Wednesday, February 16, 2005

And now, for something scholarly-ish

And now, for something scholarly-ish


Ok, this is a discussion I find annoying. And I'm not sure exactly why, except that I think that none of these guys are working from premises that active historians of the here and now would agree with. They seem to hint at that, in the historians say X kind of way, but then they just say, "but the historians are wrong." At least, that's what my little pea brain is getting from this. Basically, I think I'm looking at a bunch of circular (and the uncharitable part of me says 'circle-jerk,' and I know that's gendering the discussion) arguments built upon straw men. Moreover, these arguments reflect a fairly high level of ignorance as to what historians do, since frankly, we don't all do the same thing. Our fields often help to determine our approach, and it's ridiculous to think that, for example, a modern Russian specialist is going to teach the Greek polis the way an Ancient person would. Or that I would teach modern the way a modernist would -- just today I had to tell my class that my approach was different, since most of the modernists I know are somewhat Hegelian (we were talking Romanticism) in their approach, while I reject the idea that humans are progressing towards anything.

And I think that's just fine. Because I've explained different approaches, and they know that they should look for them and consider them when making their own assessments of the events and themes we're studying. Because there does not have to be one right answer. Comments? Because frankly, this discussion just annoys me no end, but I'd almost like to have somebody who can explain it in terms a medievalist would understand prove me wrong.

20 comments:

meg said...

Is it the way that non-medievalists talk about Cantor that chaps your hide? I didn't read all those posts -- I was too busy restraining a trenchant Bakhtinian observation about the concept of History Carnivals.

I for one would be interested in a group medieval blog. My work has much more in common with that of medieval historians (and musicians, and art historians, and...) than with non-medievalist members of the English Dept. And it's a long drive to find another medievalist around U. Topia.

Sharon said...

meg, I know, I know. When I set up the, um, History Carnival, I initially thought of dreaming up a rather different title. Except that someone pointed out that there's an issue of recognition - people are familiar with blog carnivals, so when they see 'history carnival' they'll know what to expect. (Besides, when it came down to it, I admit, I couldn't really think of anything I liked.) So that's my excuse. I try not to think about what Bakhtin would say.

A medievalists group blog sounds a rather good idea to me. (Any room for early modernists?)

Sharon said...

ADM, I'm reading the philosophy of history essay. I think I might have to write up my thoughts somewhere else. But I will just say that I have to agree with you about the 'straw man' quality of a good deal of it. I'm reading it and wondering if philosophers of history actually read anything that historians write (whether 'history' or 'historiography')... or at least anything written by historians born after about the 1st world war. It's not the generalisations per se that irk me - I think there are important things that historians share across different fields and periods - it's that some of the key generalisations are, in my experience, totally misfounded. Some of this essay reads like the basic historiographical issues that we historians drum into our undergraduates for 3 years (our department has several compulsory courses devoted to historiography) - but as though we're completely unaware of them (eg, the 'interpretation' of 'facts').

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Sharon -- I knew if I asked for comments I'd get some from people who can articulate the 'problem areas' better than I have. And I've been meaning to ask -- do you have a minor field? One of the things I really like about your stuff is that your approach seems really compatible to people who focus on pre-modern to modern, rather than on the Early modern is modern, if that makes sense. I admit this is a bit of a generalization, but I do think our training and the prevalent trends in historiography in our various sub-fields do help to frame our approaches. In that way, I suppose i agree with Holbling and Newell, but as you said, they seem to think we're in some way unaware of the distinctions.

meg said...

Sharon: Oh, I wasn't kvetching (although I guess it sounded like that); I was just indulging in a flight of silly fancy. Plus, I wasn't familiar with the term "blog carnivals," although I am now.

ADM wrote: "...people who focus on pre-modern to modern, rather than on the Early modern is modern, if that makes sense."

Nicely put. Getting students to understand the constructed -- rather than the naturally-developing -- nature of the medieval/renaissance divide is one of the greatest tasks at the beginning of every semester, and I've completely given up on my colleagues in this regard.

In fact, I'm tempted to see the term "early modern" as a huge part of the problem here. "Renaissance" at least wears its problem on its sleeve. That's one of the reasons that in our recent search for one of these, I insisted that the ad say only "16th-17th century."

Sharon said...

Coming from the British system, I don't really think in terms of having a 'minor'. But if I did, it'd probably be women's history (well, that was the subject of my MA). I sort of have various overlapping interests picked up along the way, often by accident. (Largely because of where I studied, most of my medieval knowledge is in Welsh history...) Including anthropology, which is something you tend to get into if you do early modern social history. And that probably does shape the way I look at things. (If your bugbear is the F-word, I think mine is the S-word... Superstition.)

Sharon said...

meg, yep, 'early modern' is a problem. I use it as a kind of everyday shorthand, but I'm not really fond of it. Trouble is, I don't know what we could replace it with. 'Renaissance' has certain big problems of its own for me: it stops too early (I work well into the 18th century, and as far as I'm concerned that's still 'early modern') and - perhaps more importantly - it's more appropriate for certain kinds of literary and cultural history than the kind of primarily social history that I do. (It's suddenly occurred to me that what I really mean by that is that I think of 'Renaissance' as being an 'elite' thing. Hmm.)

Hugo Holbling said...

My introduction was precisely that, so many of the comments here read as decidely uncharitable. Beginners likely are unaware of some or all of the issues discussed - that's the point.

If anyone would like to discuss the epistemological objections to any conception of historical verisimilitude I'll be glad to join in, but it is hard to see why any philosopher of history would bother when terms like "circle jerk" are par for the course.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I guess I'm not entirely sure which posts you're responding to specifically - any or all? - though I did glance at them quickly, and I guess what occurs to me is: this looks like philosophers talking about history; which is perfectly fine, they're entitled to do so, and what they're saying is probably legit for philosophical understandings of history. But it's not quite historians' understanding of history. It's kind of like writing a sociology of nursing versus being a nurse, maybe? Or maybe the difference between a film critic writing about film and a director actually making films. Which is not to say that historians are exempt from thinking about how and why they write what they write. But philosophers are interested in fundamentally different things and speak about them in fundamentally different ways. Hugo's comment about people being interested in talking about historical epistemology is a case in point here - historians don't talk about epistemology, they talk about how to do history. Philosophers talk about epistemology. I don't mean to reify false distinctions between disciplines, but I really think here we have two groups of people interested in totally different things. It's not that they can't learn from each other, but some of what each group is talking about is just not relevant to the other.

I have to confess that as a historian, some of the philosophy of history stuff does come across as saying, "Look! History's not objective! It's not necessarily true! We have to be aware of this! We make choices about what to study!" - which, to a historian, is a completely simplistic approach, because we know all this already, and as practitioners, we have to (and do) think about these things all the time. But if you're approaching it as a philosopher who wants to analyze/discuss/debate meanings and definitions of truth or how we even know what we know, AS A PHILOSOPHER, from the point of view OF A PHILOSOPHER, then it's something completely different.

Hope that doesn't sound too snarky to philosophers. I just think these are 2 conversations going in completely different directions.

Sharon said...

Hugo, I don't want to be uncharitable. There's a lot I like about the essay. My problem is that while it's a very good introduction to the issues involved in the study of history, it's frequently misleading on the practice of historians (I think it would be simplistic even if we turned the clock back 50 years+, let alone to consider historians today). And, although I understand that you feel insulted by some of the things that have been said, you might want to consider the possibility that we're feeling upset at the generalisations you've made about us. We're in danger of losing sight of the point that we agree on a lot of things; there are differences, yes, but I don't think we need to be talking in completely different directions. (And funnily enough, I did get taught about the concept 'epistemology' in a history classroom.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Sharon! Hugo, Sharon very kindly and tactfully explained what one of my problems with this stuff is. New Kid also expanded on it very nicely.

I do have a problem with what you and Paul wrote, because I think you both misrepresent and perhaps misunderstand what it is we do. I also think you are being disingenuous if you are implying that we are being at all unreasonable. I acknowledge that the metaphor is tasteless, but I think in many ways it fits. Here you are, you philosophers, talking about what it is we do, and you have not had the courtesy to address any of the objections voiced earlier regarding using Cantor as an example. You then play off each other, excluding any input that doesn't agree with you.

New Kid is right -- Philosophy and History are very different disciplines, but what you and Paul have written are very offensive to me in that they appear to address history and how we work, but I don't know any working historians who would accept your basic premises except in the way New Kid mentions. It's as if you are criticizing us and our field, when you clearly don't understand enough about that field to know that your description isn't accurate. Then, you take this totally inaccurate description of what you say we do, and spin it into a longer argument that is even less related to History as a discipline.

The fact that you couldn't be bothered to even acknowledge some of the objections raised to the Cantor book (and again, don't seem to have understood the objections -- for example, that Cantor is to a great extent making up his classifications based on personal feelings and that some, for example the Tolkein and Lewis thing, are just plain ridiculous) was dismissive at best.

As I said a while back, I understand that philosophers craft arguments and that those arguments and their success is measured in a different way, but I really think a lot of what your saying is crap. I don't know if it's bad philosophy -- I have a feeling it's probably very good for what it's supposed to be. But in terms of verisimilitude, I think it bears no resemblance to the reality of how contemporary historians think or function. In that sense, it's unjust and does us a disservice. In the sense of a good argument that helps people to a further understanding, I still don't understand how it can be useful and helpful if the entire argument is based on what appear to me to be flawed premises.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Bugger. I meant that to be "you're", not your. And since Hugo and Paul seem to be very touchy about these things, I should point out that I am entitled to my opinion and I mean crap in the sense of "something that relates not at all to what I understand as the reality of being a historian and therefore purely a flight of fancy." And if you don't like circle jerk, I'm sorry. It was my gut reaction to two men fostering each other's (circular -- a pun, and acting like jerks -- another pun) discussion while entirely ignoring the comments of us women. I note that the conversation Hugo and Paul offered to the gentlemen at Cliopatria was much more considered and inclusive. If I am incorrect in my impressions, I apologise wholeheartedly.

eb said...

For what it's worth, I've posted a longish reply to this whole discussion in the comments at this post.

Briefly stated, I don't see how Holbing and Newall can take the position that historical accounts cannot be evaluated on the basis of how "close they are to the truth" and simultaneously go around stating that others have mischaracterized or misrepresented what they have said.

Also, I'd just like to point out that Newall's philosophy of history essay does not mention the word "archive."

And perhaps more importantly: in the concluding unconvincing dialogue, none of the speakers mention the possibility of using a transcript of that very dialogue as a source for writing a history of that dialogue. So it's really a discussion of history and memory pretending to be a discussion of the general philosophy of history.

And it hedges at the end: "so long as you're not making things up as you go that aren't within the bounds of what you have to work with." Aren't things that are "not made up" closer to the truth than things that are? And aren't your sources "what you have to work with"?

Then again, I'm very theory-impoverished: I always thought Bakhtin was something you used to disinfect minor cuts and scrapes.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I can't comment over at Cliopatria (at least, not under this pseudonym! they're way too cranky about the anonymity thing), but I liked Jonathan Dresner's comments (I think he said kind of what I was trying to say).

In any case, over there Newall says: the idea that history is more than (or not at all) an empirical discipline is what is being questioned, and it's this statement that I have problems with, along with the idea that philosophers (unlike historians) are challenging representationalism and that all methodologies fail to achieve what is aimed at. Really, I should just second Dresner's comments b/c I think he's absolutely right, but for what it's worth:

- lots of historians have, and do, question the idea that history is an "empirical" discipline (depending on what you mean by empirical). But we still also want to be able to practice history, so there is only so much questioning we are willing to engage in before we find ourselves sitting stymied in a corner. I had a (really awesome) philosophy prof in college who taught epistemology and asked us how we knew were weren't just brains in vats of grape jello being kept alive by aliens (foreshadowing of the Matrix!). It's a fascinating question, but in the long term, it doesn't help historians do what they want to do, which is understand people. Who cares if my idea of knowledge is simply false consciousness? How does that concretely help me analyze a document I find in the archive? There are OTHER ways of thinking about what influences my choice of questions to answer, the topics I pursue, and how I see those topics, that are more useful to me than pure epistemology.

- many historians also "challenge representationalism," if by representationalism you mean "the ability to say that anything in the past happened exactly as I describe it." Um, yeah. We never really know if what we write is the way it was. So what are we to do? Stop writing, or carefully think about what we do and how we produce knowledge that is meaningful to us? And in terms of helping me to be a historian, that is, someone who goes to the archives, collects data, and analyzes it (to use a horrible hard science-y metaphor), debates about how we know what we know on a philosophical level are not very helpful to me. Because, you know, that whole being-a-historian-not-a-philosopher thing.

- and all methodologies fail. Well, what is your measure for success? I guess in this case I'm a glass-half-full kind of gal. No, no single methodology is going to get it "right". But that doesn't mean that we can't learn ANYTHING.

Again, I find the disciplinary divide crucial to this debate. (ooh, alliteration...) I'm sympathetic to philosophers of history wanting to be philosophers; go for it. More power to you. But some of the original posts sound like philosophers being upset that historians don't want to be philosophers of history. I don't want to be a philosopher of history. But that doesn't mean that I am not interested in thinking about how we know what we know, OR that I somehow think my field is empirically accurate and that I can accurately represent what happened in the past without a shadow of a doubt (which is also what these posts seem to imply: if you don't think about these questions in philosophical terms, you are not thinking about them at all. That, I reject).

Sorry, this is long and ranty. I really don't mean to be snarky about philosophers; the original posts that were referenced are probably great introductions to the philosophy of history for philosophers. If the authors want to engage in discussion with historians (and I don't even know whether they want to or if they got kind of dragged into this unintentionally), then they can't try to set all the terms, is all.

meg said...

The whole brouhaha reminds me of the exchange between the scientists and the philosophers of science back in the 1960s.

The difference, however, is that the historians (largely influenced by anthropology, I surmise) have already incorporated many of the necessary considerations into professional practice, which the scientists had not done back then. (Nor had the historians universally, I'll note.)

So, in effect, this feels like a rear-guard action.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Thanks, New Kid. I would like to clarify a bit what I said there, because I probably came across as far more anti-philosophical than I really am. Mostly I'll just endorse your comments: It is important for historians to have a grasp on the limits of what we do with regard to truth and representation. That said, I think the vast majority of us do grasp those limits quite firmly and operate responsibly within them. In fact, we struggle with them on a daily basis, in our readings, teachings, writings: how much more engaged do we need to be?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks NK and Jonathan. You guys said much more clearly what I was trying to say, but my frustration at Hugo/Paul's (same person, according to a comment over at Siris) unwillingness to try to see why a historian might object to, or reject the premises of his arguments got the better of me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kk said...

canada goose coats sale online Denmark Canada, UK,
goose trillium parka jackets womens online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
goose freestyle vest sale online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Goose Chilliwack Bomber online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Mens Citadel coats online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Expedition Parka sale online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
canada goose snow mantra parka Jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Yorkville Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Chilliwack Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Expedition Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Kensington Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Montebello Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Solaris Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK.

xx said...

canada goose coats sale online Denmark Canada, UK,
goose trillium parka jackets womens online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
goose freestyle vest sale online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Goose Chilliwack Bomber online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Mens Citadel coats online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Expedition Parka sale online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
canada goose snow mantra parka Jackets online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Yorkville Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Chilliwack Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Expedition Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
Canada Goose Womens Kensington Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Montebello Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK,
womens Goose Solaris Parka online sale Denmark Canada, UK.