On Secondary Literature

A couple of weeks ago I was at the CBA conference sitting at a dinner table with Joseph Blenkinsopp, Jim West and a few others. We were having the typical “how have you been,” “why are you here,” “what are you working on” conversation. I mentioned I was working my way through several decades of secondary literature as part of a new research project. I even accused Blenkinsopp of contributing to my grief in this manner. He looked me straight in the eye and with a smile on his face said, “Secondary literature is overrated.” Some of it surely is. But is the best of it overrated? Is secondary literature, when taken as body of thought, overrated?
Let me start with an antidote. Last year I received a rather enthusiastic email from someone wanting to share his ideas on the origin of the alphabet. I should make clear that what I am about to say is more surmise than certainty. He might well have been familiar with the considerable body of literature on the origin of the alphabet. He may have just chosen for his own reasons not to mention any of it in his rather lengthy email. My correspondent did mention that he had taken at least one a course from a well known scholar who had worked on the problem but that mention appeared to be more by way of establishing his own credentials than as reflection on that scholar’s work. I readily admit that I didn’t fully understand my correspondent’s explanation. It appeared to have several related(?) elements. One of those elements was a somewhat confusing rehash of the acrophonic principle. The acrophonic principle isn’t exactly news but if I had understood the remainder of his explanation, it might have been a good starting place. And in lacking reference to any secondary literature on the subject, the email reflected a couple of reasons that the secondary literature is important. First, it appeared to me that my correspondent thought he had invented the acrophonic principle and just didn’t have a name for it as yet. Had he used the technical expression “acrophonic principle” or something else like it that is general stock in almost any discussion of the origins of the alphabet, he not only would have saved many words, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out what he was talking about. But then I never did figure out the rest of his explanation. Had he used a little shoptalk or compared his thoughts to those of someone else, even if he thought they were full of beans, he would have done his ideas and me a considerable service. I still might not have understood his idea but I would have likely thought it my problem rather than his.
Ideas, like words, have context. In the humanities and to a great extent in science also much of that context comes from the ongoing scholarly discussion. The primary material, the data, provides the raw material for any meaningful idea or explanation; the scholarly discussion, primarily as reflected in the secondary literature, provides context. That context has several values that are hard to overrate.
First is the value of salience. How does an idea or explanation go beyond or inform the current scholarly discussion? Without knowing the state of the current discussion, there is no way to judge salience. By the way, this is as true for the reader as the writer.
The second value is clarity in expression. The vary best way bring out the important nuances of one’s view is to show how it aligns with and differs from that of others who have thought hard about the same subject. If you can’t clearly explain how your views align with or differ from those of other thinkers, it is likely that you don’t understand your own views very well.
I think the third value of secondary literature is brevity. In the light of the second value, this thought may be a little hard to swallow. But, if there is something in the secondary literature that is important to one’s idea or explanation, then one need only summarize it, reference the source and explain why one adopted this thinker’s work rather than someone else’s. One doesn’t need to spell out every detail of a referenced idea except as one might differ from it. And of course, simply referencing someone else’s thought makes for even briefer presentation when that thought is not critical to one’s own line of reasoning. Also as an aid to brevity, secondary literature provides shoptalk and technical language that often condenses into a single word or phrase whole traditions of scholarly discussion. This can be a two edged sword. One edge limits accessibility and sometimes glosses over important errors in that tradition. But the other edge can replace a detailed discussion of decades, sometimes millennia, of scholarship with a simple well understood word or abbreviation.
Finally, secondary literature, if properly used and evaluated, can protect one from inadvertent dilettantism. Nothing will protect for the truly committed dilettante. If one’s idea is crazy, a critical review of the secondary literature on the subject may prevent one from saying that crazy thing in public. In this project, secondary literature joins the primary material in setting limits on the possible and providing context for the likely.
I wrote this post without reference to secondary literature on secondary literature. It may therefore lack salience, clarity, and brevity. It may also only reflect the crazy thoughts of a secondary literature dilettante.