Monday, April 05, 2004


Here's a quotation which it would be a good idea to bear in mind when you read something on a subject you're unfamiliar with (including my post from Friday on the history of the direct sales market):

"at a conference exploring the relationship between women's lives and goddess traditions[,] Scholars considering the ancient Mediterranean world painstakingly gathered shreds and fragments, and from them had to tell a story. Scholars working with living cultures, such as that of contemporary India, by contrast, were overwhelmed with the sheer volume and complexity of the available data. Yet scholars with less evidence were less hesitant to draw conclusions and produce comprehensive narrative frameworks. It seems that silence offers an enticingly uncontested space in which to pour the imagination, while cacophony leads to quieter but perhaps more insightful reflection. Or perhaps it is that the invisibility of social complexity makes general theorizing appear more plausible since one is less often contradicted by the facts." (Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism? p. 315, n. 4)

A possibility King doesn't mention here is that a writer faced with an "excess" of facts may simply ignore those facts which contradict the simple, dramatic story (s)he wishes to tell. This happens much too often, in scholarly as well as popular works. Of course, it's almost always impossible to include every relevant fact: the reader is forced to trust that the writer hasn't omitted something (s)he shouldn't have. Unfortunately, too often this trust is abused. And bear in mind also that it's possible to construct an argument in favor of virtually any position which will sound convincing to someone with no knowledge of the topic.

These are depressing considerations for someone like me who wants to "keep up with" many fields of interest, rather than a single narrow specialty. There really is no royal road, not only to geometry, but to being well-informed about anything.

Incidentally, the book I quoted from above is probably something you should read if you're interested in "Gnosticism." (I put the term in quotes for reasons contained in the book.) It's heavy going in places, and contains more information about 19th and early 20th-century scholars of religion than most people probably want to know; but it makes a strong case (though I'm not a specialist; I have a little knowledge about the topic, but keep in mind the caveat above!) that much of what you think you know about "Gnosticism" may not be true. Another book making a similar point which is probably more accessible is Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael A. Williams.

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