Eons ago, when I was in college, books by the British humorist Stephen Potter were all the rage. The best one was entitled One-upmanship, but they all had the same theme—how to be regarded as intellectually superior the easy way. To be known as a chess expert, simply walk around with a copy of The Chess Review under your arm, sport a chess tie and manage to get through the first three moves of a match. Then sweep all the pieces off the board and announce to your opponent: “Brilliant! You win in 23 moves and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.”
But that gambit can be used only in limited situations. The most broadly applicable of Potter’s ploys was a conversation stopper: Walk into any conversation, listen for a few moments and then confidently assert, “But not in the south.” There could simply be no response to this devastating observation, no put-down that would top it. You would just walk away puffing your pipe (obviously this was a book for men).
As I survey the scholarly scene with which this magazine is concerned, it has a occurred to me that Potter’s conversation stopper is more profound than perhaps even he realized. In its way, it summarizes scholarly progress, but it can also serve as a ploy in scholarly one-upmanship.