On “Useless Sciences”

Over the last week or so, the biblioblogosphere has produced a rather amazing discussion of secular Biblical Studies. Some of this discussion has been serious; some has been humorous; some has been misguided. This discussion reminded me of Jean Bottéro’s impassioned defense of the “useless science” of Assyriology. In this defense, he also defended all other “useless sciences.”

. . . I am convinced that even if I were not an Assyriologist, but an Egyptologist, or an Iranist, a Semitist, Hebraist, an Arabist, an Ethiopianist, etc., I would base myself, certainly, upon different elements, but I would not say anything else. Hence, it will be easy for you to listen to all such scholars through my mouth. (p. 15)

Bottéro argued for Assyriology’s place among what he called the “university of sciences.”

Since I have practiced the discipline and I have obtained an idea of all that it can bring to us, I have learned to consider it to be not only useful, but (objectively!) as indispensable for a correct and global understanding of our own history. Assyriology is not simply an enrichment of the mind. It should not have as its final goal our own pleasure and grandeur in discovery and learning. It is at our disposal to provide us with our oldest family documents, if we want to consult them. It is there to crown our past, to inaugurate our origins, and to lead us to the primal source of that enormous stream which still carries us.
In this regard, Assyriology takes its own irreplaceable position in the center of knowledge and learning that make up the university of sciences, a university which was the greatest and most noble ideal of the Middle Ages. As in Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, the medieval ideal also placed the dignity and greatness of mankind before all else in the pursuit and satisfaction of its hunger for knowing and understanding. And it thought that, just as we all have a brain in order to see, to perceive, to think, to prepare, and to direct properly the activity of our mouth, our arms, and our legs, all human society worthy of that name must have the capability of knowledge, of perception, of understanding, and of information that does not leave anything outside its field of vision, of research, and of study. . . . (p. 23-24)

The whole talk, “In defense of a useless science,” is amazing and available at Google Books.
If Bottéro’s mature motivation for Assyriology were the sole motivation for Biblical Studies, there would be fewer Biblical scholars and likely fewer assyriologists. The library where I spend a lot of time would not exist. All that would be sad. But the disciple would still be vibrant because Biblical Studies would still be among that wonderful university of sciences that “does not leave anything outside its field of vision.” And there would also be no need for the “pro-secularist voice . . . in academic biblical studies circles” proposed by Jim Linville and others. But, if only to protect a part of that university of sciences from gradually reverting to purely sectarian interests and concerns, there is such a need.

Bottéro, Jean, Mesopotamia: writing, reasoning, and the gods, Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop trans, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992

3 thoughts on “On “Useless Sciences””

  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence! I’m a bit annoyed that the need is so great too. As for Tim Bulkeley’s response, that is just a bit of melodrama that really misses the point.

  2. Jim,
    You’re welcome. I linked to Tim’s post from “serious” because it I thought I needed one link to a serious concern not because I took it too seriously. As I think you pointed out somewhere, all credible Biblical scholars do their scholarly work as if they were secular scholars.

  3. He completely missed the point. Nobody says you can’t have believing biblical scholars and nobody suggested that “moronic dictats” are “the inevitable result of studying anything one actually ascribes value to!”. Sounds very emotional and bad tempered but good theatre.

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