Monday, January 30, 2017

The Eagle and the Sparrow

Hugh Nibley once said, and I am quoting from memory: "Twenty sparrows do not make an eagle." He followed that up by noting that if you consult twenty people, each of whom knows a little about Latin or mathematics, it is not the same as consulting one person who knows a great deal about those subjects.I was thinking about this the other day after someone dismissed an argument simply because Nibley had made it.

(1) In the first place, the dismissal was simply a classic case of what is commonly--but wrongly--called an ad hominem argument. You dismiss an argument because of who made it rather than any intrinsic part of the argument itself. The irony was that the individual who thus dismissed an argument made by Nibley affects to decry ad hominem arguments. When people do this, their intellectual hypocrisy makes it difficult to take them seriously.

(2) But more than that, the dismissal was simply unjust.

I knew Nibley pretty well, for someone who was my grandfather's age. I took six classes from him. I spent years not only reading just about everything he wrote, but actually looking up thousands of his footnotes. I edited two volumes in his collected works, and source checked on all but three of those volumes. I also had many personal encounters with him over a twenty year time period. I learned many of the same languages he did. I have seen first hand his strengths and weakness both as a person and as a scholar.

Nibley was a genius. He had a first-rate mind, excellent training, was also a brilliant writer, and had a tremendous amount of integrity. His intellectual abilities and capacities far exceeded and still exceed those of most of his detractors present and past. Nibley sometimes made mistakes that his detractors would never make because one would have to be a genius to make them. There are arguments that Nibley made that make me cringe, but those are the exception, not the rule. In most cases Nibley asked the right questions and answered them to the best of anyone's ability at the time. In most cases when Nibley's work is out of date it is because new information has come forth that Nibley, and in most case everyone else, was unaware of. The questions that he asked, however, were almost always still the pertinent ones. I respect that. I expect that the same cannot be said of Nibley's detractors. In most cases I have not found their work to be anywhere near as accurate, as intelligent, as insightful, and as well-written as Nibley's was. Their critiques sound a lot like the chirping of sparrows at an eagle.

(3) Last week I also stumbled across some notes about a controversy in psychology research a few years ago. Some scholars were arguing that people who were incompetent could not recognize how incompetent they were. The find was hotly debated at the time, and I have not followed up more recently. The authors of the original study noted that both they and their critics were adamant about the incorrectness of each others' arguments and could not understand how the other side could not realize that they were wrong but ironically, only one group's theory could account for the fact.

Some of Nibley's critics strike me as much more incompetent than Nibley. Perhaps I am just not competent to tell.

For me, if Nibley made an argument that is reason to consider it seriously and judge it on its merits. For people to dismiss an argument on the grounds that Nibley made it could arguably be a reason not to take them seriously.