Presenting History

To understand the past takes a lot of preparation on one's part. Not every aspect of that preparation is necessarily obvious (how were we supposed to know that we would encounter this chapter on medical malpractice in translating a series of Han biographies?). And even if the requisite skills are predictable, to acquire them in a presentable degree before starting one's investigation would use up most of life, and we would never get around to the investigation at all. What then?


We recommend that the skills needed for an adequate reading of a text, or of a whole period, should to some extent be distributed among collaborators, and that the collaborators should then lunch together regularly, to swap insights and identify unsuspected problems. For example, it takes at least five people to read the Mencius: a philosopher, to recognize what Mencius may be doing in that line, an economist, to make sense of the hints of tax policy and Engels' Quotient guidelines that turn up in the text; a military expert, to report how influential the Mencian position was in the second and third tier military writings (you didn't think, did you, that we were going to read the Mencius by reading only the Mencius? Tsk); a political scientist, to be steadily aware of the statecraft agenda of this and every other classical Chinese text, and to see the Mencius against the background of the Gwandz, not to mention the Mwodz; and a philologist, to warn the others when they are relying on a mere miswritten character, or taking a marginal gloss as though it were the text, or failing to discern that Mencius 1-3 represent one posthumous Mencian school, and MC 4-7 represent another, and that only sometimes do the twain agree in their worldview.

The virtue of this composite approach to seeing what is going on can be compactly illustrated from Creel's preface to his translation of a Chinese thinker whom he spells Shen Pu-hai:

A very important contribution was made by my former colleague Professor Muhsin Mahdi. He is not only an outstanding authority on Islamic philosophy but also a fully qualified political scientist. As I was struggling with the problem of Shen Pu-hai, I discussed it with Muhsin, and he read the first draft of my translation of the fragments. At that time I considered Shen to be a very interesting administrative technician, but no more. Muhsin insisted that he was an important political philosopher, and that I should treat him as such. He was, of course, quite correct.

The same pattern holds in biology:

It is not necessary for the biologist to become an expert in biometrics if he has no liking for the subject, but he ought to know enough about it to avoid either undue neglect or undue respect for it, and to know when he should consult a biometrician. (Beveridge 6)

C Northcote Parkinson

One may ask, Given the number and unpredictability of the kinds of special knowledge that may be called on for an adequate reading of an ancient text, is five people really enough? Strictly speaking, No. But Parkinson has established that a committee of more than five rapidly becomes nonfunctional, and it is not our place to recommend venturing beyond these classical limits. If you need to bring in a surgical historian, you will probably find it out in the course of the reading. And if not, some acid reviewer in some surgical journal will probably point it out to you. Reviews, though a little after the fact, are also a kind of collaboration.

Happy are those prospective Mencius readers who find on their own campus the other four members of the ideal Mencius team, especially if all of them are free every noon on Friday. Pretty happy are those who find them on nearby campuses, especially if all will agree to get together the second Friday of each month. The rest, and in the present lack of higher administrative understanding of how to equip an institution to produce research, they are likely to be numerous, will need to get their act together by E-mail. The only further general suggestions it is worth making are: keep it small, keep it private, and save the communications on paper. Software progress will soon obsolete and obliterate everything else.


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20 Feb 2008 / Contact The Project / Exit to Outline Index Page