When I started as an Assistant Professor, people started calling my kind of academic reading and writing “RESEARCH”, and they encouraged me to do the same. At least, this is how I remember it. It seemed to me strange and awkward, because in my mind “RESEARCH” required surveys at the very minimum, and perhaps also processing numbers and running statistics and boiling liquids and writing on clipboards. But I did (and do) none of these things. I read and read and read; and then I walk around in a daze for a while; and then I write; and read some more; and walk around some more; and write; and so on, until somehow someone publishes something. Repeat. That’s been my method; twenty years ago it seemed bizarre to call it “RESEARCH”.
Time erodes most opinions, and now I can only barely remember how bizarre it seemed to me so long ago. In fact, “RESEARCH” has become for me so watered down as to mean “those activities academics can document in such ways as to duly impress, or fail to unimpress, university administrators.” But recently I came across someone who insisted on making some distinction between “RESEARCH” and “SCHOLARSHIP” on some university form or other, and it got me thinking about whether there is indeed a distinction between the two.
I think there is. In my mind, and apart from my own professional cynicism, “RESEARCH” means finding out new stuff (mainly facts). Scientists do this as they run experiments and find hitherto unknown correlations or causal connections; social scientists, same; archival historians do this as they search through records and piece together what must have happened. But it seems to me that for the most part philosophers, and some historians, and scholars of literature – “humanists” – are not in this kind of business. I have seen plenty of cases where someone claims that their area of research is (say) virtue ethics, or late Renaissance literature, or how some people get relegated to the margins in canonical works. But for the most part this does not require discovering new stuff. It mainly requires looking at the stuff we have in new and (hopefully) interesting and revealing ways.
The ideal for such humanists is not research, but “SCHOLARSHIP”. To be a humanist scholar, one needs to read a great deal, think deeply and humanely about it, and pick up on interesting patterns or glaring exceptions to patterns commonly thought to exist. It is rare to find such scholars (the rarity I’ll try to explain next). Lately I have been finding lectures on YouTube by scholars like Robert Brandom, Peter Brown, and Anthony Grafton, and they are scholarly exemplars. They possess a synoptic knowledge across broad domains, and they have the intelligence to sort the significant from the insignificant and issue meaningful opinions about important matters, with fairness and grace.
Usually I listen to these lectures as I am doing my exercises. It’s maybe this association that leads me identify to a third kind of activity, in addition to research and scholarship, which I am calling “PUSH-UPS”. Of course, we do push-ups or sit-ups not because they are in themselves valuable (duh!), but because they improve our strength in some way. This presents the most charitable description I can think of for what many scholars are engaged in prior to embarking on either research or scholarship. I’m sure that many scientists are not really discovering new facts; they engage in the outward form of research activity, but what they discover is either spurious or too trivial to be dignified by the designation “new stuff”. Also, many humanists perform the outward activities of scholarship, but what they discover and write up is hardly interesting, compelling, or general. But what can be said favorably of such academics is that they are young. Hopefully, with time and confidence, they will become scholars or researchers. Right now, they are in some kind of disciplinary training, like push-ups, that will yield valuable results down the road.
That’s optimistic, of course. There is every likelihood that academics will get caught up in the illusion that their push-ups are in fact ends in themselves and they may forget or never come to know that there is genuine scholarship and research. Universities as institutions demand quick return on investment in their faculty, and that certainly promotes a lot of push-ups, and what we do repeatedly becomes habitual. If it weren’t for tenure we’d have practically no researchers or scholars, as no one would ever have the chance of advancing from training to the real thing. As it is, with tenure, some push-up skills mature into genuinely valuable work. The price we pay is that sometimes it doesn’t happen. But I can’t see any more effective way to promote scholarship and research.
I confess that I write this as someone who has done his fair share of push-ups. I can’t say I have become anything more than a rudimentary scholar. But I’m glad to see now the merit in a distinction I was encouraged to forget some time ago.
The Scholar and the Researcher should be contrasted with the Philosopher. Wisdom is neither erudition nor factual discovery. It is thinking combined with practice.