Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Thought on Good Scholarship

Good literary scholarship does three things:

(1) It enriches our means for comparing our experience of the literary work to other experiences of the work.

(2) It helps us to discern interesting features of the literary work that we might otherwise have missed.

(3) It helps bring to the surface, for the purpose of examining them, latent biases in our reading that may interfere with our understanding of some aspect of the text or its history.

To put it in other words: good literary scholarship makes us better readers by cultivating our literary taste or, perhaps more accurately, by giving us the resources to do so ourselves. Cultivated taste, as the theorists of taste in the early modern period recognized, involves three basic features: (1) the ability to compare the experience in question with a broad range of other experiences, including those of others; (2) the ability to discern relevant features; and (3) fairmindedness, i.e., sufficient self-critique to identify prejudices and biases that may cloud our judgment. Since a theory of taste is also a theory of critical thinking, these points can be generalized to all forms of scholarship whatsoever, even if there are peculiarities (special pitfalls, special skills, etc.) for each field. So the real test of success for any scholarship is whether it increases the means for cultivating these basic abilities of thought.

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