Scholars and Oracles

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.

6 thoughts on “Scholars and Oracles

  1. For a beyond-parody example of this attitude, see the discussion in danah boyd’s wikipedia entry on how wikipedia editors prefer professionally published, but wrong, information over corrections from danah herself.

  2. You made me start thinking about Greek. The Greek verb “to put faith in” πιστευω, seems at first glance related to the verb “to know” επισταμαι, and even more so when one looks at the substantives πιστις and επιστημη, yet they are not.

    We take a lot more on faith, on trust really, than most of us feel comfortable with. A monk friend referred me to JPII’s Fides et Ratio we talked about this phenomenon, but I have not spent much time on FeR, to my shame.

  3. What immediately came to my mind was the Faith of the Church…more specifically the Whole Deposit of the Faith. Which is comprised in a sizeable manner by oral Tradition. ‘ipse dixit’ is used to large degree. Looking at the deposit of Faith, not everything the Fathers said is easy for me to live out (or whatever)…but on another level I must wrestle with the fact of ipse dixit…because of their hagiographies (or sanctity of life). Our I trust their words, not because I agree with them per say…but because of their palpable holiness. I don’t know how that fits into your post with regard to secular disciplines…I reckon there lies a palpable standard of expertize that forces a person to wrestle with giants in sundry fields. Or maybe that only works in the Church…and on second thought perhaps that doesn’t work that well after all.
    God Bless.

  4. Hmmm, how do I explain this to somebody else without saying, “AKMA said it!” 😉

    Just kidding. Great post! You’re right, and there’s a way to appeal to authority or some insight without trying to divinize it when perhaps it doesn’t need to be.



  5. Thanks, Kevin and Eric, for encouraging words. I’d like to take up Jeff’s point, in greater depth, though, because it touches on my main motivation for speaking up.

    The theological ipse dixit rests to some extent on the simple transmission of a tradition, yes. When we encounter perplexity or uncertainty, though, we need recourse to the reasoning by which one of our ecclesiastical authorities reached her or his conclusions, and the manifest fruits of the Spirit in their lives (itself a sort of existential reasoning). So it matters to the church that Origen was a magnificently holy man, even as the [Western] church concludes that his reasoning was erroneous. When we seek to perpetuate the tradition that our progenitors bequeath to us, we aim to do so in a way consonant with their reasoning — for which we need to look to more than solely their words (and we need to allow that even the holiest of mortal saints may err — so that we must test every spirit, to see whether it is of God, and our testing entails examining more than just whether she or he actually said something). (And we’ll bracket the whole messy problem of historical-critical arguments over exactly what someone actually said or wrote.)

    So we receive with reverent gratitude the words of the saints — but that gift does not preclude for us the requirement of testing, discerning, reasoning. We apprehend the fullness of the saints’ wisdom when we adhere not solely to their ipse dixit (as it were), but also to their cur.

  6. Dear Fr. Adam:
    You make some interesting points. I think it fair to say that one could argue that your last comment is the process of hagiography itself (were they working out God’s will/proclaiming God’s Truth/instruments of the Divine etc- the practice of their lives intellectual and corporal) which lends the essential creedance to the Saint and the process of wrestling to us…
    I really liked this post…it is a wonderful and deep thought…and in a day and age of snap judgements and pretty deep division in spiritual and civic realms…we would do well to think more about this process.
    God bless.

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