Thursday, August 6, 2009

Splitting or Lumping—de gustibus non est disputandum?

David Meskill

I don’t read journal articles, especially on cultural and social history, very often. When I do, I frequently find myself not merely disappointed with particular entries, but deeply frustrated with the field of history as a whole. This is because so many historians see it as their task to be splitters, and just splitters. They try to find exceptions to others’ generalizations; they “interrogate”—in the current lingo—“grand” or “meta-narratives” they dislike. This is fine, as far as it goes. It’s the critical work necessary for any advance in knowledge. The problem is that these historians rarely add to the criticism any daring new construction, which is equally necessary for the kind of knowledge we should be producing. They don’t offer new, truer, bolder generalizations and narratives to replace the old, discredited ones. Or perhaps they do, but only by insinuation (see Foucault’s negative Whiggism: everything is getting worse). That is, these historians are not lumpers—creating bigger pictures of reality. They revel in the specificity of their interests.

I am a lumper, an outsider in my own field. So when I recently read some articles in cultural history, articles interrogating, splitting narratives in the history of emotions (it should be acknowledged that cultural history is the home turf of the splitters), I again found myself frustrated with the whole approach. But, I told myself in resignation, this was ultimately a matter of taste. Some people just like to split, others to lump.
Is that the case, however? Between splitting or lumping non est disputandum? Do we just leave it at that?

I now don’t think so. At least a couple of methodological considerations suggest we ought to encourage historians to engage in more lumping and less splitting (or perhaps less splitting merely as an end in itself).

First, the goal of any science or intellectual endeavor should be to discover the simplest possible explanations of the broadest swathe of the world. If explanation A accounts for 99 “facts” about the world and explanation B accounts for the same plus one more, B is an improvement over A. It’s what we should aim for. It may not be possible to explain more than 99 facts in that area, i.e. explanation B may be out of reach. But it would remain a heuristic goal. The same goes for simplicity: if explanations C and D both explain something equally well, but D is simpler than C, we should prefer it over C (Ockham’s Razor). The upshot of this is that, all things being equal, a simple grand narrative is better than small or complex narratives. Now, there may not be any simple grand narratives that are also true. But I have the feeling that many historians, especially cultural historians, are asserting more than this. They are not only saying there aren’t grand narratives; they are saying, or at least suggesting, that we shouldn’t even search for them, we shouldn’t even maintain the simple grand narrative as a heuristic goal. They not only ascertain the ostensible messiness of the world; they appear to revel in it as well. But as far as I can tell, they have never provided, or even attempted to provide, any cogent reasons for abandoning the aim of achieving simple explanations of as much of the world as possible.

The second reason to prefer lumping over splitting has to do with ideas drawn from fractal geometry. This field studies “self-similarity” at different scales, for example the ways in which a cloud, a coastline, or a snowflake has the same shape (puffy, jagged, intricate) regardless of how closely you look at it. Because of this, fractals are said to be infinitely complex. Applied to history, this raises significant problems for the whole splitting project. If you want to split, just where do you stop? Why deconstruct only so far as level X? Why not keep going, to level X-1, X-2, etc. ad infinitum? If the world is infinitely complex (and this is what the splitting approach can sometimes teasingly hint at—in the spirit of Clifford Geertz’ “turtles all the way down” comment) then no real knowledge is possible, and no one should be writing anything. It only makes sense to stop—and to write—if you think the world is not infinitely complex, if you think there are identifiable regularities at some level. But once a splitter admits this, he/she has given up his/her game, or at least the spirit behind it. For if we can generalize about the world, then—see the first point above—we should try to make those generalizations as broad (and elegantly simple) as possible. Then it’s right back up the stack of turtles, as far as we can go.

I’m not suggesting the profession only needs David Christians, William McNeills and Jared Diamonds. We need lots of specialists, too. But what I think we could use less of is the urge only to split without building up, without offering daring grand narratives. Splitting alone, especially when it revels in destruction, is neither intellectually coherent (point 2) nor worthy of our intellectual aims (point 1).


Anonymous said...

So, David, do you attribute the splitting tendency as the result of the ever-increasingly difficult need to find something to write a dissertation about? Or, is the splitting the result of individuals with specializations always seeing caveats, and troubling caveats to the lumpers' stories?

I'd say in part it's a combination of the two, maybe even a dialectic of the two. The destructiveness of splitters, though, is no more destructive that the dismissiveness of the lumpers. It strikes me that the two forms of history you decry- social and cultural- are responsible for broadening the inclusiveness of historical narrative, and particularly at demonstrating the plurality of historical experience. To suggest that simpler historical explanations are superior will inevitably be exclusionary of the real and significant variety of those historical experiences that were neglected until the advent of social and cultural history.

I can't really see what is preferable about that. It certainly leads to the kind of misunderstandings we've seen recently in, say, Cambridge, Mass. That said, I wonder if you would find satisfying the kinds of generalizations that can be made out of social and cultural history (say, on the constructed nature of social categories, or on the historical specificities of class or gender or race experiences)?

David Meskill said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and critiques - which I can only inadequately address in this brief space.
I think you're quite right to point to the practical and professional impulses that contribute to the splitting phenomenon. Especially for your dissertation/first project, it's not only much easier, but probably much smarter as well, to try to be a "puzzle solver" rather than a paradigm-setter. I have the impression, though, that such habits, once set, are all too easy to embrace or at least settle in to. We also shouldn't forget that the same tendencies apply in other fields as well: see the sterility produced in physics for the last twenty years by string theory (not to mention the dead end of hyper-mathematized economics and rational choice in political science).
You are also right that the lumping I'm advocating may come at a price. It may - no, it almost certainly does - exclude. Or at least, it may relegate some experience to a particular, perhaps subsidiary role. To make this somewhat more concrete, let me take as an example Max Weber's ideas about comparative studies of the world religions. Weber thought that one particular tradition - the Christian, and in particular the Protestant - had contributed significantly to a revolutionary rupture in world history. But he thought the particular Christian/Protestant developments were by no means completely sui generis. Rather, they emerged out of long-term developments, many of which had also occurred - though with different trajectories and outcomes - in all the other religions. Weber was thus intensely interested in those other traditions. So this may be a model for how even the pursuit of lumping may allow - indeed, as in Weber's case, even encourage - interest in all of the exceptions and multiplicities you talk about.
Of course - to address another point you make - this kind of interest is probably not exactly what you have in mind. It sounds as if at least part of the motivation you allude to is to give voice to experiences qua experiences. I.e. the fact that somebody or some group of people had such and such experience - and likely considered it intrinsically valuable themselves - should make it noteworthy by historians. This is a tough one. I might agree - Weber himself thought the *choice* of topic was not amenable to rational discussion or ranking. At the same time, I think there are some reasons for disagreeing.
Finally, I do welcome *some* of the generalizations made in cultural and social history. However, these tend to be ones that start with some of what's known about human universals and nature - and only then investigate the constructions and contingencies you mention. For example, I think Daniel Lord Smail's ideas in On Deep History and the Brain about "psychotropic mechanisms" (i.e. means of manipulating mood) - and the interaction of certain biological universals with historical circumstances - are an inspiring demonstration of how history can gain from opening itself up to what other sciences are saying.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

It strikes me that one of the ways that almost all of us end up being "lumpers" is in the classroom. I think the structure of a semester class and the needs of our students end up enticing even the most "splitter-prone" of us into crafting a bigger-picture-style narrative. We might try to expose our students to splitting and we probably do "problematize" the narratives that they have understood regarding our subjects, but in the end, I think it is hard to ignore the needs of our students for some 'ultimate' conclusion on the topic.

Perhaps my professional writing, where I do the most splitting, is atonement for the amount of crass lumping that sometimes happens in my survey courses. I think if we did more writing for audiences such as our students, we might see more lumping.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, David.

A few more comments-- I wouldn't say that the importance or insight of social and cultural history is simply the valorization of experience, though I can see how my previous comment sounded that way. Rather, the plurality of historical experience documented through social and cultural history has broadened the historical narrative to the extent that it has transformed it-- ie, we have much deeper as well as broader explanations for the nature of historical phenomena. I should have expressed that more forthrightly, because I would suggest that the insight of gender history is not simply that men and women have different historical experiences in any given, concrete historical moment (very easy to demonstrate, but not all that profound), but rather that those concrete experiences are themselves the product of gendered and engendering processes that were fundamental to the possibilities of historical development.

I find it curious that you would point to Weber as emblematic of the lumper's strength, given that 1. Weber is not a historian, 2. The Protestant Ethic was criticized from the beginning for its empirical thinness, and, 3. his ideas specific to the origins of capitalism, as opposed to say his importance for the founding of sociology, have been marginalized by histories grand and small of the origins of capitalism. Or at least, that's how I read it-- that Weber's work was about the emergence of capitalism, not about comparative world religions.

Lisa- I think you are exactly right, and I do craft very different narratives and analyses in my survey classes than in my upper division classes, than in my grad seminars. I will be lumping on Wednesday with my survey meets- that's for sure.