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Reflections on academic obscurity

I’ve been working on a paper on William of Saint-Amour lately, who is an interesting but almost completely unknown figure from the mid-13th century. Where he is known, it is only as a thwarted critic of mendicant orders. He had the unfortunate fate, at his first appearance on the public stage, of coming up against Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas in debate—and in a few short years, ending up excommunicated and in exile.

I happen to genuinely enjoy William as a writer and thinker, and I honestly think he gets the better of his more famous debate-partners on more than one occasion. I even think that he has a counter-proposal about the place of poverty and property in society that deserves a hearing on its own merit (which is the immediate subject of my paper).

But I’m under no delusions that William is actually very important. He did live on for a while as a kind of anti-mendicant icon, but his thinking had no real lasting influence. The fact that on purely intellectual terms he ‘won’ some of his debates with the mendicants means almost nothing, because those debates were largely decided by non-intellectual factors. And he’s not a strong enough thinker that I would recommend to anyone without an independent historical interest in this period that they read him.

So it’s been hard to avoid asking myself, what’s the point in writing on him? The answer I’ve come up with for myself has three main interrelated elements.

  1. The first is a conviction about the importance of historical or comparative study to philosophical and theological thinking. Cliché is one of the greatest enemies of thought, and the only way to avoid it is by approaching a problem in part through the perspective of someone outside your own cultural/intellectual horizon. I like to do that by studying the past; the same thing can be accomplished by studying other cultures or communities in the present.
  2. The second is a standard sociology of knowledge type claim that theological and philosophical thinking have to happen from the ground up, so to speak; that the meaning of texts is only discernible within the meaning of broader social situations. That includes immediate polemical contexts and social position. So studying the past can’t only mean studying past canonical thinkers (though that’s often a first and nonetheless important step); understanding those figures has to involve a deeper engagement with their world.
  3. And third is a growing belief in the importance of minor characters and themes in the overall understanding of a period or a person. For one thing, focusing on minor characters pushes one even further from one’s own intellectual horizon, since canonical figures usually already have a thick overlay of rationales for their “relevance.” (The relevance of any of this, insofar as there is any, is just perspective) For another, minor characters qua minor characters—i.e., without pretending to elevate them to a status of major ones—are usually just as determinative of broader currents of thought and life as are the major characters.

These conditions lead inexorably to a concern for certain kinds of historical or intellectual minutiae, but on the condition that it ultimately loop around to illumine ‘the bigger picture’ (and that is, at least for the philosopher/theologian, an absolutely necessary condition) that concern isn’t the same as obscurantism or navel-gazing. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of good thinking.

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  1. Andrew Palmer
    June 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Dear Brian Hamilton,

    I’m writing on behalf of Jenny Attiyeh, host of Thoughtcast, a podcast featuring conversations with authors and intellectuals. I noticed you’ve written enthusiastically about Flannery O’Connor on Memoria Dei, and I wanted to direct your attention to Attiyeh’s recent conversation with Tom Perrotta about the influence of Flannery O’Connor on his work: http://www.thoughtcast.org

    In this interview Perrotta discusses, among other topics, O’Connor’s misanthropy, and how she reconciles it with her Christianity. We’d be grateful if you’d consider linking to http://www.thoughtcast.org from Memoria Dei, and would of course be happy to return the favor. In any case, I encourage you to visit the site and give a listen to the Perrotta interview, and I hope you enjoy it.

    Sincerely,
    Andrew Palmer

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