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  • Or Not:The Place of Disputation in Scholarly Communication
  • David Henige (bio)

Let us have purer controversy, then, but more of it, for civilization's sake, on all highly contentious topics.1

It is difficult satisfactorily to carry on a discussion in which your opponent entirely ignores your arguments, while you have given the fullest attention to his.2


The body of 'knowledge' we call scholarship actually comprises several levels of epistemological soundness. The vast majority of it is never tested or challenged, even within the discipline in which it appears. Anthropologists make claims about societies and situations with which they are far more familiar than anyone else, and these are accepted faute de mieux by other anthropologists as prima facie plausible. Historians who consult particular archives and draw inferences from the data in them are generally taken at their word by those who have not consulted the same materials.3 Sociologists and political scientists make use of survey instruments about which they alone know the full details of content and context, application and interpretation.

The reasons for this easy acceptance are obvious enough. We seldom have the opportunity to test the evidence, or even the arguments that are put forth, and when we do, it generally is an onerous task with tenuous outcomes. After all, most of us are less resilient than the seventeenth-century French scholar Étienne Pasquier professed to be when he wrote a friend that 'I can tell [End Page 134] you that I am no less satisfied at being corrected in this matter than when I was highly praised . . .'4 Like replication in the hard sciences, as often as not testing is likely only to corroborate the work under scrutiny – an outcome quite pleasing to the original scholars but falling far short of that for the now endangered testers, for there are good reasons to fear reprisals. After all, if X chooses to test Y's work, then Y or Y's acolytes might well return the favour, and if Y is more senior, more famous, or more institutionally powerful than X, only long-term liabilities can be expected, whatever the outcome of the testing itself.

Another potent impediment to routine testing is the consensual view that the disciplines ought to be, or even are, cumulative and that the only legitimate efforts are those that focus on adding to the body of information rather than risking depleting it. This notion is always at play and often explicitly on view, featuring prominently, for instance, in the current debate over the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, wherein those supporting historicity are wont to criticize their opponents' arguments as resulting in, as one prominent combatant put in, 'an advance in ignorance.'5 A reviewer in a far distant field thought likewise: 'the result [of the reviewed book] seems somewhat negative: numerous views on different aspects of the problem are critically examined, and found wanting.'6

By this line of reasoning, any disagreements that might result in some current hypothesis' being put at risk are detrimental because they potentially involve taking some belief about some event off the table, without necessarily replacing it with some other event in which to believe, resulting in a vacuum and, worse yet, implying that yet other hypotheses may also be shop-worn. In short, whatever else they might be, they tend to be treated as virulent thin ends of thick wedges.


At the moment no field is more riddled with unalterable differences of opinion than biblical studies, in particular those that relate to the so-called historical books of the Old Testament. The discussions are long-standing, unceasing, and vituperative, and they appear over a [End Page 135] wide range of journals and edited works. In almost every case, however, specific arguments appear in a particular ensemble of journals, to the point where interested parties know where to look to find congenial – or uncongenial – arguments but seldom have the opportunity to find both in a single venue. In short, biblical scholars spend much of their time and effort preaching to the converted.

The question is, Is this cause or consequence? Is this pattern the result of authors' preferences or of learned...


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pp. 134-150
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