While reading one of Nate’s posts last week, I began to think about something that has been on my mind off and on for several years. It hit me in the first paragraph:
Ironically, the main problem with Mormon intellectual discussions is that all too frequently we have no intellectual agenda. Or at least so it seems to me. To understand what I mean, consider an intellectual discussion that does (or at any rate did) have a clear research agenda: the law and economics movement.
You see, I simply have no idea what the word intellectual (noun or adjective) means. The same thing occurred during the Dialogue 40th Anniversary Gala when they talked about the history of the Journal and how there were “Mormon intellectuals” and how these folk were involved. Perhaps this is a result of my training.
I was the last grad student of one of history’s greatest carbohydrate chemists. He had a mind that in his early seventies consistently bested all I could muster. We had a great run and will be soon publishing some work that will overturn about a century’s worth of thought on a small corner of our field of labor. In the four years with him and all the great academics I worked with, I never heard a single reference to intellectuals. There was simply good scholarship (sometimes great) and the crappy variant.
Instead of publishing everything he could, my advisor would frequently save up years worth of work in order to publish something that would stand as reference point for decades. New ways to look at the world, sometimes. And the work goes forward.
When I hear the word intellectual, I most often associate it with those fields where you can’t really quantify anything. With mathematics, chemistry, or economics you make hypotheses and the data either supports or contradicts. Right or wrong. Good scholarship or bad scholarship.
For intellectuals, I tend to think (perhaps wrongly) of fields where right and wrong or quantitative analysis are pitched out the window. I have read my fair share of Foucault and Marx; but mostly, when I read it, I long for data. And I guess that explains my approach to history. One day I may go back and get another degree in history and perhaps my heart will be changed. However, now, I am firmly in the camp of collect as much data as possible and present hypotheses which aren’t controverted by it (or vice versa).
What we need are not Mormon intellectuals (or so-called intellectuals for that matter), but great scholars of Mormonism.