An Apologia for Charlatanism – On the art of reading much and knowing little

Vineyard on Montebello Ridge. Author: Brian Sterling

After heeding the Surgeon General’s statutory warning that lives, bridges and sermons are not to demise on the reprise of this theme, shall we visit the premise of charlatanism and test its truth and troth. Charlatans are contextual chameleons who can hold a conversation about any topic without having a deeper insight into definitions or knowing whether or not their claims are based on factual grounds. I am hard pressed to meet a Christian or sober-­minded secular intellectual who will sanctify this concept. A few years ago, an eminent philosopher wrote a masterful essay On ####; an expression that has been bowdlerized into Bovine Scatology for our more august audience. Harry Frankfurt makes a careful distinction between a liar and a person who specializes in the craft of the second letter of the English Alphabet in juxtaposition with the nineteenth letter in majuscule form. A liar seeks to intentionally mislead, while the person who practices the afore-­mentioned ineffable craft of which one shall dare not speak, is informally speaking, phony. On a personal note, I have been to a few wine-­tasting events without knowing the first thing about wine. Obviously, there is an element of phoniness at play here, an appearance of connoisseurship sans savoir or connaitre. Even so, sommeliers and avocation-­seeking amateurs are not the only ones granted entrance into these nose-­rubbing spaces of snobbery and shallow conversations. Even a die-­hard puritan is more inclined to pronounce a dire indictment on the ‘diabolical’ art of pressing dead grapes and the attendant ‘evil’ enzymes involved in fermentation rather than anathematize the innocuous act of gathering for conversation.

The censure or prejudice that the titular protagonist (of Frankfurt’s philosophical essay) faces is nothing compared to the ostracism a charlatan faces in academic circles. The more generous euphemism for such a person is ‘Generalist.’ In olden days or even in the new-­fangled age of quack remedies and alternative medicine, the quack, shaman and/or advertiser is a person who takes the craft quite seriously even while treating empirical evidence as the ‘frenemy’ (a word that has entered the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary -­- a piece of trivia for those who are genially grimacing). As stated earlier, lives are not to be trifled with, and a person requiring an operation is better off going to a surgeon rather than a cobbler, although both of them are astute fellow travelers in the glorious genre of stitching. However, the scorn that a specialist heaps upon a generalist in academic circles is entirely unjustified. While a fresh Ph.D., I gladly called myself a specialist in a field that had fewer fellows than the digits in my left hand. Over the years, I gradually learned to embrace the opprobrious term ‘generalist’ despite the unflattering insinuations and connotations attached to it. I feel quite certain that to be called a generalist in a university or even a liberal arts setting is a left-­handed compliment, a hasty characterization of a person without depth. And breadth is a bad word, a very, very bad one, among serious-­minded specialists. Too broad is a no-­go.

Castle Beach – Singapore. Author: William Cho.

If umbrage is the name of the game – a specialist is a person who cares about what can be known, while a generalist is a person who cares about what cannot be known. A specialist seeks invincibility in the kingdom of little and invisibility in everything else.Some choose to call this singular devotion focus. A specialist is sovereign over the sand castle while the generalist prefers to gaze at the scenery along the grains, dunes, waves, sand and sea. While the better arguments for specialization are division of labor and a modest recognition of limits, the less commendable argument for specialization is the oft-­heard expression ‘a well-­defined and narrow research agenda’ and the mindless mantra of depth for depth’s sake. I often wonder if there is a Christian resolution to this impasse between specialists and generalists especially when the score in this iron-­cage of flouncing and flailing is a stark stalemate.

While specialists are clearly winning in research universities and shaping the broader culture in academia as a whole; the very relevance of their research often depends upon generalists and the public intellectual who are not only able to carry on a conversation but also see vibrant connections between diverging strands of research. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner’s The Way We Think is a useful guide. The argument that the authors make about the blending of concepts from distinct mental spaces is a robust restatement of a well-­known thesis that the birth of an idea is the result of concatenating disparate domains in a refreshing way. Conceptual blends, as they call it, is also manifest in the ability to forge new meanings and new avenues for conversations. Thus, this tendency to exile cross-­disciplinary thinkers who are in effect adept at pattern matching, into an insular ghetto of marginalia can have at least two negative consequences. On one hand, it produces what David Hume warned us against, the sorry state where learning becomes “as great a Loser by being shut up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World and good company.” Hume continued that the separation of the two worlds; the world of conversation from the world of learning has been bad for disciplines whereby a preoccupation with methods comes at the expense of both style and substance. In his words:

Philosophy went to the rack by this moping recluse Method of Study, and became as chimerical in her Conclusions as she was unintelligible in her Stile and Manner of Delivery.

An analytic philosopher could provide us with a masterful treatment of the concept ‘is,’ while a public intellectual or generalist can help us understand the value of the work on ‘is.’ In the absence of this bridge, the rest of the world will wonder what the point is. The world of conversation aids us in asking larger questions, and may I dare say better questions while the expert delivers on detail.

Charlatans in the role of dabblers, ingénues, amateurs, curiosity-­seekers, treasure-­hunters who hop from one discipline to another, one topic to another, restlessly while not guaranteed access into the highest echelons of disciplinary accolades, mixed metaphors aside, are still the lifeblood of thought and bridge-­building between disparate domains. Instead of maintaining a lively tension or balance between the generalist and the specialist, for all intents and purposes, the generalist is gradually becoming an endangered species within the genus of thought. In other words, academics are now asked to be their own niche marketers as specialists and experts in the marketplace of ideas and haberdashers of habit with the encrustation of thought into the procrustean bed of myriad methods and manifold madness.

Even outside academia, people are advancing themselves as experts in self-­help, dating, mating, and coping with loneliness and many topics underneath the blistering sun. Dame Common Sense and her companion Conversation once presided over these spaces, and have now been entirely banished. Now people who say ‘take it or leave it’ (as opposed to ‘give and take’) and cannot withstand a good challenge to their work and ideas are the ones who preside over these spaces as experts, extremely overzealous and territorial, combining their learning with duties as patrol officers and bouncers to keep real and imaginary prowlers and trespassers at bay. Once learning took place in Palazzos, gardens and open spaces; now they take place in fortified ‘castles’ where deference to the discipline matters more than a disciplined deference to the world of ideas.

As an ode to the departed spirit of Isaiah Berlin, there is indeed an understated beauty to the history of ideas. True, the figureheads in the pantheon can be reshuffled like bobble-­head dolls remade in our own image –

  • Monday is for Montaigne and Montesquieu
  • Tuesday is for Thales and Turgot
  • Wednesday is for Whitehead and Weil
  • Thursday is for Thrasymachus and Tai Chen
  • Friday for Freud and Foucault
  • Saturday for Schopenhauer and Sartre
  • Sunday for the Sabbath and a little Shakespeare.

Come what may, ideas have consequences and sometimes dreadful ones on the bargain counter of barter and breath. Yet, the history of ideas is rich and is the armchair and arrondissement of an enthralled humanity effervescing with faith and folly. And a person who chooses to walk through this labyrinth of tangents, muttering in unison with the tribe of Tolkien that “not all those who wander are lost” are often treated as wastrels, dingbats and distractions in the Temple of Learning.

The natural response of entrenched establishmentarians to any sort of lament is to respond defensively that the intellectual world we inhabit is far more complex than the world of the Florentine Camerata, the culture of English Pubs and French Salons during the Enlightenment or even fin-­de siècle Paris. While one should be willing to submit to the veracity of such a claim in part, the broader implication is untrue -­- as if the human brain is unable to deal with complexity from multiple domains. Could not a person read as much as possible about multiple disciplines and conjure up new ideas at the crossroads of these conversations? Patently, such an endeavor is not going to immediately translate into a vita entry or a promotion or an increase in a paycheck. It is not even necessary to justify these efforts in the name of making one a better teacher or a better scholar, although I believe that refinement of the mind and human spirit does amount to a betterment of our undivided selves.

However, on biblical grounds if I may dare venture an opinion, it is closer to the Pauline spirit of becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of making Christ known. A person who reads widely and is curious about life experiences of people from various persuasions is going to have more things to converse about, and to as many people as possible. This interpretive leap is based on the presumption that more and more people are going to school to get advanced degrees – and it would be nice for a Christian scholar and/or regular Christian to have the wherewithal to hold court with Holy Spirit inspired sprezzatura like a modern-­day Christian courtier, straight out of Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier). At the risk of anachronism, Paul in action at the Agoras and Acropolis is an instance of Spirit inspired sprezzatura. And Paul the once scholastic rabbi turned apostle was no intellectual slouch or grouch. Did he not write the joy epistle after all?

Once we eschew foolhardy comparisons with the great Apostle, there is a grain of inherited truth in the spirit of sincere emulation. If we see all truth as God’s truth, a sentiment prefigured in Paul’s teaching before Aquinas inadvertently immortalized himself as the provenance of that maxim, some sort of revival of the Christian polymath or more humbly speaking, the Christian dilettante is in order. I prefer to say Charlatan because it has that cauterizing effect on the human memory or so I think, perchance like a dilettante.

Don Quixote monument, June 2004 Author: Lourdes Cardenal. June 2004. Digital Camera. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

I wondered what sort of meager meditation I could proffer on this subject. Furthermore, when the good Lord was conferring this most exquisite gift of sprezzatura upon his children, He most certainly passed me by. So I had to bid goodbye to the polished muse of the Italian Renaissance and look elsewhere, perhaps to the picaresco tradition of Spanish literature where roguish heroes don the cape and caper of a knight errant. Methought, a dyslexic like me could read 365 books in 365 days and so I picked up my imaginary lance, my pen and person and rushed headlong into the swirling dust of winding words and musty books. After many a mishap and without sweet Dulcinea by my side, I learned that the Lord’s grace and grace alone could lead me home.

Although this assignment was concluded in a shorter period of time, I must assure my dear reader that despite the element of personal vanity, recondite stuntiness, and a host of other self-aggrandizing temptations the end-result is not one of a triumphant person crossing the finishing line of a marathon, but rather the inconclusive feeling of learning without any sense of an ending. And voila, I woke up after a long period from my sedated somnambulism. Like a fool, I had believed that I had to integrate my faith into learning as if the faith was A and learning was B and together A plus B made something else called C.

Faith is, to borrow a phrase from Shelley, the ‘unacknowledged legislator’ of learning. The literary man and woman will knock my knuckles and tell me that the atheist or agnostic Shelley was speaking of poetry and poets. A little bit of creative misappropriation is the hallmark of a charlatan. And a charlatan is not unlike Chesterton’s “amateur,” a very true lover indeed. No, I must let G.K. speak, “Our play is called amateurish; and we wear proudly the name of amateur, for amateurs is but the French for Lovers.” While the professional has a relatively easier passageway into the heart of the matter, the charlatan must jostle with mind and matter to get only a faint scent of a shadow and sneaking silhouette whose preternatural beauty is sufficient to have the man transfixed like a medieval mendicant pining in unrequited verse for the love of a lady, a princesse lointaine (a distant princess) he could never have, as she dwells in a cruel castle with iron-gates guarded by hirsute men in hauberk and ugly guard-dogs in pincers barking with Herr Ritter Doberman pinscher. While the story does not end well for the medieval mendicant as he dies of an irreparably broken heart, the constitution of a charlatan and a Christian one to boot, is girded with sublime strength. Bach’s Jesu in the joy of man’s desiring does indeed show up once the mendicant learner discovers that his learning ought to be a yearning for the Eternal, for one who is far greater than the Infinite. And in God’s universe, the invitation is and always is to taste and see, to search and find.

Professionally speaking, all this reading and seemingly solipsistic philosophizing did not matter a whit. Such an endeavor is a bit too gimmicky for all one knows. But that was my modest way of worship, stealing a page from Le Jongleur de Notre-­Dame to realize that God does not want us to languish in a chamber of ventriloquists, whereby our persons become only personas in the stage of guilded aspirations. I am tempted to advice you to do the same. To read a book a day or one a week, where you delve into subjects outside your expertise and enjoy a world that you never touched or read. But my saying so would be another form of ventriloquism. Nor can I as a Christian merely say, a chacun son gout (to each his own taste).

It is better to inquire again about what happens when Christ followers become a little bit more curious about the world He created, whether it is through reading, meditation, conversation, service, corporate prayer and other expressions of creativity. At the least, we should consider beginning a support group for Christ-­centered charlatans who believe in a Creator who knows everything and therefore we are set free to explore His world even if it comes at the light-­hearted peril of exposing our own ignorance. If you could say amen, gladly shall you and I scrape the surface of the mystery?

For in Him we live, and move and have our being. (Roy Joseph)

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Roy Joseph

Roy is an independent scholar who has taught previously at academic institutions in Pittsburgh and in the Chicago land area. Currently, he is working on a project on Creation and Cosmology and is deeply interested in issues of history and philosophy of science, theological aesthetics and creative writing as well.

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  • rcm06f@my.fsu.edu'
    Rachel commented on May 13, 2012 Reply

    The much-belabored verbiage of your missive elicited multitudinous cachinnations, but what’s more, your point is appreciated. I’d like to think reading outside our disciplines is the mental equivalent of eating a balanced diet.

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