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Thomas International Center
May 2006


Ralph McInerny


Learned Ignorance



Preparing the index for The Logic of Analogy, nearly fifty years ago, was a mindless but highly enjoyable task. Page proofs and separate sheets of paper for each  letter of the alphabet were spread all over the table as I pored over the text and entered words, then page numbers on the sheets. After the long effort of writing the book, indexing it was a kind of reward, somewhat on an analogy with the way Hemingway counted the words after he finished a page, entering the total in an upper corner.

Computer programs have robbed us of those mindless tasks. Now the indexer uses the Adobe Reader program, enters a word, hits a key, and in a trice the various occurrences of the word in the text are found. There were many mindless tasks like indexing when I was young. I sat for hours in the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame, copying out columns from Migne's Patrology, a reference work one could not take home. From printing I turned the text into the kind of manuscript from which it had come. The preparation of critical editions of medieval texts was once a task so laborious it made indexing seem simple. Now there are computer programs to do the mindless work. And for just about everything else.

Recently I read an excellent book on negative theology and the divine names by a young Dominican named Humbrecht. Of a certain Latin phrase he wrote that it occurred only three times in the Summa theologiae. Marvelous. I thought of my mentors who had the opera omnia at their fingertips from years of wallowing in it. And then I realized that the word count had doubtless been the result of a computer search. Now in the case of Humbrecht that computer search obviously went hand in hand with a close and extensive knowledge of the text of St. Thomas. But anyone could perform such a search. Such easy access creates the illusion of familiarity, much as making photocopies creates the illusion that we have read and digested the text copied.

I suppose the danger is worth the risk. All those labor-saving devices that freed housewives from drudgery were doubtless a gain, but they produced a new problem: what to do with all the leisure they afforded. The mechanization of the lower level tasks of study and research can free us for the essential work of thought. The danger is that they can become a substitute for it. Any nostalgic appeal in these reflections is negated by the realization that I am writing them on my computer. I do not miss the mechanical typewriter of yore. But there is a new generation of scholars who never experienced the laborious infrastructure of study. Perhaps without the contrast, the dangers of facility are lessened. Speriamo.


Ralph McInerny