Among the more important questions we can ask as scholars—as researchers and as teachers—is this question of significance. Is the question that has occurred to me worth pursuing? If so, how far and at what cost? And if I then find out an answer, who cares? Should I try to publish it? Is there a public for it?
These questions were prompted by my encountering an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff criticizing a couple of key ideas regarding Immanuel Kant. I wrote up a few reflections on that encounter in my previous post. Now I want to ask why Nick bothered to track down those problems in Kant, ponder them, solve them, and then write them up for publication.
He did not, after all, need yet another publication. By the year he presented the paper, 2000, he was in fact nearing retirement as the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale.
Furthermore, it is now 2021. To my knowledge, the essay’s only appearance in print has been in a set of collected essays published in 2010 as Practices of Belief (Cambridge University Press, 2010). So why go to the considerable trouble of researching, reflecting, and writing up something that almost certainly will affect the conversation it addresses scarcely at all?
I asked Nick about the writing and publishing of this essay, and a few in the collection like it: “Perhaps if it was the sort of thing you could toss off in an afternoon—but even then: If you’re smart enough to do this in an afternoon, you’re smart enough to do something else with that afternoon. So how do you feel about having chosen to do this—and yet the world of Kant studies has apparently spun on, heedless to your considerable revision?”
Nick’s reply was, as ever, instructive (and I have his permission to reproduce it here):
I don’t keep up with Kant studies…. So I don’t know whether those revisionist essays of mine have had an influence on those fields. I would guess not much, if any….
So why, you ask, do I keep writing such things if, to the best of my knowledge, they have not proved influential?
All of those essays emerged from my teaching. I wanted to get things right in what I was teaching my students. So I carefully read the original texts, looked into the most prominent secondary literature, and found that the standard interpretations could not be supported by the texts. So it was a matter of getting things right for my students. The writing it up for publication then followed naturally.
Sometimes it has not been a matter of teaching my students but wanting to understand something for myself—something that baffled me. I find that to really understand, I have to write. And then, once I have written it up, I say: “Why not send it off, to see if someone wants to publish it?”
In the case of my book, Art Rethought, it was a case of wanting to do what I could to change the field, since I thought that the field was being misconceived in fundamental ways. But I found great satisfaction in writing the book; my satisfaction with it did not/does not depend on how influential it is.
So there you have it. The satisfaction I experience in thinking something through and then writing it up is mostly internal; it doesn’t depend on how influential it proves to be. That said, I do, of course, find additional satisfaction in learning that people pay attention to it.
Would I continue to think and write if almost nobody paid any attention to it? Would the internal satisfaction be sufficient to keep me going? Would I keep going if I felt that I finally understood something that baffled me, wrote it up, and then put it in a drawer, never showing it to anyone?
Good question. Maybe not. So it’s a blend: wanting to understand, wanting my students to understand, and finding satisfaction in the fact that others find reading what I have written to be worthwhile.
Best I can do to understand myself!
One of Nick’s most influential books is Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans, 1976; 2nd ed., 1984). In this book he defends, inter alia, pure research as well as practical research. It is good, from a Christian point of view, to find things out. It is good also, and therefore, to share what you find out with other people.
What, however, about the world’s crying needs? Could not the effort put toward this philosophical paper have been devoted instead to the poor?
Nick himself has become a loud and sustained voice on behalf of justice for the oppressed—indeed, ever since he published Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Eerdmans, 1984), almost 40 years ago. Yet well downstream of this clarion call for “engaged” scholarship, as it’s sometimes put, and on the way to publishing several books and many essays on justice, Nick took the time to sort out Immanuel Kant for his students and then offer the fruit of his labour to his philosophical colleagues.
He therefore exemplifies the Christian scholarship he calls for in Reason within the Bounds of Religion. And in the cheerfully contrarian spirit of the Reformed epistemology he has advanced so capably, to the question of “Why bother?” Nick Wolterstorff might well reply, “Why not?”
Under the Providence of our abundant God, we have “world enough, and time” to do all that God wants us to do, including researching and writing essays on obscure subjects that perhaps only over long time will get the recognition they deserve, if they ever do. The world is provisioned by God such that there are great needs to be filled by activists and social workers and relief-and-development agencies and healthcare providers, yes, but also small needs to be filled by the likes of you, and me, and Nicholas Wolterstorff as we go about the business God has given us to do.
Finger-painting with the toddler. Patient conversing with an addled elder. Conscientiously filing forms, shelving stock, and serving customers.
Not only is the world a big, complex place that requires for its maximal shalom that each of us participate in it well according to our talents and callings, but it is merely Part One of an Everlasting Story. If instead we had only a few decades in which to create and serve and influence, then we perhaps should make different choices. But since these few decades, important as they are in themselves, also stretch over the horizon into an eternity of decades, then, yes, I do have time to chase down that anomaly for my students and perhaps a few other interested colleagues. I do have time to polish that lecture into a work of art. I do have time to read that MS. for a colleague, to compose a memo to assist that committee, to write a note to encourage a student—or administrator.
The “takeaway” here is not, of course, that we can blow time on just any old thing. Nick wrote his Kant essay out of his immediate and obvious calling: to teach his students well. The one thing merely led to the other. As it should.