Thursday, February 11, 2010

Judge Ye Not?

Randall Stephens

I assigned John Lewis Gaddis’s The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past for my history methods course. It did not go swimmingly. Students were perplexed and overwhelmed by the technical terms, bewildered by Gaddis’s one-man crusade against the social sciences, and distracted by the deluge of citations and the flurry of references to everything from cubism to chaos theory to postmodern nominalism. Rough going.

Still we managed to glean something from the book, which I find to be a fascinating work, as insightful as it is provocative. (That gap between what students like and what profs like.) Students got into his map analogies even if their eyes glazed over as they read of "a preference for parsimony in consequences" (105).

We spent some time delving into a theme from Gaddis’s last chapter. Historians, he writes, without being too grandiose, have some role in liberating the past. "To the extent that we place our subjects in context, we also rescue the world that surrounded them," he notes (140). Earlier he observes that "History happens to historians as well as everyone else. The idea that the historian can and should stand aloof from moral judgment unrealistically denies that fact" (128).

It got me thinking. How and why do historians make judgments about the past? Is it even possible to withhold judgment or bracket it? Selection of material in itself is a kind of judgment.

Anyhow, my mind went back to historians' wisdom on the matter. I excerpt below bits on judgment/liberation in history:

Lord Acton, "The Study of History," 1895. (To be distinguished from Lord Action, an aristocratic, late-Victorian superhero.)

But the weight of opinion is against me when I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. The men who plot to baffle and resist us are, first of all, those who made history what it has become. They set up the principle that only a foolish Conservative judges the present time with the ideas of the past; that only a foolish Liberal judges the past with the ideas of the present.

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931; 1965), 107-108.

It is the natural result of the whig historian’s habits of mind and his attitude to history--though it is not a necessary consequence of his actual method--that he should be interested in the promulgation of moral judgements and should count this as an important part of his office. His preoccupation is not difficult to understand when it is remembered that he regards himself as something more than the inquirer. By the very finality and absoluteness with which he has endowed the present he has heightened his own position. For him the voice of posterity is the voice of God and the historian is the voice of posterity. And it is typical of him that he tends to regard himself as the judge when by his methods and his equipment he is fitted only to be the detective. His concern with the sphere of morality forms in fact the extreme point in his desire to make judgements of value, and to count them as the verdict of history. By a curious example of the transference of ideas he, like many other people, has come to confuse the importance which courts of legal justice must hold, and the finality they must have for practical reasons in society, with the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection--the dispensing of moral judgements upon people or upon actions in retrospect.

Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft (1954; 1992), 115-116.

Are we so sure of ourselves and of our age as to divide the company of our forefathers into the lust and the damned? How absurd it is, by elevating the entirely relative criteria of one individual, one party, or one generation to the absolute, to inflict standards upon the way in which Sulla governed Rome, or Richelieu the States of the Most Christian King! Moreover, since nothing is more variable than such judgments, subject to all the fluctuations of collective opinion or personal caprice, history, by all too frequently preferring the compilation of honor rolls to that of notebooks, has gratuitously given itself the appearance of the most uncertain of disciplines. Hollow indictments are followed by vain rehabilitations. Robespierrists! Anti-Robespierrists! For pity's sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was.

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), 12.

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (1994), 66-67.

Even though nothing could have been further from his intention, Hegel opened the way to relativism, that is, the idea that truth depends on historical circumstances. If truth is revealed over time, then any truth, moral, scientific, or political, also changes over time and is never permanent. What seems to be true today may not be true in the conditions of tomorrow; what is true for some people is not true for others. Thus, even as Hegel's views lent great prestige to history, now conceived as an essential framework for philosophy, they also created potential problems for the idea of historical truth itself. Were there no absolute moral standards that transcended the particularities of time and place? Was the role of historians simply limited to explaining how previous people had thought and acted without passing judgment on those thoughts and actions?

Stephen Prothero "Belief Unbracketed: A Case for the Religion Scholar to Reveal More of Where He or She Is Coming From," Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2004).

Since Jonestown, religion has shown its dark side repeatedly—with Heaven's Gate, at Waco, and on 9/11. In each case, we Religious Studies scholars have been largely irrelevant to the public debates. True, we drew out the parallels between the Heaven's Gate website and medieval Daoist immortality texts. But we could not explain what produced the worst mass suicide on American soil. No surprise, then, that radio and television producers turned instead to self-styled "cult experts" to explain what happened when Heaven's Gate swung shut. And to experts on the Middle East rather than Islamicists when it came to parsing Islam as "a religion of peace."

Robert Orsi, "A 'Bit of Judgment,'" Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter/Spring 2004).

Predictable judgments occlude their implication in power, but this becomes clearer if we think about what a "little bit of judgment" looks like in relation to religious practices that subvert normative modernity or that are simply uncomfortable to the good hearted. It's one thing to come out boldly "for" ecological responsibility. What about "for" speaking in tongues and creating a religious environment in which one's children are expected to speak in tongues as a sign of their religious status? But apart from the boldness and deliciousness of judgment, how exactly does a scholar's being "for" or "against" the practices, say, of rural Pentecostals help us understand the nature of relationships in this world, the press of authority, the meanings of gender and class, the experience of kinship? Wouldn't battering, sneering, and castigating keep us from approaching ways of loving and being that are unfamiliar to us, ways of being and loving which we cannot imagine ourselves being and loving?


Ruel J. Eskelsen said...

I'm surprised that Gaddis' book was judged difficult. I found it one of the most lucid works on historiography that I have read. I read it before I started my current graduate studies in history at George Mason University, and having had to read quite a few of the other works cited in this post, still regard it as one of the best of the genre.

Randall said...

Ruel: I thought the same before I assigned it. But, the book does require a general knowledge of some of the major intellectual movements of the modern era.

I can see how it would make a great text in the run up to grad school.

Mark Ashurst-McGee said...

Skip Stout's moral history of the civil war judges the armies of the North and South according to the moral ethics of their world.