Van Norden on Methodology

As a follow-up to some of the issues raised at NECCT 2, Bryan Van Norden has posted some thoughts on his little-used personal blog: “On the Historical Composition and Dating of Texts.” Here is his conclusion:

We cannot start slicing and dicing a text into sections belonging to different authors or different eras simply [because] we notice in it theoretical tensions, evidence of editing, the use of one word in multiple senses, or heterogeneity of subject matter.   I worry when I see what appears to me, at least, to be the quick jump to the conclusion that a text is historically composite before any substantial effort has been made to engage the plausibility of philosophical explanations of the text as a coherent whole.  In short, we intellectual historians are admittedly sometimes too quick to jump over textual issues in our excitement to get to systematic philosophical interpretation. However, you cannot address this problem by leaping to the conclusion that a text is historically composite every time you encounter a passage that you don’t immediately know how to reconcile with what you thought you understood before.

Bryan says that he’s unlikely to be able to answer any comments posted on his blog, but anyone who’d like to comment over here is more than welcome to do so.

5 replies on “Van Norden on Methodology”

  1. Does anybody really think of the Analects (say) as a single text? If it’s not a single text, why presume that it expresses a single, coherent philosophy?

    • Or you could believe something else. As far as I can tell that doesn’t seem to have been a priority for Liu Xiang, for example. In any case there’s the question, if they were trying to do that, how successful were they, and can anything be gained by looking at the various bits they gathered without presuming thorough philosophical coherence? (I’m on the record as thinking that both Xunzi’s “Xing e” and the Later Mohists’ “Xiao qu” were put together by editors aiming for coherence, but—particularly in the first case—that there’s plenty to be gained by thinking of the pieces separately.)

  2. I don’t think of the two projects as necessarily in conflict — i.e. the project of forming a coherent philosophical account and of discovering multiple authorship. Aiming for “coherence” itself can allow for accounts of developmental or less than fully formed views that are subject to internal tensions. Think of developmental accounts of Plato’s dialogues, which could be conceived as “multiply” authored in a figurative sense, taking different stages of Plato’s thinking to represent slightly different authorial voices. In fact, if the move toward “slicing and dicing” a text is motivated in part by concerns with theoretical tensions, apparent multiple uses of terms, or heterogeneity of subject matter, then it seems by that fact to be motivated in part by concerns about giving a philosophically coherent account of the text.

    Maybe what I’m fishing for is that coherence of a text is importantly different from what we could call “univocality.” Unlike coherence, which could include textual accretion and multiple-authorship hypotheses — including competing “sub-school” analyses, maybe univocality has higher, more difficult, standards of adequacy: the text really has to be capable of being sewn together into a tighter, more consistent whole. The hypotheses of multiple and diverse voices in the authorship of a text pose more threat to the plausibility of a univocal reading than a coherent one. Does that seem plausible as a taxonomy suggestion?

  3. Dan,

    I’m thinking pre-Liu Xiang. For example, if the Lunyu is a collection of the accounts of one or more disciples, then a compiler/editor may have discarded any that he didn’t accept or weren’t consonant with the others, (at least in his mind). A lack of coherence, in this case, can easily be explained by 1) most people’s “worldviews” are not completely coherent and 2) later editors may have added material which was inconsistent with the others without realizing it or if they did realize it, may have been reluctant to remove material. I’m not claiming that for sure, it all happened like this, just that it is not difficult to imagine how it might have happened.

    With regards to the Laozi, I think many of the sayings had diverse origins and are inconsistent with each other, but some compiler(s)/editor(s) decided to assemble them together into a single collection. That’s why I don’t think it foolish for one to interpret one saying in the context of the others. For example, chapter 73’s 天之所惡,孰知其故 would seem to have been written by someone who felt Tian was an anthropomorphic deity, but in the context of the rest of the collection, we should probably interpret it differently.

    With regards to the Zhuangzi, an excerpt from my Zhuangzi essay, Bao Pu blog:

    “In the Zhuangzi, some of these [ce 冊, pian 篇] were likely written by Zhuangzi, though repeated copying, (which includes scribal errors and “corrections”), editing and rearranging of the material makes it impossible to know what he wrote. No authors signed their work. Bits of his writings may be scattered throughout the present text. Efforts to narrow it down through philosophical analysis are of some merit,65 though we presume too much if we maintain that his work will be completely coherent in vocabulary, style and philosophy. The text may contain writings from his early twenties to his late seventies or may contain first drafts and final polished drafts. We should not presume that all of his writings are mature and insightful. For that matter, we should not assume that a later contributor couldn’t have written the most insightful material, (see Klein below), nor should we assume that pieces of writing that do show coherence must be written by the same author.

    “Other parts of the Zhuangzi were perhaps written by friends, acquaintances, admirers, followers, students, etc. Zhuangzi and his friends may have exchanged things they had written and made copies for themselves. Some of these people probably developed, extended and perhaps refined Zhuangzi’s teachings as they responded to new social and philosophical developments. Over time many of these pieces of writing accumulated in someone’s collection or, more likely, in several collections, especially those of students, who in turn may have had students of their own who maintained and copied the materials. Some of the writings may have been written by people quite removed from Zhuangzi and his immediate circle …”

    re: “Think of developmental accounts of Plato’s dialogues, which could be conceived as “multiply” authored in a figurative sense, taking different stages of Plato’s thinking to represent slightly different authorial voices.”

    Very nice; I hadn’t thought of it that way. In a very real sense, I am not the same person today that I was two years ago, either physically or intellectually.

    I do agree with Van Norden when he says ” it is not prima facie evidence that texts have multiple authorship if we find in them theoretical tensions, evidence of editing, the use of one word in multiple senses, or heterogeneity of subject matter. We should expect all of these things in works by profound, multifaceted thinkers.” While perhaps not prima facie evidence, it may be evidence nonetheless. Indeed, some scholars may be “too quick to jump to (the multi-authorship) conclusions,” it’s not for me to say. I meant what I said above with regards to the Zhuangzi: it’s impossible to know with certainty who wrote what.

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