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Arguments from silence

March 31, 2009

One problem with writing a research-driven work in the humanities is silence. When you run across an idea, a concept or a line of interpretation that no one has commented on, what does it mean?

Are you crazy? Does this thing even exist? Perhaps you misunderstand what the data is saying. Maybe you just need to leave it alone like everyone else has. After all, if you are dealing with a subject or text which has been around in the academy for more than fifty years, chances are that somebody should have commented on it before you.

Are you stupid? Have you missed some amazingly relevant study that you, as a Ph.D. candidate should at least have a photocopy of? Lit review sucks the life force, but this situation is exactly why it is here. Lit review is the apotropaic amulet of protection that guards you against zombie theories—those ideas that are no longer vital but almost impossible to kill completely.

Are you foolish? Has the idea you are considering been passed over in silence because it radiates enough academic heat to set off a Geiger Counter? Perhaps the silence is indicative of a collective scholarly recognition of the toxicity of the idea, a certain academic savvy that realizes that at the end of this line of reasoning is exile from the guild or the pressure to commit scholastic hari kari by falling on one’s own pen (if not the sword).

Or, are you right? Given the changing social paradigms and academic zeitgeist have you picked up on something that others missed because they were blinded by their own social location or merely chose to pass over because it was not conducive to their overall argument? Obviously, this is what we all hope for. This is what almost all academic work in the humanities at least aspires to create. It is the brass ring, the Holy Grail, that for which we stretch out our minds and sally forth on crusades of scholastic conquest in hopes of returning.

  1. March 31, 2009 11:43 am

    So what’s your crazy idea already?

    • March 31, 2009 12:06 pm

      Who says there’s one crazy idea? I get a couple of these a day! Most of course turn out to be false leads (zombie theories), but a few might be real. I’m still researching.

  2. Jim Watts permalink
    March 31, 2009 1:14 pm

    When I first thought of the research idea that became my dissertation, one of my professor tried to discourage me from doing it for reasons you summarize well in your third paragraph. Luckily, other faculty let me try my idea. Now (20 years later), I can say the research turned out to be path-breaking.

    But I can also say now (20 years later) that even in the apparently in-grown field of biblical studies, from my present vantage point I see ever-larger tracts of untouched topics waiting for someone to work on. Just because the paths are well-worn and the surrounding vegetation heavily picked over doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of untouched wilderness out there. So by all means, leave the path and go looking for it!

  3. March 31, 2009 3:00 pm

    I think the days of finding an overlooked academic nugget are over. Rather, it is a matter of listening to the conversation for a while until you have something interesting to add in an appropriate silence. “Toxicity” may come in if you decide to start shouting at people who are talking, or jump in before you understand where the conversation is headed, etc.

    Coincidentally, my own work builds intentionally (and gratefully) on Jim Watts’ insights into genre in the Torah. His work moved the conversation forward and created some of the “wilderness” that he mentions. It wasn’t necessarily there before he started, or at least no one knew the way there.

    I suppose I am moving away from the “progress” metaphor of research — i.e, we are all working to uncover treasures hidden in darkness, in a race to see who can find what. Rather, the conversation may twist and turn, moving “forward” and “backward” from the perspective of those in the midst of it.

    • March 31, 2009 4:35 pm

      I like the metaphor of conversation. It becomes harder to use terms like “progress,” but it also takes the edge off to some extent.

      However, I think toxicity can show up in many different forms—try mentioning “E” in a room full of German source critics!

  4. March 31, 2009 4:16 pm

    Thanks for your kind words, Bryan! I can’t fault your epistemology, and there’s something oddly appealing about that idea that I create the wilderness I find in the process of finding it.

    But as a program for research, it leaves something to be desired. The process of doing re-“search” does have the feeling of a search to it, and I have been repeatedly surprised by what I have found–and what I have found myself writing (often in the last paragraphs of a piece on a topic that I thought I had scoped out thoroughly months or years before). That sure feels like “discovery.”

    Rhetoric and genres in the Torah was only the tip of the iceberg, though I’m still working hard on all that. But if anyone’s curious about the wilder places this work has taken me, take a look at the blog I run at

    • March 31, 2009 4:48 pm

      That is definitely a fair point. I suppose I would say that the (real) feeling of search and discovery is internal to oneself and, more profoundly, to one’s reading community. I would not renounce the search for truth and verifiable historical information. However, the way that we understand the search and interpret its results depends on the conversation of which we are a part.

      For example, turning to the world of real-life digging, think of the invaluable artifacts that early “biblical archaeologists” tossed into the refuse heap because they weren’t looking for that sort of thing. Those artifacts are real, and can be discovered in the reports by later interpreters. However, to understand these finds requires that a person be drawn to conclusions via the assumptions and interests of their scholarly community, e.g., that of social historians. Artifacts do not have meaning apart from the theoretical constructions of the discipline.

      In the same way, we have to define together what we mean by rhetoric, and then I can have a go at describing it in Leviticus. Has Leviticus always been rhetorical? Yes, but the definitions needed to see it didn’t exist before.

      Back to Jim’s original point, I would say that a research idea can be rightly “passed over” for many years, and then because of the work that others have done to frame the question, suddenly become relevant. Embarking on a research agenda is more like scaling a cliff than crossing an ocean.

      Thanks for the interesting topic!

      • March 31, 2009 5:09 pm

        Very well put! No argument from me here.

        And yes, Jim, thanks for the interesting post that got us started.

  5. March 31, 2009 4:17 pm

    By the way, Jim, why are everyone else’s comments accompanied by a cool picture, while I get a badly drawn alien (or is it a Xmas tree)?

    • March 31, 2009 4:26 pm

      WordPress uses Gravatars, small pictures tied to your email address. Since you haven’t set one up, there’s a small algorithm to create a doodle based on those emails without pix. If you set up a gravatar, it should go back and change all of those little doodads.

      • March 31, 2009 5:10 pm

        He’s growing on me. I think I’ll keep him.

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