The Volokh Conspiracy

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Critical Letters Are True Friendship


In reading for my festschrift essay for John Witte ("The Influence of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition on the Common Law"), I ran across this fascinating paragraph by Anthony Grafton on how Johannes Kepler didn't publish a monograph on chronology (i.e., the study of historical dates) but instead developed his scholarship through letters, with Grafton including a great quote from Blake. Enjoy.

At first I regretted the absence of a Chronologia nova or a Great Chronology of the Old Testament–especially as it made the task of expounding Kepler's technical views on any particular subject diabolically complex. But gradually it has become clear to me that Kepler saw chronology, as he and his contemporaries saw some other subjects, as particularly appropriate for treatment in letters–especially letters that exemplified William Blake's principle, "Opposition is true friendship." Kepler described chronology as a field that profited particularly from the open exchange of opinions and criticism, and his own practice as a chronologer exemplified this view at every point. In fact, Kepler's chronological work represented an effort not only to establish the truth about the past but also to set out, systematically, the proper conditions for doing so–conditions that, as Kepler formulated them, had to do with the canons of discussion, often among scholars who belonged to opposing ideological camps.

Anthony Grafton, "Chronology, Controversy, and Community in the Republic of Letters: The Case of Keplar," in World Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), 124.