As Margaret and I batted ideas around this past weekend, we noted again that so many people show a proclivity to accept claims on the basis of a speaker’s authority, without qualification. We were thinking of a scholar we know of, whom people quote as though his words settled an issue once and for all.
(This called to my mind the phrase ipse dixit, Latin for “he himself said it,” a locution associated with Pythagoreans’ invocations of their founder’s authoritative pronouncements. Then I wondered what the Greek for ipse dixit was, since Pythagoras presumably dixited in Greek, and in my grandfather’s Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations tracked down the phrase autos epha, αὐτὸς ἔφα. But that’s all a digression.)
We batted the problem around for a while. It’s more complicated than it appears, since we know a little about so many fields in which we’re dependent on the words of experts for even what little we know. If I say something about macroeconomics, it’s usually not on the basis of my having thought through the disciplinary logic of an assertion, but on the basis of my taking someone’s word for it. All the more so for, for instance, neurology; radically less so for, say, philosophy (an area in which I’m not a specialist, but am moderately well-read).
I’ve encountered numerous people who seem to think, though, that citing what Derrida, or Karl Barth, or Dom Crossan, or Walter Brueggemann, or Chris Seitz said, settles an argument. Ipse dixit! While each of these constitutes a formidable authority, I’m troubled by the notion that their words might carry a point solely by virtue of the fact that they spoke (or “wrote”) them; only a shade more justified is the assumption that the argument a scholar advances should carry decisive weight just because he advances it. The fact that Crossan thinks something is a powerful argument impresses me (because I know him to be a thoughtful, reflective intellect) — but I can still call his argument into question. He’s a scholar, not an oracle.
Still, I’m accepting somebody’s ipse dixit much of the time; I’m not immune to the problem I note in others. If there’s a difference, I suspect it may play out in this kind of way: First, in my area of greatest special interest, I believe hardly anything on the basis of who said it. My closest friends and allies, or my most persistent discursive adversaries, in all cases I expect that an argument win me over, not collegial sympathy or partisan alliance (when I hear people soft-pedal the shoddiness of an argument because it’s from someone on their side of an issue )—whether a “prophetic” reappraiser or an “orthodox” reasserter — I wince with disappointment. Second, since we will always rely on the guidance of people more expert than we, we ought also try always to stay humble about the claims we reject out of hand: “— as though Schüssler Fiorenza hadn’t settled that years ago!” Well, maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t, but let’s look at the arguments.— Third, I suspect we should be extra cautious about ipse dixits where we have a pro or con investment, since it’s so devilishly easy simply to treat our hero as the one who solved all vexing problems with his brilliance, or to derogate our adversary as the one whose ludicrous misstatement (often misquoted or taken out of context) reveals the vacuity of everyone who agrees with her. We are rarely so very right, and our adversaries never so very wrong, as overblown rhetoric suggests (except when I criticize Dan Brown or some ecclesiastical counterpart of his).* Fourth, we should watch out for ipsedixitism in more of our discussions; when someone says, “Well, Roger Ebert liked it,” or “Well, President Bush says this is necessary,” or “Jon Stewart called her ridiculous,” not just to rest content with our hero’s vindication or our foe’s discountenance, but to press for reasons.
It won’t work in any far-reaching way. Most of us want to accommodate our intellectual convictions to our likes and dislikes, rather than acknowledging that some things and people we like are not intellectual heavy hitters, or that those we dislike might be even more profound than our allies. And since so many people really are quite clever, our appeals to their personal authority aren’t groundless; they know more about X, Y, or Z than we do. On the other hand, it won’t kill anyone for more of us to make an effort.
*This is deliberate self-mockery. Of course, I’m liable to overstatement even when I’m criticizing the empty-headed, leaden-prosed charlatanry of Dan Brown, or What’s-his-name, or Tut-tut-tut, or even You-know-who (but the task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you).
[Later: I wrote this before I read the latest JOHO Newsletter, though I probably was half-thinking about what David wrote about knowledge the other day.