Saturday, January 31, 2009

Unity of Knowledge

Today's academic ethos is one of fragmentation. Want to write a fashionable academic paper? Take any theme and pluralize it. Not "Early Christianity" but "early Christianities." Not "History of German Expressionism" but "histories of German expressionisms." Another strategy is to expose the vaulting ambitions of nineteenth century scholars in order to pick them apart, but without offering a replacement.

Of course, there's something to be said for this approach, but also for those who nevertheless attest to the very big idea of the unity of knowledge.

Accordingly Paul Ricouer ends his three volume Time and Narrative in this way:
It is not true that the confession of the limits of narrative abolishes the positing of the idea of the unity of history, with its ethical and political implications. Rather it calls for this idea. Nor should it be said that the confession of the limits of narrative, correlative to the confession of the mystery of time, makes room for obscurantism. The mystery of time is not equivalent to a prohibition directed against language. Rather it gives rise to the exigence to think more and to speak differently (274).
Then there's James Turner on how Catholic and evangelical academics can unite about the unity of knowledge.
Catholics and evangelicals - and many other people - believe that the world around us, in all its complex variety, is the creation of one Supreme Being. It seems to follow from this axiom (or so most intellectually minded Christians, Jews and Muslims historically have believed) that all knowledge forms a seamless whole - in principle - because all knowledge refers either to on Creator or to that Creator's single creation. "In principle" provides a necessary qualification: fallible human beings will inevitably fail to see all the conditions (89).
Notice how in their last sentences, both scholars qualify their statements in ways that absolve them of knee-jerk critiques from the fragmentation flock.