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Appealing to Authorities Workshop – 1 July

by Kim Hajek

The Scholarly Vices Project held its first in-person workshop since the pandemic on 1 July , asking what it has meant to appeal to authorities in the history of scholarship (download programme here). Organized by PhD candidate, Edurne De Wilde, and linked to her project on the afterlives of Francis Bacon’s idols, the day saw intense discussion of the way four major figures lived on in discourse even after their deaths.  

Arnoud Visser proposed a ‘playful typology’ in which Augustine appeared variously as mascot, punching bag, ventriloquist’s dummy, and oracle to scholars in the early modern period. Edurne De Wilde then explored how T.H. Huxley used Bacon’s authority to undermine opponents of Darwinism, who themselves criticized the theory by appealing to the authority of—Bacon. Newton, for his part, was accorded authority not only as an English national hero, or melancholy scholar, but also lent authority to imperialist ventures in Africa, in Patricia Fara’s account. Fara outlined the highly emotional way that scientists still respond to portrayals of Newton—such as Fara’s 2002 biography—long after his death. Herman Paul, in contrast, explored ways that Ranke was configured as the ‘founding father’ of history even during his (long) lifetime.  

Each contribution was discussed at length by participants in the tranquil setting of the Garden Room at the Leiden Hortus botanicus, with PhD candidates and Masters students adding their voices to those of the speakers and members of the Vices team. Some key themes emerged over the day, notably the question of whether an ‘authority’ is necessarily a ‘model’, and that of change over time in rhetorical appeals to authorities. What constitutes ‘authority’, is it always attributed or invoked, and is there a difference between calling someone ‘an authority’ and appealing to their authority? Several of the day’s authoritative figures were further found to be associated with particular anecdotes or mythical stories, whether those be self-fashioned, as in the case of Newton and the apple, or recounted by others, as when scholars visiting the aged Ranke praised his appetite for work. Some lighter moments leavened these weighty questions, however, as participants mused on ‘false friends’ in the etymology of ‘verecundiam’ (as in ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’), and speculated on significance of Ranke (the ‘father’) having a familial relationship with his student ‘sons’—and not only a metaphorical one.  

The day wrapped up with an incisive commentary from scholar of rhetoric, Roosmaryn Pilgram. She showed how classical rhetoric can shed light on differences between various kinds of appeals to authority, by distinguishing between authority arguments and appeals to ethos, on the one hand, and between discourse and external ethos, on the other hand. The productive final discussion explored differences in the levels of analysis employed by argumentation/rhetoric scholarship and by history, and closed with the view that each field could benefit from the other’s perspective. 

Find the full programme here: