One way to win an argument ...
is, apparently, to ignore, or in the case of blogging, delete the comments of people who question you. Fair Warning Notice: this gets a bit rant-y, but I find myself unusually upset by this whole thing and am trying to work it out of my system. Most of you will have read and perhaps participated in the dual one-sided conversations that have occured regarding this post and its follow-ups. I say dual one-sided because it seems to me that the questions posed by myself and other historians were never answered by Mr Holbling/Newall directly, and I still feel, regarding the comments at Siris, where I was chastised for not realising that I had been discussiong the work of one person and his pseudonymous self, that the responses were not meant to contribute to a better understanding of what Mr. H/N was getting at, but simply to reiterate why he was correct. I did mention this at Siris and at a couple of places at Studi Galileani, but those comments have been deleted.
To his credit, Mr. H/N has tried to explain here, here, and and here. It's just that none of these explanations address the question of whether one of his basic premises, i.e., that historians are somehow trying to find (or claiming to try to find) objective truth. Even in the essay on verisimilitude, there is an implicit assumption about what we are trying to do and how we are failing. In my comments (again deleted), I repeatedly asked Mr. H/N to just stop for a moment and explain why he thought that his initial premise was a valid one. I also asked him to speak plainly and without resorting to the jargon so typical of his (and philosophers'?) writing.
Frankly, I'm not sure why I'm so annoyed by all of this. I said at the outset that philosophy and history were different fields and we clearly had different approaches. The comments to my posts and over at Cliopatria certainly show that my opinions are pretty mainstream, and that people I respect and admire think along the same lines. I'm sure it does have something to do with ego, in that I don't like being summarily dismissed and treated as if I am unworthy of conversation. But there's also something in my gut that tells me that people who refuse to consider other viewpoints or try to see things in a different way, to the extent that they will erase those viewpoints and only leave comments that support and flatter, to be at best insufferably arrogant, and at worst, intellectually dishonest. I grant that this might be unintentional. The blogworld does have different norms, and I think sometimes people don't consider how their actions might appear. For example, I really do believe that Mr H/N really doesn't get the whole pseudonym thing, and so did not realize that people might see his writings as belonging to two people who were mutually supportive and egging each other on. Unfortunately, there are lots of trolls, etc., out there who deliberately create alternate personae specifically to tilt an argument in their favor by making it appear that theirs is a popular opinion. And certainly he has the right to delete comments. But I'm just saying, if someone questioned something I'd written, I'd want them to understand why I thought the way I did at that point. And I'd give them the courtesy of a considered answer to the question they asked.
So, if you're still reading, thanks. I left one more comment at Studi Galileani last night. It is, of course, gone. My commenting at Siris seems to have convinced Brandon to block comments there, too, although he has kindly left up the previous bunch, including the ones by eb. But anyway, here's what I posted, I think in response to the Verisimilitude post:
Er ... again, Paul, nothing you are saying is "true" either. Instead, you merely provide me with the impression that you would rather talk about theory absent actual knowledge of a subject than actually try to understand that subject. All of your suppositions about history and verisimiltude and what it is we historians do, believe, and are supposed to be doing ring as false as if you were sitting in your study telling a war veteran how his last battle should have been fought. It may be very nice, but bears no relationship to the real world where historians pretty much agree that there is no one truth. But since that isn't the point of what we do, your entire argument matters not a whit. It's intellectually dishonest to act as though the field is in some way a failure when most of us implicitly accept that we can never know precisely how correct we are. Moreover, you are merely demonstrating your poverty of knowledge of what working historians do and a singular narrowmindedness in refusing to go beyond your comfortable theories, or your ego, and find out. But then, I look at things from a practival point of view. I know that what my colleagues and I do, and what we teach, is valuable both in terms of passing on ideas of what happened, but more importantly for teaching the critical thinking and communication skills that go far beyond simply the study of history. Our students may even leave with a broader understanding of the richness of human experience, whereas there is little I have seen here that would enrich any life other than that of a intellect barren of emotion or human connection. For that type of person, I'm sure it will reinforce feelings of moral superiority and even perhaps a bit of schadenfreude at us poor little historians who don't understand how worthless we are without the big, bright philosophers of history to tell us how to do our jobs, but I bet they're a whole lot lonelier at the end of the day.
I admit it's less than pleasant, but damn. And you know, as far as Philosophy of History goes, this stuff could be really good. But that was never my point. I just wanted to know why he thought his underlying premises were valid (and they seem to be in terms of the theorists he quotes) when they seem to bear little or no resemblance to what it is we think we're doing. Oh, and maybe I was looking for some recognition that maybe we know what history is as well as, or, dare I say it? Better than he does, because we are, like, you know ... Historians?
I think I just realised the why this issue is so damned important to me. It's pedagogical. A lot of our time teaching is spent helping students to divest themselves of preconceived notions about what history is so that they can actually engage in the richness that is "doing History." It would be great if H/N had given me answers I could use in teaching, but instead all I could see was the prospect of a whole bunch of little philosophy types telling me that what I do is meaningless. On the up-side, I suppose I now have a topic for the next History Carnival ;-)
This just in:
Hugo Holbling/Paul Newall lets us know what he really thinks.