Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Academic Virtue: Finesse

As Aristotle pointed out, there are certain virtues consonant with various disciplines: requisite standards epistemologically and ethically. Christ calls us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to teach the truth he brought to earth in person (Matthew 6:33; 28:18-20). Paul commands us to do all that we do to the glory of God and to teach with integrity (Colossians 3:17; Titus 2:7-8).

This invokes some rumination. What are the academic virtues a Christian should seek and flesh out? Certainly, we should be truth-seekers and truth-tellers, who desire to be transformed through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Our scholarship should not merely advance our precious careers, but the Kingdom of God. We should shun the pride, preening, and pettiness which are so common in the halls of academe (and elsewhere, of course).

My question here, though, has more to do with finesse. Some things in scholarship are unambiguously wrong: plagiarism, lying on CVs, fudging data, demeaning students, treating them unfairly, recycling teaching material without new research, and more. Other matters, however, are more matters of finesse or of taste. Here are some items for thought.

1. Is there such a thing as self-plagiarism? I have seen authors recycle large amounts of previous published material without saying so. What of taking previously published materials and revising it for an entry in a book or elsewhere? (Maybe this is clearly wrong--at in the most egregious cases of recycling many pages without changes and no confession one is doing so--and not a matter of finesse.)

2. When should one quote a source and when should it be paraphrased and referenced? Some philosophers, for example, seldom quote others, such as Keith Yandell. Others, such as Ronald Nash, quote others very liberally (probably too much so much of the time). This seems to be a matter of taste, at least to some extent.

3. How much should first person reference come into academic writing? Strunk and White, in their immortal Elements of Style, say didacticallyto root it out. I tend to agree (notice the first person reference there), but autobiography cannot be separated entirely from philosophy or other academic disciplines. I usually tell my students to eliminate the first person unless it is somehow pertinent to the argument. The contemporary trend toward vapid memoir (Blue Like Jazz, etc.) should be avoided.

I look forward to your ruminations on academic finesse. Be graceful.


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Sowin:

Please don't put "Blue Like Jazz" in the same category as classic biographies, which are not vapid.

The postmodern memoir is another (and degraded) category, as I pointed out in my previous posting on "Blue Like Jazz."

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


Of course, philosophical/ theological autobiography is acceptable. Consider Augustine's "Confessions" or Carl Henry's "Confessions of a Theologian"--both well worth reading, by the way. I am thinking of personal references in a paper or book that is not explicitly of that genre.

Jeremy said...


Dr. G's last point is the key. We are not discussing biographies or informal philosophical writings. We are talking about strictly scholarly work, such as that one might find in a philosophical journal.

In regards to using the first person in such cases, it is extremely hard to find a philosophical peice that does not make any reference to the first person, be it in a book, article, or something else. Yet, the trend seems to be advocating Dr. G's position--leave it out unless it's germaine to the topic/paper.

One reason that the first person is so pervasive in philosophical writing because it is the first person doing the thinking. These ideas are 'my' ideas, and as such 'my' presuppositions and pre-philosophical committments need to be understood in relation to 'my' point such that the reader can understand what 'I' am saying.

Philosophical writing is not like the cold reporting of unanalyzed empirical data. A philosopher's philosophy is deeply personal, and often flows out of a nexus of deep thought and personal experience. Given that personal experience is such a key ingredient, it would be virtually impossible to root out the first person if the criterion for use is "as long as it is germaine to the paper."