Monday, July 30, 2007

The Place of Scholarship

A number of years ago I was studying the Ralbag's introduction to his commentaries on the Torah. One of the most impressive sections is his nine m'komot (see these posts for my translation of the first two). The purpose of these m'komot is to serve as ways of linking the mitzvot of the Torah and the root principles of those mitzvot (shorashim) to the words of the written Torah.

I wondered why the Ralbag would call such methods m'komot, which literally means places. Why not call them midot (which literally means measures), the term used by the Sages - as in, midot sh'haTorah nidreshet bahem? I reflected on the meaning of the word makom and came to the conclusion that a makom is not just a physical place. In its broader sense it can be thought of as that which enables placing, s'micha. So, I concluded the Ralbag must have called his methods m'komot because they enabled him (and the reader) lismoch, to place, or rest, the principles of the mitzvot on the simple meaning of the text. In English we could think of m'komot as "placers" - they help us place the principles on the best textual "places", or m'komot.

Shortly after my musings on this question I spoke with a well known Ralbag scholar. He told me that m'komot is actually a translation of the Greek word topos, meaning place - this Greek term is the source of the title to one of Aristotle's works: The Topics. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (this is the link to the specific article) gives the following definition of topos:

Generally speaking, an Aristotelian topos (‘place’, ‘location’) is an argumentative scheme which enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion.

This scholar's explanation seemed to put the question to rest and as nice as my theory seemed to me the facts were the facts. Ralbag's m'komot were topoi - argumentative schemes enabling the reader (who is in a sense a dialectician, building his arguments out of authoritative statements) to construe an argument for the conclusion that a specific mitzvah or shoresh can be placed on (or emerge from) a specific text. I was very happy after this discussion and was thankful that the scholar had identified that a makom was a topos - I will refer to this kind of explanation as saying "a this is a this".

I let the matter rest for a number of years until this past Shabbat Nachamu. Rabbi Rambam System recently moved into my neighborhood and he was at my house learning with me. As can be seen from his blog, he is currently very focused on the Ralbag's m'komot. He helped me see a fundamental error that I made and also gave me new insight into the nature of the m'komot as well as memory and learning. In this post I will discuss my error.

My Error

The scholar had shown me that a makom is a topos (a this is a this) but this still leaves one begging the question: why is a topos called a topos, a place in the first place (sorry for the bad pun)? What does place have to do with dialectical argumentative schemes? When the scholar told me that a this was really a this my mind became closed to any further investigation. After all, the scholar told me that a this was a this, what more need be said? To give scholars some credit, scholars are in doubt about this very question (as can be seen here on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Perhaps my original theory was not so bad. However, it clearly needed refining based on the new facts that the scholar provided. Unfortunately, once I heard that a this was a this I stopped thinking.

I often find this problem with "scholarship". Scholarship is very good at establishing facts, saying this is a this but when it comes to asking, "what of it?", it often falls short. It is as if once things have been placed into neat categories, and identifications have been made, and data has been put into patterns nothing more need be done or said. Is the amassment and organization of facts the totality of intellectual investigation? Sadly, that which should be a boon to investigation often becomes its pallbearer.

In a upcoming post I will discuss the new insight.

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