Honesty in humanities research

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Library with chair by window

I’ve just come to the end of the second official week of my DPhil. In between all the library inductions, research workshops, and meeting new people, I’ve been doing some thinking about where I want my research to go: the kind of questions I want to ask, and work towards answering, about medieval recluses’ prayer.

Defining a topic

I enjoy the freedom in the humanities, particularly in literature, to define my own topic. But I’m beginning to see that this has its dangers as well. I was struck, during a recent talk at the Oxford Graduate Christian Forum, by some advice which the speaker quoted from the physicist Richard Feynman:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.  You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.[1]

My initial reaction was that this wasn’t very relevant to me. My subject is a long way from experimental science! I don’t have to produce and reproduce measurable results, so the temptation to “adjust” them into more publishable material isn’t likely to be an issue.

I can see, too, how someone who’s invested in their research could end up convincing themselves that they’ve produced the outcome they want, whether or not the numbers bear it out. But in a field like mine, where general orthodoxy is that a text is whatever the reader makes of it, surely this call to honesty has little to say to literary scholars.

(I don’t mean to say that no literary critic or historian has ever so wanted to prove an argument that the evidence has become twisted. In fact, there’s an example from the critical history of the medieval text I wrote about in my last post.  That text is anonymous, so many people have tried to identify its author. In the 1970s one critic, E. J. Dobson, claimed to have established his identity and that of the original audience. Unfortunately, it later became clear that a key piece of his evidence was based on a mistake – he had misread a manuscript abbreviation for fratres, brothers, as sorores, sisters.[2] Dobson seems to have wanted his idea to be true so badly that this fairly unambiguous distinction got lost.)

Constructing a narrative

The more I think about this, however, the more it seems like I need Feynman’s advice. I probably won’t have much chance to falsify results, but I’m aware of a temptation to romanticise and generalise when I talk about medieval religion. It’s all too easy to downplay the misogyny, doctrinal differences, and sheer cultural alienness, in an effort to construct the narrative I want: one where prayer, both then and now, has the power to make genuine transhistorical connection possible. I don’t have a well-thought-out conclusion either way as yet, and I have to be careful about how I get there.

Honesty, both to oneself and (the ‘conventional’ sort) to others, is a virtue specially necessary for academics, as Feynman warned. For Christian academics, it must characterise all our work, as we seek to glorify the God whose word is Truth.


[1] Richard Feynman, ‘Cargo Cult Science’ (1974) http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm [accessed 15/10/16]

[2] See E. J. Dobson, The Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Oxford, 1976), for the original argument; and Sally Thompson, Women Religious: the Founding of English Nunneries after the Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1991), p.34 n.126 for the correction.

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