Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“…an account of…”

I received my MA in Theology from Fuller in 1992, and I've been formally involved in academic study only peripherally over the 16 succeeding years. Since I've jumped back into reading more theology lately, I've noticed a particular phrase that keeps showing up: "an account of". I don't recall this being nearly as widespread back in the early 90's, so I'm wondering where it's come from, and why it's achieved such ubiquity. I don't recall that Calvin, for instance, ever self-consciously gave "an account" of anything – and for that matter, I don't recall that more recent folks like Pannenberg or Barth used the phrase anything like as extensively as it's used today.

To give you just one example, in the 21 pages of chapter 11 of Hauerwas' The State of the University (2007), the word "account" shows up some 36 times, in settings like:

Will what I have to say about "the secular intellectual world" confirm the opinion many of you have that I do not have an adequate account of "the natural"? (p. 166)

Stout's account in principle does not require that Christians (or other traditions) abandon their self-7nderstanding in order to participate in Stout's democracy. Which is to say that there are possibilities in Stout's account that are not yet fully worked out. (p. 178)

Or two random examples from the previous book on my list, Brent Waters' From Human to Posthuman (2006):

What the shorthand 'modern' designates is a currently privileged account of the way the world is, while the shorthand designation 'postmodern' refers to the contestation of this privilege by insisting that no such account is possible. (p. 32)

George Grant provides a philosophical account of destiny for explicating these emergent and convergent qualities that are particularly pertinent to the context of a late liberal technoculture. Grant's account presupposes late liberalism's endemic historicism and nihilism, which was examined in chapter two. (p. 126)

I take it that that "account" functions in these settings as a synonym for "explanation", "elaboration" and "justification". To provide an account of an idea, a cultural feature, or a doctrine, I'm guessing, is to explain how it fits into a larger setting and how it relates to other features or ideas, to describe its historical sources, the structure of its internal logic, and its practical implications. And somewhere in there, I think you probably get around to arguing that the idea is true (or that the cultural feature in question is to be affirmed or criticized).

It seems to me that this phrase reflects an interesting epistemological shift, in that it seems to presuppose a post-foundationalist epistemology. A paper, article or book that advocates idea 'x' by "presenting an account" of it doesn't so much argue that 'x' is true based on reasons 1, 2 and 3. Rather, the author argues for the idea by explaining its significance, situating it within a larger world of ideas, and showing how it helps to explain those ideas, or makes them more interesting, or simply provides more interesting questions to ask. The world of discourse assumed by this phrasing doesn't seem to involve syllogisms or classical logic, but rather the sort of "confirmation holism" that Quine made famous. That's probably an over-generalization, but based on the sort of arguments I'm actually seeing presented, it doesn't seem too outrageous.

Given that the academy is nothing if not self-critical (maybe even self-referential), I have to imagine that I'm not the first person to have noticed this. Does anyone know of any research or thinking that's been done on this?

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