Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Questioning the Assumptions of Academic History

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A lively forum in the January issue of Historically Speaking critiques some of the assumptions of academic history. Here are selections from the lead essay by Christopher Shannon and a comment by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn.

"From Histories to Traditions: A New Paradigm of Pluralism in the Study of the Past"
Christopher Shannon

The last forty years have witnessed a tremendous expansion of the range of historical topics deemed fit subject matter for professional academic historians in America. Beginning in the late 1960s, social historians concerned to recover the experience of common people led a revolt against the perceived elitism of the then-dominant fields of political, diplomatic, and intellectual history. The pioneers of social history, particularly those rooted in the field of labor history, soon came under attack for focusing on white male historical actors. This critique gave birth to the flourishing of studies of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and most recently, sexual minorities. Even those sympathetic and supportive of these developments at times wonder if any principle of unity or synthesis remains in the wake of so much diversity, or if those seeking to make sense of the past must give up on History and rest content with the proliferation of histories.

This diversity of subject matter masks a fundamental uniformity of method. For all its openness to new subjects for inquiry, the historical profession in America has refused to accept any fundamental questioning of its basic assumptions about how we gain meaningful knowledge of the past. Despite various philosophical challenges over the past century, most historians remain committed to a common-sense empiricism rooted in the philosophical assumptions of the physical sciences that dominated the intellectual landscape of the West at the birth of the historical profession in the late 19th century. This consensus is, moreover, at once epistemological and political: common-sense empiricism must be defended because it is the epistemology most appropriate to liberal modernity. The epistemological alternatives are historicism and relativism; the political alternatives are fascism and totalitarian communism.>>>

"Comment on Christopher Shannon"
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

. . . . In his 2009 book God, Philosophy, Universities, Alasdair MacIntyre paints a portrait of the modern university as fragmented beyond coherence by specialization into the various disciplines. No overarching understanding of how the disciplines are connected exists. Whether “professedly secular or professedly Catholic,” universities today are no longer informed by “a notion of the nature and order of things.” It is the same with the subspecialties. Shannon may be assuming too much unity of perspective in suggesting that it is the liberal world-view that informs most historical writing today. Autonomy is a common enough theme, but it is not necessarily any longer part of a unified view of the world. Agency is more a mantra than a well-articulated intellectual framework or philosophical system. It appears adequate to conclude a study of this or that marginal group with the suggestion that the group, however oppressed, exhibited agency. Why that matters is assumed, not defended.

This diversity of subject matter masks a fundamental uniformity of method. For all its openness to new subjects for inquiry, the historical profession in America has refused to accept any fundamental questioning of its basic assumptions about how we gain meaningful knowledge of the past. Despite various philosophical challenges over the past century, most historians remain committed to a common-sense empiricism rooted in the philosophical assumptions of the physical sciences that dominated the intellectual landscape of the West at the birth of the historical profession in the late 19th century. This consensus is, moreover, at once epistemological and political: common-sense empiricism must be defended because it is the epistemology most appropriate to liberal modernity. The epistemological alternatives are historicism and relativism; the political alternatives are fascism and totalitarian communism.

The pluralistic tolerance of all views as equally valid is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with either traditions or histories possessing value judgments of any kind. Herein lies the problem. If the welcoming of Catholic history is to bear any fruit, we will need to confront head-on the fundamental clash between a totalizing pluralism, which only results in nihilism, and any normative story. As Shannon writes, it is not enough to concede that “objectivity is not neutrality.” But neither is it enough to let all flowers bloom. We have to confront the huge intellectual obstacles that arise when traditions are incompatible. I think this is what Shannon intends in his worthy embrace of “a new norm for historical inquiry, one less geared toward the industrial production of information about the past and more directed toward a philosophical reflection on human nature through the study of the past.” Moving toward this kind of reflective activity might be foreclosed by the unbridled embrace of traditions. It matters what those traditions are, their content, practices, and quality. I’m not sure I’d like to see “the ability of Enlightenment institutions like the modern history profession to open themselves to distinctly Catholic interpretive traditions” made into “a good test of their ability to include other nonliberal traditions.”>>>

1 comment:

dan allosso said...

In addition to the mentioned shared techniques and assumptions, another thing that many social histories in this breakthrough period seemed to share was a focus on a discrete group. While it was a big step forward, focusing on particular underdog groups is also limiting. Labor unions, civil rights groups, and gender minorities all gain agency, as was mentioned. But the open question goes beyond "what was this agency for?" I think it extends to, what about these people OUTSIDE their role as union members or embattled minorities?

Seems like a next step for some historians might be, looking at the complete lives of historical subjects. Following them outside the elite or underdog role they play based on their group memberships, to see how they contextualize these affiliations in their own life stories. I suspect we'd find constellations of affiliations we would not expect, as well as variations of priority. How THESE change over time might shed new light on some of the cultural questions that social histories haven't yet been able to answer.