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FRC Lecture: Eclecticism as a Method

Wanneer:di 18-06-2013 om 17:00
Waar:Old Courtroom, Faculty of Thelogy and Religious Studies, Oude Boteringestraat 38, Groningen

One of the surest of tests [of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.

T.S. Eliot

One important challenge historians face is to rise above the rusty old saws employed for explaining the past that were once fashionable (the rise of the middle class, the growth of trade, and relative deprivation are among my favorite examples) and offer explanations that will be more precise and effective. To do this, however, we need more task specific tools, appropriate to the issues under investigation. Therefore, if we turn to the social sciences for help in writing history we must be eclectic in our dipping into the pool of social scientific knowledge.

We now recognize how vast and diverse the world of the ancient Jews was. Therefore, depending on just what one investigates, different social scientific systems prove most enlightening. As a historian, one must begin with the texts, preferably with what I have called an “orphan passage,” that is a specific ancient text, usually overlooked, that makes perfect sense when viewed through the lens of some social scientific work. For example, when the author of the Hypothetica wrote that being an Essene was not a matter of birth but of choice (Hyp. 11.12), he had not read Weber and others who have written about sects as voluntary movements of choice. Or, when Philo wrote about the feelings of brotherhood and friendship that embrace people, even total strangers, when on pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Spec. Leg. 1.70), he had not read Turner on communitas. Effectively, as the aspect of the ancient Jewish world under investigation changes, so does the specific social scientific approach that may prove useful for illuminating it, and insights of this kind can then become building blocks that allow us to go further. Eclecticism is therefore essential.

In Eliot’s terms, this kind of eclecticism empowers us to do more than just imitate the social scientists from whom we learn. It helps us achieve cohesion in writing history with the help of the social sciences, to offer understandings of the past which are better, unique, and utterly different from the social scientific concepts, based on the present, with which we began; in other words, to take full account of the differences between past and present.

Lecture: Prof. Dr. Albert Baumgarten, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Recommended reading: A.I. Baumgarten, 'How Do We Know When We Are On To Something?' in S. Stern (ed.), Sects and Sectarianism in Jewish History - IJS STUDIES IN JUDAICA (vol. 12), p. 3-20, Brill: 2011.

Master Class: As usual, the Faculty Research Colloquium includes a Master Class for graduate students and interested staff members. This time, the Master Class will take place a day before the lecture, on 17 June, 13:00-16:00h, room 123. Professor Baumgarten will prepare a handout and list of literature for the class.

Programme: FRC on 18 June

Organisor: Faculty Research Colloquium