January 7, 2009

Nibley's "Two Rules" of Scholarship

Hugh Nibley remains a groundbreaking figure in LDS scholarship. His books, articles and lectures are still read by many Latter-day Saints with great interest; he remains a target of both praise and criticism. One interesting aspect of Nibley's approach was his awareness of the shelf-life of scholarship. He strongly encouraged reappraisal. "We need it all the time," he declared, "If there is any other thing that characterizes the recent appearances in the journals and periodicals today, it is reappraisal."1

He did not excuse himself from this reappraisal. He encouraged it:
I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course. That is the whole idea; This is an ongoing process, and I have some interesting examples of that...The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking.2

While I believe much of Nibley's scholarship holds up rather well, not all of it does. The "two rules to follow" were important to Nibley. Ask the right questions and keep looking.

Some criticism of Nibley revolves around his sources and footnotes. The upcoming issue of the FARMS Review will include an essay by Shirley Ricks called "A Sure Foundation," which will discuss criticism of Nibley's work as well as his general approach to scholarship. [This article has since been published, and is available here.]

According to Louis Midgley, associate editor of the FARMS Review:

This issue of the review is a little more than a bit late, but it should be in print in about two weeks. In it you will find the 40-page essay on Nibley's scholarship including some wry comments he made about the quality of the stuff he produced. If some of the rest of us were as modest about what we opine about as Hugh was, this would be a better world.3

A subscription to the FARMS Review can be purchased here. Back issues of the Review are available for online reading here.

Hugh W. Nibley, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham," Sunstone 4 (December 1979): 49-51.


Louis Midgley, 6 January 2009, personal email used with permission.


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