Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Scholarship and Community

Those of us who retain from our dimly remembered student days on campus, a lingering affection for scholarship of the arcane and humanistic variety—and really, who doesn’t?—are certain to derive immense pleasure from the essays contained in Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern World, by Anthony Grafton.

Grafton is a professor of history at Princeton. He is also an editor of the prestigious Journal of the History Ideas. His areas of special interest lie in the Renaissance and Reformation, but his prose style and range of cultural references bespeak a universal education and a social maturity light-years beyond the narrow focus and picayune technical concerns of the stereotypical “academic.” Whatever the subject may happen to be, Grafton draws us into its intricacies deftly, with nary a hint of insider rhetoric or dumbing-down.

A number of the essays originally appeared in mainstream magazines such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and in scholarly journals such as The American Scholar and The Journal of the History of Ideas. And it may be questioned whether, considered as a group, they really advance a well-rounded picture of the subject highlighted in the title—the scholarly “community.” I think they do. That picture has none of the appealing narrative thrust of a “history of ideas” of the type that we find in the Yale Intellectual History of the West series, for example. But we ought to be suspicious of such “causal” narrative histories anyway, in which A leads to B, or at the very least, intimates it; in the realm of scholarship and ideas, A seldom leads to B. Rather, J looks back at kindred spirit C, and creates a new vision that will inspire X—two hundred years on.

What Grafton has given us instead is the genuine flavor of first-rate scholarship, in a series of essays that range from thoroughly obscure investigations such as “A Contemplative Scholar: Trithemius Conjures the Past,” to worldly and very up-to-date pieces such as “The Public Intellectual and the Private Sphere: Arendt and Eichmann at the Dinner Table,” and a lengthy essay on the impact of the internet on scholarship, books, and popular culture, “Codex in Crisis: The Book Dematerializes.”

Many of the essays carry the sheer delight that scholars have always felt in learning new things, painstakingly separating wheat from chaff, hammering down a point conclusively, and etc. And there are observations—not only facts we didn’t know, but judgments of value we lack the background to make ourselves—on every page. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Philo of Alexandria, one of the preeminent Jewish philosopher of ancient times, often considered a critical link between Plato and the apostle John, could not read Hebrew.

Grafton’s worldliness becomes especially rewarding in the more contemporary essays. The piece on Hannah Arendt, for example, does not offer a straightforward analysis of her work. Rather, it focuses on the appearance of a series of famous articles she wrote for the New Yorker on the Eichmann trail circa 1963. Grafton has an unusual perspective on these events, because his father was commissioned by Look magazine to interview Arendt and write a lengthy piece about it. The article was never published because Arendt refused to cooperate, but Grafton found his father’s extensive notes in a family file, which include a written interview with Arendt that she did reply to. These materials lead on to several intriguing insights, not only about Jews and Germans in Nazi Germany, but also about the sate of American journalism two decades later:

In other words, the editors of Look did far more than commission an article. They actively investigated the issues that they planned to cover, read and thought about them—and did so with a rigor and an attention to detail not found in most of the published responses to Arendt's book. Their professionalism and precision inspire respect and suggest that the Arendt affair marked something more than the beginning of a new age of recycled charges and countercharges. It was also the end of an older age--one in which national, as well as highbrow, media saw it as their task to inform the public at large, as well as they could, about major new ideas and debates, to make their readers an informed and critical community. [276]

Grafton’s essay about the internet is similarly wide-ranging, and includes a thumbnail history, not of libraries per se, but of the ways books have been categorized across the centuries. Thousands of articles have been written by now about the internet and its impact on every conceivable aspect of society, but very few, I suspect, have drawn comparisons between the Google search engines and the methods employed by Eusebius to catalogue and cross-reference early Christian texts in 300 AD.

Yet Grafton’s essays also highlight, without intending to, the limitations of the scholarly approach to the past. In his essay on Leon Battista Alberti’s theories of aesthetics, for example, he attempts to broaden the analysis of Alberti’s use of the terms “historia” and “istoria” by consulting those of Alberti’s writings that are not specifically about art. Yet the question remains unanswered, Why should we care about Alberti’s use of these terms in the first place? The field of reference needs to be wider still to convince us that Alberti’s aesthetic theories harbor insights into the nature of art that might still interest us today.

A similar but more significant omission will be found in the essay “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond.” Here Grafton charts the sudden rise of the “history of ideas” as a university discipline during the middle years of the twentieth century, “like a new sign in the zodiac,” as he describes it, and its subsequent eclipse as an even more dazzling realm of study, “social history,” appeared on the scene, with its many and varied ethnic and gender-based realms of specialization. It is a great delight to follow Grafton’s thumbnail sketch of these shifting realms of focus and perspective, with trenchant asides on all the historicist and hermeneutical rifts and backwaters. We could profitably spend a decade, perhaps, following up on all the footnotes, while saving a hundred thousand dollars in tuition fees along the way. The great names in the field pass before us, from the dim and distant Burckhardt and Meinecke to Lovejoy and Darnton, and on to Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Burke, and Carlo Ginzberg.

But in the end, well-rounded and erudite though it is, Grafton’s essay is a study of intellectual fashion, rather than a study of genuine thought. The question remains unanswered (and in fact, unasked) which of these various approaches to the past are actually valid—which of them bring us close to the truth; and which, in the end, (though it would be tactless to say as much to one’s colleagues among the scholarly community) are not worth much.

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