study can change over time. Hydraulics may be the study of liquid motion (let us simplify to water), but someone studying “water” as a hydrogen-oxygen compound and someone studying “water” as one of the four basics elements, the one opposed to fire, can scarcely be said to be studying the same thing.

“By human beings employing methods appropriate to their respective subject matter” defines the two poles limiting inquiry. First, human beings are limited in the types of questions they can ask. Our sensory faculties and brains can only receive and store certain types of information, which may not be the only types of information in the universe. Through tools, we are in a way enabled to enhance our faculties, but never in the absolute sense of transcending our humanity. This does not mean that the empirical world is the only world there is, or even the only world that matters for us, but it does mean that it is our primary access point to reality outside the self. From the other pole, any particular object of inquiry brings its own limitations. There can be no universal scientific method that applies to all natural phenomena, much less to human sciences and arts. We are able to perceive things only in the ways that they reveal themselves to us; the scholar must respect the partiality of their revelation.

The two poles of limitation lead naturally to discussion of methods. Significant methodological differences imply differences about the ontology of the object of inquiry. If chemists and alchemists both at times attempt to transform one object into another, the reason they go about doing so differently is that they have differing assumptions about what sorts of things the materials they deal with are. Thus, scholars using significantly different methods are in a very real sense not working in the same field. Rather, they are in parallel and competing research programs, struggling to determine the very identity of their field. A Newtonian and an Einsteinian can each have more productive conversations with other fields of research than they can with each other.  [Sometimes the extension of knowledge will even result in the discovery of a whole new strata of reality, a new field of inquiry to be extended. The scholars whose work results in this are likely the most significant scholars, but not necessarily the best. The consequences of one’s work do not determine its quality.]

So, an ideal scholar would be one who, understanding the current state of knowledge in a field, consistently chooses the best methods for extending that knowledge. Future installments in this series will explore how one might come to realize this ideal.

Published in: on March 1, 2013 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment