Stating the Obvious

Once one begins to spend a good deal of time in academia, one begins to notice something depressing about most of the writing in one’s field: more often than not, it consists of an inflated, self-important declaration of an indisputable truism under the guise of making some remarkable discovery.  Indeed, this discovery, we are told, promises to be the basis for shedding new light on hitherto thorny problems.  Thus do academics justify their existence by presenting to the world as products of arduous research observations that in fact should have taken only a moment’s reflection.  Here’s a nice example that I came across in A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, citing an article by Brian Vickers:

“Vickers observes that in the Lawes Hooker is, in effect, writing for three distinct ‘audiences’: the first Vickers identifies as the reformers, Hooker’s principal opponents, whose minds he hopes to change, and against whom he has no hesitation in using rhetoric for polemical purposes; the second is the general public, for whom he aims to set out the opposing cases in a ‘judicial’ fashion, inviting the reader to judge between them; the third is himself: when moved to express his own feelings about a major aspect of Christian belief, he has no hesitation in doing so in hyperbolic terms. . . . This ‘threefold audience’ is one factor that helps to explain why it is that the task of interpreting Hooker has proved so complex.” (63-64)

So Hooker writes for his own satisfaction (first person), to convince his opponent (second person), and to convince a broader audience that is judging both his opponent and him (third person)?  Really?  Fascinating.  But I’m afraid I must ask, “Of what polemical writer is this not the case?”  Indeed, almost any piece of persuasive writing will have these “three audiences,” although sometimes one or another will predominate.  Sometimes an author will be much more interested in thinking through things for himself, regardless of whether others find interesting what he has to say, and the first-person objective will predominate.  But for most who go into print, the second and third persons are in view as well.  Sometimes the second person will predominate, in a piece of controversial writing that really hopes to persuade a particular opponent or group of opponents; but if the third person were not in view, why not write a private letter?  So the third person, the undecided general audience, that is to be persuaded that one’s opponent is wrong, is always in view as well.  

Now, admittedly, it is not quite a truism that all polemical writing will have all three audiences, because it will sometimes be the case that a writer is so convinced that his opponent(s) are incorrigible that he has no interest in fact in persuading them, but only in addressing himself to the third-person audience that is attending to the controversy.  Or sometimes the writer will make little attempt to differentiate his strategy for persuading the opponent and persuading the undecided.  It is, in my view, an important point about Hooker’s work that this is *not* the case for him; there is a genuine and distinct effort to persuade the opponent.  So this point might be worthy of some emphasis, and perhaps this is what Vickers is up to, although his article proves unnecessarily ponderous in making the point.  But to act, as Joyce does, as if Hooker’s “threefold audience” makes him a uniquely sophisticated and difficult to interpret writer, thus providing scholars with an excuse for their interpretive difficulties, is just silly.  

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