Scholarship’s silos and the eclipse of meaning
by Ken Myers
“William Desmond’s analysis of curiosity and astonishment, and his appreciation of the manner in which our experience is always porous to transcendence and our knowledge is never finally a mastery, is a vital component of the way I pursue research in the social sciences. This makes me an outlier in the social sciences, . . . but a Desmondean approach is very much compatible with a deep interest in the intrinsically fascinating human worlds of day-to-day life. In fact, I think it is only when our approach to the human worlds of meaning, action, and power are both open to what modern empirical knowledge and modern interpretive theory can reveal and aware of what such knowledge and interpretation also conceals that the social sciences best serve the pursuit of truth. . . .
“Data handling and statistical awareness are important skills for the modern social scientist, and the Desmondean social scientist needs to be good at these skills. However, no matter how good one is, the Desmondean social scientist will have another problem. In seeking to do social science starting from a theological and metaphysical openness to transcendence, I find it easy to be dismissed as an outlier who has no proper reverence for the disciplinary boundaries of modern knowledge-construction. If I was a proper theologian, I would only concern myself with doctrine, scriptures, and religiously situated ethics. Theologians should — so both our seminaries and our secular academies often wrongly assume — stay within the domain of religion and not venture out into economics, politics, metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, science, and technology, etc. If I was a proper philosopher, I would play by the rules of pluralism that make no final claims to ultimacy (largely assuming Kant’s post-metaphysical stance) but that construct tightly reasoned arguments moving from generally defendable secular and scientific starting points to a defended conclusion, that can stand among other positions in the market place of secular and scientific reason-constructs (without any claim to ultimacy). Philosophers can’t do philosophy if they overtly start philosophizing from committed religious or metaphysical first principles. If I was a proper positivist social scientist, I would only make careful observation-dependent and statistically valid models of trends and attitudes in our society, without passing any normative judgement on what those models meant. I would not analyze society from moral realist and overtly metaphysically committed starting points. If I was a proper interpretive social scientist, I would treat meaning-making as entirely defined by culture (in the Kantian post-metaphysical manner) and would not seek to find traces of transcendence reaching into human culture and revitalizing social constructivism.
“The insistence on siloed and artificially defined knowledge discourses in which scholars may be recognized by their similarly siloed peers as experts is the natural corollary of the absence of metaphysics and theology from knowledge itself. For some ultimate meaning and reality discourse is necessary to unify knowledge itself, and without such a unification, fragmentation is not only inevitable, it is mandatory. For this reason, thinking about society from metaphysically theological commitment premises cannot be overtly performed (even if it cannot be covertly avoided) in the post-metaphysical and secular academy. So when, as a Desmondean sociologist, I reason from theological and metaphysical commitments grounded in a faith tradition of astonishment and openness to the divine fount of wonder, this violates the rules of the academy in the specialist cataphatic categories of the discipline’s post-metaphysical norms, and it is offensive to modern knowledge-construction in virtue of my scholarship assuming that there really is a unity to all true knowledge and meaning. For, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, any coherent knowledge system requires a synthesizing vision of unity that orders all knowledge, which also provides a meaningful formational purpose to knowledge itself.* This does not mean that wonder is ever contained within any single frame of theological or philosophical doctrines and ideas, and it does not mean that different schools of first-order metaphysical and theological commitment cannot wonderfully learn from each other, but Confucius is simply correct to notice that one cannot build common meanings, common knowings, and common actions with people of a different Way.”
* In “The Lost Tools of Learning” Sayers points out that in the West’s intellectual tradition “Theology is the Mistress-science, without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis.”
— from Paul Tyson, “Astonishment and the Social Sciences,” in Astonishment and Science: Engagements with William Desmond (Cascade Books, 2023)