Remembrance of Things Past

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

— Marcel Proust

This morning I recalled the taste of a bit of madeleine dunked in a linden-flower tea which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know why this memory made me so happy). What prompted me to recall that although I have never sampled a madeleine or sipped linden-flower tea, I have read Proust’s paean to the immense architecture of memory?

The spur came from Daniel Engber, who wonders why certain scientific “discoveries” are made over and over. His prompting, in turn, came from the recent news that humans can echolocate and the elderly are having lots of sex. Of course we have long known that humans can echolocate and older people like sex. There is no new in this news.

While there is much to be said for the new, I am here concerned with the old — with scholarly works and archival materials that have either been forgotten or ignored. At least some of this forgetting is understandable.

It has only been in the past 15 years or so that formerly difficult to find and access materials (especially articles published in obscure journals and out of print books) have become electronically available. What formerly required weeks in a library can now often be accomplished in days while sitting at home.

Scholars who published books or articles before this time (circa 1995) can thus be excused for not being aware of all that which had gone before, and for not exhausting the possibilities of previous theory or research before moving on to something new. There is little excuse, however, for not considering such theory or research today.

Despite these facts, I rarely cease to be amazed at the ceaseless stream of recent publications which demonstrate little or no historical awareness of matters that previous generations of scholars have already considered, often in great detail. In some cases, what is presented as new is in fact quite old. In other cases, there is a great deal of unpublished and archival data that speaks directly to the issue under consideration but which is ignored.

How can we account for what appears to be a kind of academic amnesia? Part (or a good deal) of the problem stems from intense pressure to generate “original” data and publish on it. Never mind that similar or more relevant data have already been generated. These data, some published and some not, often beg for reconsideration or synthesis.

For that which is old to become new, we must first remember that it exists. We must then overcome market-like pressures which insist that for scholarship to be valuable, it must be based on “original” or “new” data — we have barely begun to exhaust the possibilities of the old and forgotten. In few fields is this more true than in evolutionary religious studies, which suffer greatly from a lack of historical awareness.

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