On “Bracketing”

I’ll begin this post in italics, mostly so that—since this is my first post here at Peculiar People—I can introduce myself, at least briefly. My name is Joe Spencer. I’m a PhD student in philosophy at the University of New Mexico, where I work on contemporary French philosophy (Louis Althusser, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben) and the history of early analytic philosophy (Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred Tarski, Rudolf Carnap). I’m a regular—if odd—contributor to the world of Mormon studies, focusing principally on scriptural theology. I published my first book, An Other Testament: On Typology with Salt Press in 2012, and it’ll be re-released by BYU Press later this year. When I’m not responsibly working on my dissertation, I’m working on a second book: For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope, to be published by Greg Kofford Books. I owe thanks to everyone at Peculiar People for being interested in having me come on board.

Students of Mormon history are well acquainted with—even if they’d generally prefer to forget—the crisis of sorts into which Mormon historiography fell in the early 1980s. The 1960s and especially the 1970s saw a kind of golden age for Mormon history, with fully accessible archives, rapidly growing interest, professional organizations and journals launching, and full institutional support from the LDS Church. Through a very complicated series of unfortunate events, all of that fell apart in the early 1980s. To make a very long story short, the Church lost its faith, for a time, in the historical profession, and the best historians found themselves complexly positioned between two warring camps, camps too easily summed up under titles like “traditionalists” and “revisionists” or “apologists” and “critics.” Strangely, in many ways, the crisis in history ended up giving scripture a major role to play in Mormon intellectual circles. Here again there’s a complicated back-story, one I can’t recount here without getting too long-winded, so it’s enough just to say that the Book of Mormon became the principal—if nonetheless curious—focus of (whatever might have been called) Mormon studies from the mid-1980s right through the 1990s. In many ways, Mormon history went underground for a decade or two, waiting for the right moment—which happened to be the first years of the new millennium—to reemerge with remarkable force, helping to give rise to what is increasingly being recognized as an actual discipline of Mormon studies.

Not enough attention has been given to the fact that the first major book heralding that discipline was a book on the Book of Mormon: Terryl Givens’s 2003 By the Hand of Mormon. Although it took as its focus almost two centuries of reception history, there’s a sense in which it was first and foremost a glance back at the preceding two decades, a study of the twenty years during which the Book of Mormon had a kind of academic heyday. Unfortunately, in many ways, the fact that it could tell that story meant that that story had come to an end. More or less at the moment Givens’s book appeared and cleared a space for the reemergence of Mormon history in full force, both the “apologists” and the “critics,” for no obvious reasons, slowed their publishing efforts. The years since—despite the fact that some of the most remarkable work on the Book of Mormon has appeared!—have seen an unmistakable retreat of the Book of Mormon from the focus of academic study of Mormonism. The result is that it is now time for those who have enjoyed two decades of intense intellectual focus on scripture to experience their crisis.

This crisis has taken the shape, so far, of talk about historicity. In a way, that’s no surprise. With the reemergence of Mormon historiography, and especially with the remarkable sophistication of that enterprise, a discourse characterized by a certain, hard-to-define “neutrality”—originally outlined in the work of Richard Bushman and Jan Shipps in the early 1980s, but now characteristic of the whole field—has come to define the developing field of Mormon studies. Because the two decades of intense study of especially the Book of Mormon made historical setting (whether ancient or modern) the key to the study of Mormon scripture, it is proving difficult for those facing the crisis in Mormon scriptural interpretation to decide what is happening, and what it implies for the study of the Book of Mormon. A certain key word has come already to define the often-heated discussions surrounding this question: bracketing. The question to be asked, most seem to agree, is whether it’s appropriate or not to bracket the historicity of something like the Book of Mormon in order to study that book.

I’ll be presumptuous enough to believe I can shed some light on this question—at the very least because I have myself been the subject of some talk about the advisability or inadvisability of bracketing (see here).

I Don’t Believe in Bracketing

A first, personal point: I don’t bracket. I don’t describe what I do as bracketing. Indeed, I’ve been surprised to see my work—or work like mine—described as employing some kind of bracketing. And, frankly, I’ve got some real worries about bracketing, at least as it’s usually understood.

But I should begin with a working definition of bracketing, as the word is being used in current discussions (I’ll call this definition radically into question later on). What is it to bracket? The idea in circulation is that there’s a kind of assumed impossibility about dealing with the empirically unobservable in academic settings, and so it’s necessary to place within brackets the truth or falsity of any claims made in or by a religious tradition regarding the empirically unobservable—for instance, an account of an encounter with God. The idea is that this sort of bracketing allows, ideally (but seldom really), for the sort of neutrality scholars are supposed to model: by bracketing the truth or falsity of what can’t be observed, the scholar either (1) gives a religious tradition she could never believe a sporting chance to tell its story or (2) finds a way to present without advocating belief in a religious tradition to which she has existential commitments. There are thus two forms of bracketing: (1) a suspension of disbelief, required of the “outsider,” and (2) a suspension of belief, required of the “insider.”

What would this look like when it comes to the Book of Mormon? Well, what gets bracketed here is the question of authorship, or the question of historicity. The unbelieving scholar who wants to give the Book of Mormon a fair shake would bracket her disinclination to believe in order to read the book carefully, while the believing scholar who wants to allow the Book of Mormon to speak to unbelieving audiences would bracket her inclination to believe in order to present the book neutrally. Grant Hardy is explicit about this: “I propose bracketing, at least temporarily, questions of historicity in favor of a detailed examination of what the Book of Mormon is and how it operates” (Understanding the Book of Mormon, p. xvi). And Hardy has reiterated this point since then. Before him was Mark Thomas, who argued that “there are good reasons for bracketing the issues of authorship of the Book of Mormon” (Digging in Cumorah, p. 2)—though it must be said, with Terryl Givens, that “Thomas’s bracketing of historical questions is not entirely sincere—since his book is replete with reference to nineteenth-century cultural factors that constitute the tiles of Joseph’s ‘mosaic’” (By the Hand of Mormon, p. 295). Whatever might be said of Thomas’s inconsistency (or even insincerity, as Givens puts it), Hardy’s methodological commitments are remarkably consistent, at times bordering on the obsessive. The question of whether the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient document, or whether it’s actually a nineteenth-century production, is left entirely out of account.

So that’s bracketing. But let me be clear. That’s not what I myself do. I don’t talk about historicity much in my work on the Book of Mormon, but that’s more because I find it a terribly dull question than because I worry about alienating unbelieving readers. The question of the Book of Mormon’s historicity was decided for me a long time ago, and I just can’t get excited about asking all over again whether there’s good reason for me still to believe in it. (If I have a mild allergy to apologetics—and it is mild—it’s because reading it makes me feel like I’m supposed to be wondering still whether the book is historical. Apologetic literature too often feels like it’s trying to transport me back to when I did have doubts and worries.) Moreover, I find myself worried that if I attempt to bracket historicity, I’ll also be inclined to bracket—that is, ignore—all the seriously productive historically-inclined work that’s been done on the Book of Mormon, whether that work assumes an ancient or a modern setting. I don’t want to leave Nibley and his historicity-driven heirs behind, nor will I refuse to learn from folks like Mark Thomas and Dan Vogel. They’ve all instructed me profoundly about the meaning of the text, and it seems to me simply arrogant to intimate that their historical concerns make their work largely irrelevant.

So I don’t bracket. I as often as not don’t even raise questions that bear on historicity, simply because I’m a theologian and not a historian, but my failure to raise those questions isn’t the result of a willing act of suspension of any sort. But if I don’t bracket, should I worry about alienating unbelievers? For what it’s worth, I don’t much worry about it. If I’m looking for a good study of the Qur’an, I want one that isn’t trying to convince me of its absolute veracity, but I don’t therefore want one that brackets the volume’s veracity. I’d prefer to read one that assumes its veracity (or at least draws on the work of those who assume its veracity) so that I can see how a believer makes sense of the volume. Ideally, the author of the study would also be willing to countenance the critical and skeptical literature, recognizing what can be learned from that approach as well. While I don’t want to read an apologetic work on the Qur’an, I also don’t want to read a work that obsesses over neutrality and the necessity of bracketing. And I feel safe assuming that those genuinely interested in the Book of Mormon but who aren’t interested in deciding its truth (those for whom the truth of the book isn’t a live option) can find something like what I want in a book on the Qur’an in my own work on the Book of Mormon. What matters in a study of a scriptural text from whatever tradition is, in my view, its depth and insight, its ability to see how the book works in the hands of a reader, not its neutrality.

So I don’t believe in bracketing. Well, I don’t believe in bracketing as the term is usually used. There’s a difference between the use of the word in religious studies, etc., and the use of the word in its originally setting, from which it’s been taken. Let me say just a few words about that “original” meaning, because I think I do believe in that sort of bracketing.

The Bracketing I Do Believe In

Whence the word “bracketing” in the first place? Why this metaphor? Ostensibly, the word is borrowed from Edmund Husserl, an important philosopher whose most influential works were written in the first part of the twentieth century.

Husserl’s lifelong project was—like so many of the most important philosophers since the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century—to investigate “the validity of validity,” that is, to study whatever it is that ultimately grounds the truths of science. His contention was that it is only possible to bring validity—the apparent obviousness of science’s truth—into investigation by removing oneself from the “natural attitude” in which that validity holds unquestioned. This is what he called the epochē, the phenomenological reduction, or bracketing. Brackets are placed around the natural attitude so that the nature of the natural attitude can be investigated. The idea is that by disengaging the world of everyday experience, it becomes possible to bring that world of everyday experience into a kind of visibility otherwise unavailable to us; it becomes possible to phenomenalize—to make a studyable phenomenon of—the world of everyday experience in which we presuppose the validity of the scientific worldview.

(Importantly, this kind of disengagement of the world has been compared, quite richly, to the experience of Christian conversion. In lectures given in 1920 and 1921, Martin Heidegger—at the time still a student of Husserl—analyzed the epistles of Paul and argued that the Christian’s experience of being in but not of the world has the same structure as the phenomenological reduction. Obviously, it’d take me too much space to flesh out Heidegger’s comparison, but I think it worth noting that bracketing may have certain connections to the experience of conversion.)

Now, how does Husserlian bracketing compare with the kind of bracketing employed in the field of religious studies—the kind being talked about in discussions about what it means to read Mormon scripture? Not well, in my opinion. Note that all talk of bracketing among Mormon intellectuals is supposedly a matter of bracketing the subjective in order to achieve a certain objectivity or neutrality (of course only as an ideal: most recognize that objectivity and neutrality can’t actually be had). For Husserl, though, what one brackets is precisely the objective, the world of supposed neutrality and objectivity, and one does this precisely in order to see what is really at stake in subjective experience. Although there’s a kind of comparability between what Husserl calls bracketing and what students of religion call bracketing—both want to bracket something that seems natural to the one who wishes to study something—there’s ultimately a rather sharp difference, almost a direct opposition, between them. Husserl aims to bracket precisely the apparent objectivity of science in order to investigate its grounds; the student of religion aims to bracket whatever would supposedly compromise that objectivity in order to remain all the more firmly within it, in order to avoid every investigation of the grounds of science.

It might be further noted that Husserl didn’t mean to suggest with his talk of bracketing that something has to be left out of things in serious investigation. His claim was that a suspension of a certain attitude helps to bring in to serious investigation those things that the natural attitude forces out of the picture. Husserl’s phenomenological method was intended to allow for a more robust study rather than a more limited study of things. Phenomenology as he understood it would allow for the reality of everyday experience to be seen for what it actually is.

How might study of the religious look if it were undertaken in a more directly Husserlian manner? Can Husserlian bracketing be used in the study of, say, scripture? I think so. To get a bit autobiographical again, I might note that I’ve often tried to do something like this in my own work, though I’ve not used the language of bracketing to describe what I’ve done. It’s possible, I think, to bracket the natural attitude that characterizes the reading of scripture. Remember: the point here isn’t to say that we should bracket belief or disbelief and read scripture somehow neutrally or objectively. No, in bracketing the natural attitude one steps back, as it were, from the work of reading in order to ask what’s going on when one reads scripture. In bracketing the natural attitude that characterizes the reading of scripture, one brings phenomenologically to light what it means to read scripture. My own study has taught me that what comes to light in the course of such investigation is that one can only read faithfully, believingly.

That’s a sort of bracketing I can get behind. If bracketing allows me as a student of things religious to see more of what’s going on, to get clear on what a religious phenomenon means, to understand what it is to be religious, then I think we’re onto something. That’s what I hope I do in my own work. It’s what I hope to find in the work of others when I go looking. There are many, many others ways to study religious texts and religious phenomena more generally, and I learn from them all. But I’m always secretly hoping to find something like what I’ve described here.

Is there a direction students of Mormon scripture might collectively pursue in order to move toward a resolution of the current crisis? I believe so, though I don’t pretend to know exactly what that direction is. At the very least, I hope I’ve said something here that might help to shine a little light on the paths that might be taken.

  • James Faulconer

    Good job, Joe. Thanks for this clarification.

  • Kim

    Joe, I could use a few illustrations of what bracketing looks like. Do you have a handful of examples you could supply?

    • Joe Spencer

      I assume you mean the good sort of bracketing I end up endorsing, yes? I think the best example I can think of is the third chapter of Jan Shipps’s Mormonism, if we’re talking about the Book of Mormon….

  • DLewis

    Joe, could we say that you want to bracket the other genres that scriptural texts might be classified and read as (history, poetry, sermon) in order to foreground them as uniquely scripture? And if so, is this decision to bracket them as such grounded in something unique to the texts themselves, or is it a necessary move for establishing a religious community’s united approach to a text?

    • Joe Spencer

      I don’t want to bracket that sort of thing, I think. I’d want to look at how each of those sorts of scriptural genres does something different with a reader. Paul Ricoeur has done some really beautiful work on this sort of question, both in the second essay in Figuring the Sacred and in his contribution to Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”. I think that’d be a good place to start to think about how scripture, through its variety of genres, complicates the very idea of a self-identical community of readers.

      • DLewis

        Thanks, l’ll check those essays out.

        I’d like to push you further on your point that this form of bracketing allows us to reflect on “what it means to read scripture.” Is reading “scripture,” in your mind, a matter of phenomenological approach to a text, or does the text itself demand, because it is scripture, the sort of bracketing you are attempting here? (I’m trying to pose the question without it blowing up into “How do you define ‘scripture?’”)

        • Joe Spencer

          No, I don’t think scripture demands a phenomenological approach to the text, or any sort of bracketing—good or bad. We can simply read scripture. But if we’re going to ask what it means to read scripture, then the good sort of bracketing is the best way, I think, to begin to ask that question. But the same sort of bracketing would be necessary if we were to ask ourselves what it means to read T. S. Eliot’s poetry—though the phenomenon that would reveal itself in that act of bracketing would, naturally, be different: it’d be the phenomenon of reading twentieth-century poetry, and not the phenomenon of reading scripture. Husserlian bracketing is a methodological move that allows us to bring a subjectively-grounded phenomenon into view, but reading scripture is one of many subjectively-grounded phenomena.

  • g.wesley

    Lots of things to think about Joe. Thanks.

    If the term comes to religious studies from philosophy, and if bracketing in the one is not the same as in the other, it would not be the first of course. But whatever term is to be used or however bracketing is to be defined, I am interested in what you say about historicity (surprise, surprise):

    “I don’t talk about historicity much in my work on the Book of Mormon, but that’s more because I find it a terribly dull question than because I worry about alienating unbelieving readers. The question of the Book of Mormon’s historicity was decided for me a long time ago, and I just can’t get excited about asking all over again whether there’s good reason for me still to believe in it.”

    I like where you go with this as it regards apologetics. It’s clever.

    How would you respond, though, to someone for whom the question has not been decided, at least not fully? Or for whom the question was decided but with the preponderance of evidence pointing towards the Book of Mormon being a 19th century text? How might you and they have a conversation? This might be a conversation with a ward member or an LDS academic or a scholar of whatever or no religious affiliation.

    Or is that just it? Are you saying that you would rather not have a conversation with them? Not because the question has been decided for you once and for all in the sense that the Book of Mormon is ancient and no further evidence or analysis could ever convince you otherwise. (That is not what you are saying, I assume.) Rather, it’s because the question has been decided for you in the sense that it’s a boring question to ask in the first place. So let’s ask something else.

    If that’s the case, it seems like a challenging distinction to make, and one that could easily be co-opted for purposes of anti-intellectualism. I trust that no one has ever accused you of that. I am just saying that yawning whenever the question of historicity arises may appear to some to be rather convenient.

    Also–and coming back to the conversation with, say, a ward member or LDS academic–do you think that your boredom with historicity is something that you might use to reassure a co-religionist who has doubts? To borrow a phrase, do you think it might create space for belief in the Book of Mormon as inspired scripture even in the face of scholarly criticisms, whether such criticisms are directed at the Book of Mormon itself or picked up by its readers in their other studies?

    I can’t tell whether it has allowed you personally to create such space or whether your boredom is the result of whatever it was that got you there. But how would someone else get there, especially if you, again, yawn as they start talking about how they are asking themselves, as you say you did once upon a time, whether there’s good reason still to believe in the Book of Mormon?

    • Joe Spencer

      These are great questions.

      Let me make clear from the outset that I don’t at all mean that I’d rather not have a conversation with those for whom the question of historicity either isn’t settled, or is settled in a way at odds with my own conviction! Rather, as you surmise, it’s that I’m just not interested in having conversations aimed at deciding whether the book is historical. I don’t know that I’ve got much to learn, and I don’t know that I’ve got anything much to share, either from such conversations. I have a great deal to learn and to share about the book as historical (I’m fascinated, for instance, by what I learn in John Welch’s work, and I have some amateurish speculations I can share as well), and I have a great deal to learn and to share about the book as unhistorical (I learn a great deal from Dan Vogel’s analyses, and I can speculate about nineteenth-century influences myself if need arises).

      In short, I don’t yawn when someone disagrees with me about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or when someone isn’t sure about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I yawn when the conversation has as its aim either to establish or to problematize the historicity of the Book of Mormon—and that whether my interlocutor agrees with me or not about the book’s historicity. So I hope my yawns don’t look quite so convenient. :)

      I also don’t mean to suggest that I find it boring when someone is trying to decide whether they should believe in the Book of Mormon. That’s of far too much moment for me to yawn! But I do find it trying when I’m talking with someone who, in trying to decide whether they should believe in the Book of Mormon, can’t see that establishing historicity in “objective” terms is somehow important to the decision of faith. When I have a chance to speak with someone about whether they should believe the Book of Mormon to be true, I’d never even think to bring up the question of historicity, since what matters far, far more is the way the book works, what it calls its readers to do, and so on.

      So it seems to me. And hopefully I’ve been a little clearer!

  • Joe Spencer

    When I talk about the way the book works, I don’t mean to suggest that I want to build faith on the complexity or the richness of the book. I mean, rather, that I want to clarify the nature and stakes of faith by attending to the book as it presents itself (in all its complexity, etc.). The idea, in other words, is never, for me, to use some particular approach to the text in order to make the book into something worth believing in. The idea is always, for me, to see how to clarify what it means to believe in the book. Perhaps that clarification can serve to build faith—I’m inclined to believe so—but the idea isn’t that complexity or richness is going to serve as the new crux for faith.

    You’re right to ask about whose voice is heard in the book’s call. But in my own experience, it’s less a matter of who stands identifiably behind the call than of how that call does or doesn’t make its demands. There’s something about the force with which the call comes that matters more than the name I can attach to the voice in which the call is issued. I’d guess that we start asking after the identity of the caller only when we doubt, when we waver, when the call ceases to come to us with full force. I’d guess.

  • Robert C.

    Very Nice, Joe.

    I also quite like several of the discussion comments by you and others, since reading them has helped me identify a vague thought that’s been haunting me for some time. It’s with regard to what I’ll refer to as value (or values).

    On the one hand, we might say that scripture is different than poetry because of something like my frame of mind or understanding of the authority of the different texts: when I read scripture, I give them more weight and treat them as sacred, or something.

    Although that approach might prove productive, I’m not optimistic. Rather, I think the difference is better conceived in terms of the commitment I have, and the Church/community has toward scripture, a commitment that forces us to work out our differences over time, so to speak. This commitment, which binds us to keep wrestling with the ideas in these texts, over time, is what makes the book sacred, and what guards against false consciousness when we read. (This is also my basic take-away from Ricoeur’s intervention in the Habermas-Gadamer debates, by the way.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.mcguire.58 Benjamin McGuire

    In agreeing with you, I think that we run into a different problem when we start discussing the Book of Mormon than exists more generally within Mormon Studies. I think that its possible and even helpful to engage in bracketing (in the more recent sense) from time to time in many aspects of Mormon studies. A lot of the history, the pre-history, and the comparative studies can use bracketing to varying degrees of success. It is specifically when we start talking about historicity (and in particular the historicity of the Book of Mormon) we run into an inescapable problem. If we assumed that texts had determinate meanings, it might not be such a problem. But if instead we view reading as a confluence of a reader, an author’s intention, and a text, then bracketing becomes impossible. We can either read Nephi’s text as being written by an ancient person (Nephi) or we can read Nephi’s text as being written by a much more recent person (Joseph Smith?). In the first we have Nephi who writes of Nephi (the narrator) speaking of the autobiographical character Nephi in his book. In the second we have Joseph Smith (or some other modern writer) who writes of Nephi (the fictional narrator) speaking of Nephi (the fictional character). Can bracketing eliminate this gap? Or does the act of reading force us to choose an authorial intention that already assumes an answer on the historicity of the text – and in so doing prevents us from bracketing (even if we pretend to be doing so)? And in the process, I think we often see an attempt to give an interpretational model fully determinate status.


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