Blogs > Cliopatria > Conversations from the 2nd History Carnival ...

Feb 16, 2005 9:22 am

Conversations from the 2nd History Carnival ...

My colleague, Sharon Howard, told me that the History Carnivals were worth doing. One of the reasons is that they launch conversations among us. History Carnival #2 concluded with Tim"Burke's Home for Imaginary Friends," a post about why he blogs. I liked it so much that I followed it over to Coffee Grounds, where the conversation continues.

There's also been a first-rate conversation among Hugo Holbling at Studi Galileiani (and in comments there), Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel (and in comments there), Paul Newall at The Galilean Library, and Brandon Watson at Siris about Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages and the philosophy of history.

The 3rd History Carnival will be about 25 February. The guidelines for it are here. Rob Priest at Detrimental Postulation will be its host. Plan ahead and send your best post in the three weeks between 4 and 25 February to: Rob AT ifanything DOT com.

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Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

I can probably understand why you think I'm engaging "straw man" versions of philosophy of history; I wonder why you can't see why we think you're engaging straw man versions of historiographical practice? How am I to interpret comments like "all methodologies fail to achieve what is aimed at" if not as a blanket denial that my work has value or meaning? And, even if you're right, how do you expect me to respond?

Paul Newall - 2/18/2005

You don't have to care, of course, but neither do I have to indulge straw men. The challenge is to how we are to understand history, with the suggestion being that all methodologies fail to achieve what is aimed at. I suppose my error was in not realising how little some practising historians are aware of this debate, notwithstanding those like Evans who address it head-on. I will try to introduce it in stages at my forum but will not waste your time further here.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

Clearly you aren't convinced that these issues are unimportant to historical work, in spite of our best arguments and the fact that we do a great deal of historical work without grappling to your satisfaction ("argument-free"), publicly and on your terms ("Conventionalist") with the issues you deem important.

Why should I care that you are "challening representationalism" (and I would not presume to assume that I have any idea what you mean by either of these terms without asking) and if it doesn't mean a change in my historical practice, then how does it rise above the level of self-referential pseudo-mathematical psycho-linguistics?

I don't believe that philosophy is irrelevant to my work, epistemology in particular, but I also don't believe that it is necessary to fine tune the work I do to Kantian precision any more than string theory physics helps auto mechanics at their day job.

Paul Newall - 2/18/2005

I have seen these same comments on many occasions; unfortunately they are beside the point. Philosophers are not asking historians to change their methodology slightly in the light of philosophical discussion but challenging representationalism as a whole. Some historians have responded and engaged these issues; others, it seems, prefer to tell me they are unimportant or expound with authority on how much reading I have done and what I understand. What's interesting to me is that this latter reaction mirrors that of those vocal scientists who insist that the philosophy of science is also irrelevant or not helpful, done in a similarly conventionalist and argument-free fashion. Oh well.

Julie A Hofmann - 2/18/2005

Nicely said, Jonathan.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/18/2005

Because it's largely irrelevant to the vast majority of what we do. (Ralph: the "abuse" to which he's referring is at Blogenspiel, a bit after the post you linked to below). The questions you ask and the answers (such as they are) to which philosophers come just don't affect the writing of history that much.

I can understand that history is a fascinating epistemological problem-set for philosophers, but philosophy does not fundamentally help us do our work as historians. The new and innovative ways of doing history over the last century have come from the social sciences; some of the literary theories have had an influence too, but for good or ill remains to be determined; philosophy as such does not yet present us useful tools or issues.

Once you're done defining "empirical" and "discipline" and all your other terms in such a way that your conclusions are "inescapable," we still have to go back and read real sources and draw reasonable inferences from partial and indirect data, and very little beyond Logic 101 (and some advanced work in common fallacies) is required or desirable. It might be a good thing to systematize our practice, or it might freeze us into a model in which we ask the same questions over and over and get the same answers (or worse, different ones) without ever resolving or progressing. Moreover, there are many different kinds of history writing, and evidence, each with their own epistemological issues, so that any "theory of history" has to take into account the multiplicity and variance of these materials.

Most of us know exactly where we sit on "truth, fact and the possibility (or otherwise) of neutral positions." We're not avoiding the questions; they're fundamental and we come to terms with them early and get on with the work of historians.

Paul Newall - 2/17/2005

I think there is a difference between drawing strong reactions (does "circle jerk" count?) and "real engagement"; there remains none of the latter on the epistemological issues I raised (and of course these are common problems in contemporary historiography, so I'm not beating the drum on my own). It makes little difference whether Cantor was a genius or the Devil incarnate: the idea that history is more than (or not at all) an empirical discipline is what is being questioned. This is something that drew in the historian Richard Evans (witness his debates with the "postmodernists") and is relevant today when we see so-called revisionism discussed here and elsewhere with regard to the Holocaust. Any claim of "distorting" history relies on philosophical concepts like truth, fact and the possibility (or otherwise) of neutral positions. Considering these and the implications of their analysis can be avoided, certainly, but why would an historian want to do that?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2005

Mr. Newall, Welcome to Cliopatria! Don't be too hard on us for misspellings. Mine is occasionally misspelled as "lucre," after which I tend to get the nickname "filthy."
I read over the discussions at several sites where there were responses to your work and did not find them to be so "near-abuse" as you seem to. Rather, I saw people attempting to think with you and about your work. Norman Cantor, who was the original subject in the discussion, does tend to draw very strong reactions, pro and con. Frankly, I'd take it as a tribute to your work that so many historians on several sites found in it provocation to real engagement. As I said earlier, I think historians do tend to resist what I called "meta-questions" and we're trying to understand that and, maybe, from the perspective of our discipline, if it is that, we should.

Paul Newall - 2/17/2005

It seems I threw in a large measure of typos while complaining at getting my name wrong - no doubt for maximal ironic effect...

Paul Newall - 2/17/2005

It would be nice if commentators could make the (minimal) effort to spell my name correctly.

I put up a post at my blog explaining the slight distinction between the philosophy of history and historiography. Hopefully that will address the legitimate objections above. What bewilders me, however, is the notion that I think something is "wrong" with history. Instead, what I have suggested is that there are (apparently insurmountable) epistemological problems with the notion of historical verisimilitude. I can appreciate that some historians are uncomfortable with "meta-questions" but the vehement near-abuse I have received (elsewhere) in lieu of epistemological counter-argument is amazing.

The philosophy of history is usually split into two branches. The concerns expressed above are from the "speculative side"; I was addressing the "critical" while introducing both. Nevertheless, even a commitment to na instrumentalist conception of history is a philosophy of history (in the first sense with consequences for the second); what the philosopher is asking is for you to think about the implicit pressupositions we all employ, often without realising.

Julie A Hofmann - 2/17/2005

{giggling over Jonathan's last remark}
I think Jonathan's got it pegged pretty well. I know that I have a philosophy of history (kind of), but can't articulate it very well precisely because much of it is antithetical to the kind of systemization that philosophers like. Also, more and more I see history as method or approach, and am loath to talk about greater meaning other than that history helps us understand where we came from and who we are. One of the things that Newell (I think) seemed to think was wrong with history is that, for example, people from different places might see the same events in different ways. To me, this is one of the true glories of history -- we are able to look at two very different viewpoints and then trace back and out and discuss reasons why those viewpoints are so different, and that gives us a more complete and better historical picture. At least, I think it does. The downside is that it's a bit messy and there are fewer "right" answers. But then I'm not sure that knowing the "right" answers is what learning is about.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/17/2005

I think the concept of a philosophy of history is too tied up with the ideologies of historical causation (Marxism, marketism, divine providence, biological determinism, psychologism, racialism and ethnic nationalism, etc) which have distorted historical writing and political discourse for far too long. I can't speak for other 'work-a-day' historians (my best work is done at night, it seems) but none of these ideations are helpful to me except in very small doses.

I believe that there are individuals who make choices in the context of systems of behavior and belief based on available information, and that the aggregate of these choices -- conscious or not, surprising or predictable, effective or failure -- is history. Is that a philosophy? Probably not one that would satisfy a philosopher, but any time you systematize these things too much, it makes it impossible to account for the irrationality, partiality, selectivity, and contingent nature of both historical process and historiographical process.

But the real reason they wouldn't give you credit is that real departments don't give credit for courses they don't teach....

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2005

Very interesting, Jonathan. Still, I think, work-a-day historians do tend to shy away from discussions of philosophy of history. I was mystified, as an undergraduate, why the history department would not give me credit for a course, taken in the philosophy department, in the philosophy of history. Later, in my first teaching position, my chairman was speechless one day in class when an undergraduate asked him: "What is your philosophy of history." I think there probably was one implicit in what the man taught -- but it was clear that he had never thought about the question on any conscious level.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/17/2005

I would argue that "philosophy of history" is something which defines historiographic traditions, and that ways of writing sometimes incorporate implicit/inherent philosophies, and that historians should have a very different view of meta-questions: both their origins and potential answers have to come not from logical propositions, or even moral ones, but from evidentiary accumulations and analysis.

There's a graduate seminar in that somewhere.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2005

I tend to agree with you, Julie, that historiography and philosophy of history are not the same thing and that your distinction between them is commonly accepted among most historians. But I also think that most historians are much more comfortable talking about historiography than they are about philosophy of history. I think that many of us tend to get a little uncomfortable with the "meta-questions" like beginnings and endings, cycles, linearity, etc.

Julie A Hofmann - 2/16/2005

Just curious on how you see the issue -- not Cantor, per se, but on what history is. For example, Paul Newell claims that the philosophy of history is called historiography, where I would say that the philosophy of history is called exactly that, and that historiography is more the study of different historical schools and/or changes in the understanding and treatment of different historic events and themes.

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