History — old hat or new wave?

Donald Kagan, an ancient historian, gave the NEH Jefferson Lecture this year. Its title conveys its primary point: “In defense of history”. Jon Kvanvig of Certain Doubts applauds yet another trashing of postmodernisn, but takes issue with Kagan’s attempt to place history on the throne of the humanities.
These Lectures seem to be an occasion for fatuousness and for promoting the speaker’s own discipline (see “Vendler on the Humanities” for a comment on last year’s Lecture). Kvanvig’s comment is mostly a hooray to bashing postmodernism and a boo to making history the “queen of the humanities”. Brian Leiter says bravo.
Kvanvig calls the part he doesn’t like “garbage”. Since 95% of everything is garbage (credit here goes to Theodore Sturgeon), I prefer the more precise term Bomfog, coined by journalists covering Nelson Rockefeller.
BOMFOG stood for the “Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God”, a phrase Rockefeller used on the campaign trail in place of anything that might resemble actual thought.
Even Rockefeller’s Senate biography recognizes the term. The titer of Bomfog in the Jefferson Lectures is high. Its treatment of philosophy is an expression of ill-tempered ignorance. It deserves Kvanvig’s disdain. But it is no happier in its sallies against postmodernism. I say boo to all of it.
Bad arguments are bad, even if you agree with their conclusions
Here’s what Kagan has to say about postmodernism. After quoting Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder on the benefits of the study of letters (↓1), he writes:
Such was the understanding of the ancient Greeks and of the Renaissance humanists but not, I fear, of many teachers of the humanities today, who deny the possibility of knowing anything with confidence, of the reality of such concepts as truth and virtue, who seek only gain and pleasure in the modern guise of political power and self-gratification as the ends of education.
Among them it is common to reject any notion of objectivity, of truths arrived at by evidence or reasoning external to whims or prejudices. One famous professor deplored such an idea as foundationalism, defined as, “any attempt to ground inquiry and communication in something more firm and stable than mere belief or unexamined practice.” Such views are proposed by literary critics, but their significance is much broader than for the interpretation of literature; they assert that all studies are literature, all, therefore subject to the same indeterminacy as all language. Even death is merely “the displaced name for a linguistic predicament.” It should not be surprising, then, to learn that “the bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or revolutions.” What we know of history, after all, we learn from written accounts whose rhetoric “allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding.” Including, I presume, any reading or understanding of the quotation I just read.
The first quotation is from Stanley Fish—or rather it’s from Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals quoting Fish. The rest are from Paul de Man, by way of David Lehman’s muckraking biography Signs of the times. It seems to me that if you’re going to argue for the value of history, you ought to exemplify good practice. But Kagan can’t be bothered to read the originals. Instead he quotes from hostile secondary sources. He should know better. A historian, like a detective, must practice suspicion. Treat all testimony, at least in controversial matters, as being from interested parties until you have established their credibility. That’s not postmodernism; it’s enlightened common sense (↓2). But somehow when you’re bashing postmodernism the standards you observe elsewhere no longer apply.
I’m no fan of the claim that everything is a text, nor even of the claim that our access through the past is solely through texts. This is a version of idealism, no better off than its forebears. But De Man and Derrida were proposing, to the extent that they did propose it, a view that has counterparts in analytic philosophy. If you suppose that our relation to the world is mediated by language, then “linguistic idealism” immediately becomes a possibility—a “veil of words” replaces the “veil of ideas” that gave rise to the eighteenth-century version. Hacking noted the analogy long ago. Likewise the foundationalism that Fish is said to deplore has been amply criticized by philosophers well outside postmodernism (see, for example, Nelson Goodman, Ways of worldmaking 6). Kagan isn’t arguing against these views. He’s just quoting a few passages in hopes that his audience will simply see how silly they are. The little flourish at the end—see how De Man refutes himself!—is a tired old trick which doesn’t even work in the case at hand.
The passage quoted at second hand by Kagan is from Allegories of reading. It comes at the end of a reading of Nietzsche on rhetoric. De Man has distinguished between rhetoric as a practical discipline aiming to provide orators with instruments of persuasion and rhetoric as an “epistemology of tropes”, a discipline which, unlike practical rhetoric, is worthy of philosophical attention.
Considered as persuasion, rhetoric is performative but when considered as a system of tropes, it deconstructs its own performance. Rhetoric is a text in that it allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding. The aporia between performative and constative language is merely a version of the aporia between trope and persuasion that both generates and paralyzes rhetoric and thus gives it the appearance of a history (130–131).
Philosophy has long been suspicious of mere rhetoric—that is, of discourse which is subordinated to the aim of persuasion—and of the devices of rhetoric, including the tropes. Yet philosophers find themselves resorting to tropes at crucial points in their arguments. The “incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view” are of rhetoric as an organon of techniques and as a theory of tropes: once you begin applying the theory, you “see through” the rhetoric, and are no longer so likely to be persuaded. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a theoretical understanding of rhetoric deprives persuasive discourse of its power altogether—no more than a knowledge of harmony and counterpoint deprives Bach’s music of its power. Here De Man goes too far. But his interest is in the instability of attitudes toward rhetoric; and then it is the opposition of the two viewpoints that matters, not their compatibility.)
The answer to the implied question in Kagan’s last sentence is that yes, insofar as we consider De Man’s own words from the two viewpoints, we will find it difficult to arrive at a stable reading. To the extent that any text achieves its persuasive effects through tropes, a rhetorically informed reading will find itself wanting to acknowledge the power of the text even as it defuses it. Analytic philosophers tend to brush aside questions of rhetoric, and thus also the difficulty De Man describes, on the supposition that any text worth thinking about has a discernible core of argument whose rational force can be assessed apart from whatever devices of persuasion a particular presentation of it happens to make use of.
It’s not my aim to argue for or against that supposition, but only to show that what De Man is proposing is not nonsense. On the contrary, if you qualify his claims, and remember that his paradigm cases are highly-charged texts like Wordsworth’s Excursion and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, then his readings, within their limits, are illuminating. Quote-pluckers like Kagan take advantage of the density of De Man’s text, and its unfamiliar technical terms, to imply that De Man is a fraud (↓3). But you don’t need De Man’s degree of sophistication to see that there is more rhetoric than argument here. Denigration, yes, but not argument.
The worth of tragedy
Next we get an illustration of what history can teach us. Studying the ancient world can help us understand the role of the artist in society. In particular it can reassure artists that being on the comfortable side of the barricades is not such a bad thing after all.
Ever since the beginning of the Romantic movement the dominant belief has been that a true poet or artist, whatever his genre, must be a rebel against the established order of society. Writers of the past who don’t fit the model seem always to be merely the victims of their place in corrupt societies or stooges of those who rule them. The modern critic who discovers this is, of course, free from such influences.
But in fact literature—or that which is produced by “true artists” is autonomous; it exists “apart from politics and sociology, even from philosophy”. True artists “are not bound” by time, place, prejudice, purpose.
They see through and beyond the prejudices and passions of their own time and place and are bound only by the limits that bind all human beings at all times in all places: the reality of nature and of human nature.
The discussion of a passage from Sophocle’s Antigone follows. We approach the punchline.
Modern artists tend to assume that the established order is always wrong. Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People made it clear that the rule applies even to democratic establishments with his passionate assertion that “the majority is always wrong.” But the greatest artists are prepared to search for the truth of the human condition wherever the trail may lead. They do not prejudge the outcome. The establishment or the defiant rebel may be right or, as is typical of real tragedy, each may be right in his own way, even as the two rights clash disastrously. […]
In Antigone, Sophocles is concerned, in the first place, with the temptation that power can place in the way of a political leader like Creon to do whatever is necessary, even to violate divine law, in the interest of the state. That would be a comfortable position for a writer in our times. But Sophocles understands the enormous cost when an individual tramples on human law, even in defense of the most fundamental human needs. The resulting clash leaves us neither with a burning determination to overthrow the regime nor to suppress all insurgency. It leaves us emotionally stimulated and then drained, and it leaves our minds alerted and sobered. We have become deeper individuals and wiser citizens. […]
It is man’s fate, part of the tragic human condition, to revolt and struggle against its negative elements. But human excellence, virtue, even survival depend on the establishment of a decent social order and its defense even against the most passionate and sincere rebels who would smash it in search of some imagined perfection beyond human grasp.
Because he was part of the society in which he lived and understood its needs and virtues [Sophocles] could compel his fellow citizens honestly to confront its conflicts and its deepest contradictions. They did not suppress, scorn, or, what is worse, ignore him. Instead, they honored him with prizes, election to the highest military and political office and with deep and abiding reverence. Would that all this were possible for modern artists and their audiences in the world today.
No doubt if you have just 5000 words to make your case, you will have to use some shorthand, and indicate conclusions rather than argue them. But even granting those constraints, I think Kagan is no better on modernism than he is on postmodernism.
Take the bit about the “dominant belief”. ‘Dominant’ is a hedge, I suppose: otherwise it would be easy to find counterexamples among the Romantics themselves (↓4). Coleridge was briefly infatuated with the French Revolution and with utopian alternatives to the established order; but for most of his career he was a small-c conservative. Baudelaire was an opponent of democracy, an attentive reader of Joseph de Maistre. Wagner? A rebel of sorts in 1848, a confidant of Ludwig II in the 1860s; later he made overtures to Bismarck. Though critics who are themselves opposed to what they view as the established order may incline to play up the same quality in their subjects (or else judge them wanting), Romanticism in the vague sense used here typically included æsthetic rather than political opposition to some sort of established order. (One might well ask whether opposition is not justified when “order” means George III, Bismarck, or Louis Napoleon.)
After this bit of cod history, we get to the main conclusion: the true artist is neither rebel nor stooge, but is “prepared to search for the truth of the human condition wherever the trail may lead”. That condition is “tragic”. Though there is some effort at evenhandedness, Kagan sets up the contrast between rebels and true artists so as to prejudice the case. True artists recognize that the security of the state is all that “protects us from the plunge into barbarism and savagery”; rebels want to smash a “decent social order” in the service of “perfection beyond human grasp” (↓5)
No doubt most of the time neither dismantling the regime nor suppressing all insurgency is the best course of action. If that were all that tragedy had to teach, it would not merit further thought. Kagan’s talk of limits imposed by nature and our nature suggests that what it teaches is a sort of fatalism or quietism. Some critics have criticized it for just that reason. Nature was once thought to make it inevitable that some people should be slaves or that the stronger races would extinguish the weaker. One aim of “poststructuralism” (that now forgotten successor to the also forgotten structuralism of the 50s and 60s) was to debunk claims of naturalness; insofar as those claims were put forward as “objective” or “true”, it was reasonable to call those notions, or (more prudently) certain appeals to them, into question. If tragedy had the effect of making what is artificial (in Hume’s sense) appear natural, it could reasonably be criticized for ratifying the status quo even when it is unjust.
Kagan’s talk of conflicts and contradictions in society suggests a more benign view. Tragedy exhibits them to us and thereby “leaves our minds alerted and sobered”. What then? Kagan doesn’t say. Perhaps nothing. The poet, we are told, “inspired by a unique personal perception and understanding, may shed a more intense and powerful light on some human affairs than the most careful and serious historian”. Nevertheless history has the edge. If we agree with the poet we do so on the basis of intuition or experience, but since “everyone has his own intuition and experience”, and since “the literary road to the understanding of human things calls for generalizing from a single perception”, the effect of literature is mostly “aesthetic and emotional, not intellectual or practical”. (That would have been news to the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. See The Classic Text: Harriet Beecher Stowe for details.)
I’m not sure how this is supposed to accord with what is said earlier about Sophocles: his virtue was to have understood and presented to his fellow citizens the conflicts and ccontradictions of Athenian society. But now we learn that the poet makes no testable claims. The morals drawn by Kagan from Antigone are based only on his intuition and experience; this, being idiosyncratic, has no demonstrative force.
One further thought, which in charity I will suppose to be lurking somewhere in Kagan’s treatment of tragedy. Among the lessons of history—more interesting than this too shall pass, the lesson Kvanvig rightly calls “insipid”—is that the victories of justice are fragile. Among those victories is the development of the intellectual virtues we include under the heading of “objectivity”. Those who do claim, as Kagan puts it, without qualification that “there is no such thing as truth, only self-interest, prejudice and power” are committing a more grievous sin than self-refutation. They are depriving those who struggle for justice of an essential aid. The powers that be are often quite happy to have truth go by the wayside, and to let power decide all (↓6). Respect for truth, deep and widely shared enough that authority must acknowledge it, helps to prevent the powers that be from asserting, or allowing to be asserted, only what serves their interests.
Objectivity as we understand it became a standard in the writing of history by way of a long struggle. The nineteenth-century “professional” history that Kagan seems to dislike was one result. The painstaking establishment of texts; the requirement to use primary sources wherever possible; the importance of neutrality in the interpretation of documents: all this emerged gradually, notably in the efforts of Bayle and others in the early eighteenth century to separate history from sectarian interests and in the nineteenth-century study of the history of religion. Droysen’s Historik and its many descendants (see ↓2) not only prescribe methods for the treatment of sources, they imbue the tyro with an ethos—the detective’s attitude toward sources, and for oneself an austere regard for affirming, with the exact degree of confidence that the evidence warrants, only what that evidence licenses one to affirm.
I say “struggle” because for obvious reasons history done objectively may yield unwelcome conclusions (↓7), and will therefore invite suppression or edulcoration. Motives for doing so are always present—so we learn from history itself. The struggle is therefore permanent.
History endangered
The bad news:
[History] has not escaped the assaults of post-modernism in its various forms. A major assault is in the area of subject matter and attitude. The traditional great events and subjects: high politics, constitutions, diplomacy, war, great books and ideas, are not to be considered, except to show why they must be excluded as the product of dead white males engaged in the permanent process of oppressing good ordinary people of one kind or another. The purpose of the enterprise is not to seek the truth with the greatest objectivity one can muster but to raise the consciousness of the oppressed, to bring them the self-esteem they will need to overthrow the current version of this ancient establishment.
This may be music to the ears of some people. I find it grotesque. Who does Kagan have in mind? The Annales school? They argued against “kings and battles” history, but not on the grounds that dead white males are involved. Subaltern history? In some sense it was intended to “raise the consciousness of the oppressed”, and it was certainly critical of certain dead white males. But it did not discard the aim of discovering truth. “History from below”? Well, it didn’t interest itself in high politics or constitutions, and it did seek to give a voice to those who in more traditional histories had none; but its political aims were not expressed in the psychobabble of raising self-esteem. In any case there is plenty of history whose effect is to “bring self-esteem” to the powerful—as if they need it—; why shouldn’t the rest of us enjoy the same benefit? (↓8)
Kagan’s blanket indictment, which covers a great deal of work not only in Classics but in all areas of history during the last thirty years, stirs into one mish-mash some quite disparate ingredients. Selection, first of all. Kagan has earlier said that “the historian must select a topic of importance”. He lists the traditional “great events and subjects”—high politics and so forth. For a variety of reasons, historians have come to believe that other subjects are important too. The lives of women, for example, in cultures where they were largely excluded from high politics and diplomacy and in war figured mostly as victims; the material culture of literature and scholarship, which “great books and ideas” history ignores; the history of colonialism not from the point of view of colonizers, but from the point of view of the colonized. I could go on: the point is that Kagan’s list is not only far from exhausting the possible objects of study, but also introduces systematic bias into what we tend to think of as the history of, say, the US or ancient Greece. One can be rationally persuaded of this without believing also that the topics of traditional history are to be excluded because they involve dead white males oppressing other people, or that objectivity should be abandoned.
The issue of choosing objects of study, like the correlative question of importance, is orthogonal to that of objectivity. Reading the diaries and letters of soldiers instead of diplomatic dispatches and court memoirs doesn’t impinge on objectivity. Making that choice does, however, reflect in an obvious way on what you conceive the purpose of history to be. Kagan says earlier:
These are the missions for the historian: to examine important events of the past with painstaking care and the greatest possible objectivity, to seek a reasoned explanation for them based on the fullest and fairest possible examination of the evidence in order to preserve their memory and to use them to establish such uniformities as may exist in human events, and then to apply the resulting understanding to improve the judgment and wisdom of people who must deal with similar problems in the future.
The ultimate end of history is to yield lessons: history is true fables, which like Æsop’s are supposed to have morals. Subordinate to that is the aim of establishing uniformities, which presumably arise from successful explanations of events. The explananda must of course be true to be worth explaining; hence the requirement to do what one should to be as sure as possible that one has discovered the truth about them. Many philosophers entertain an analogous view of the history of philosophy—that its ultimate end is to assist in the solution of current problems.
Note first of all that the subject matter of history is supposed to be events. Not people, not discourses, not ideas, not technologies, not institutions, not cultures. With a great deal of ingenuity one could perhaps construe some of those objects as theoretical entities invoked in the explanation of events. For example, not the Meditations themselves but the event of their publication or of their composition, not the Royal Society but its founding or its meetings, not ideas or concepts of force but datable utterances about force, would be construed as explananda. To do so is to cast prosopography, numismatics, codicology, paleography and the like into the role of Hilfsmittel or ancillæ, the purpose of which is solely to aid in composing and verifying event-descriptions; and to regard the study of ideas, institutions, and so on as worthwhile only insofar as those entities are invoked in the explanation of events.
It is an oddly positivist view of history, belied already in Kagan’s lecture itself. He discusses the works of Herodotus and Thucydides, not as events, but as texts. He offers an interpretation of them. A perfectly sensible thing to do. Most people would call it an exercise in intellectual history. But on Kagan’s stated view it isn’t. The general point is this: historians study all sorts of things, including events. It’s implausible to construe all of history as the study of events only, just as it is to construe all of biology as the study of events alone rather than of organisms, ecosystems, and so forth.
Kagan holds that the task of the historian is explanation. There is a large literature that concerns itself with just this claim (↓9). I won’t delve into it here. But consider the point about uniformities: it is by discovering uniformities in human affairs that history is supposed to provide a guide to action. There are at least six disciplines that deal in such uniformities: anthropology, economics, human biology, political science, psychology, sociology. Kagan mentions none of them (the one occurrence of ‘sociology’ clearly is intended to mean ‘society’ or ‘social affairs’). If predictive success were the basis for the value of history, I’m not sure how well it would do. History more often borrows generalizations than it finds its own (the latest example being the application of evolutionary principles).
What history provides, in abundance, is exempla: concrete particulars which, considered as types, provide sources for analogies. Engineers study particular failed structures (like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge); artists, as Kant said, imitate their genial predecessors. So too we all turn to the past for guidance in choosing courses of action. We do so, presumably, on the basis of various and variously weighted similarities. Is Iraq a second Vietnam? Would negotiating with Saddam Hussein have been a second Munich? Am I the new Hermann Lotze? Or is he the old me? The problem is typically not that we can’t find exempla; it’s that there are often too many.
Suppose that a uniformity is not a similarity alone but rather a correlation of similarities (“A, being similar to B in respect r, will also be similar in respect s”). It’s often not clear which uniformities can be applied in particular cases to yield trustworthy predictions. Jared Diamond, in his recent book on the collapse of societies, lists five factors, of which environmental damage is primary. Although he is hopeful about the present, and as a basis for that hope points to differences between the present world situation and those of the now extinct societies he studied, he makes no prediction (↓10). He mentions, in the discussion after a lecture at Princeton, an example worth thinking about:
There’s a large literature on causes of instability and civil wars and collapse of States and civil unrest […] There are eight variables that people have been able to identify: With risk of civil war, for example, there’s a data base of all cases of State failures and civil wars and violent government transitions in the last 30 years (↓11). People have mined this data base. Would anybody like to guess what is the single factor that is the best predictor of the collapse of societies in the last couple of decades? This is an unfair question because it’s so surprising. The strongest predictor is infant and child mortality. Countries that have had high infant or child mortality are more likely to undergo State collapse, and there are many links, including difficulties in the workforce, high ratio of children to adults.
The obvious conclusion is that to stabilize a society those who have the means to do so should reduce infant or child mortality. That might well work, given what would be required. It would almost certainly do better than imposing fiscal austerity or selling arms to the government… What we lack, and what the authors of the database are attempting to provide the basis for, is a principled way of choosing among exempla. Traditional history is hardly better off than literature in that respect. The application of its exempla, like that of literary exempla, would seem to rely on intuition and experience.
I don’t think, however, that all is lost. What one can learn is first of all to be critical, to adopt the attitude of the detective. For this there is no particular advantage in studying high politics rather than the daily lives of women, or diplomacy instead of labor relations. It is distinct from the attitude one might acquire in a critical thinking course; there the arguments are the focus, here it is the arguer.
The second lesson is gained from the distances history imposes: most obviously, of us and our ways from those of the past; but also, once one has taken the trouble to understand the past in its own terms, of the historian from his or her own present. This is in part a lesson in contingency: if sometimes ’twas ever thus, more often ’twas only recently thus. Linda Colley’s work on the forging of a British identity in the eighteenth century illustrates that point very well (Britons, 1992).
The third lesson follows upon the second: history exhibits, as actuality, what for us are possibilities we might otherwise not have considered—and even if we have, it is instructive to have an actual case on hand to control our intuitions.
Nothing I’ve just said is new. It’s more or less what historians of philosophy typically claim on behalf of history done right—which is to say, avoiding anachronism and the temptation to view later events as the final causes of earlier events, using the agents’ own categories, attending to context, and so forth. Notice that I haven’t said anything about solving current problems. That’s because I’m not sure that reading historical treatments of early modern philosophy, say, will be of much use in that respect. If you’re working in the philosophy of mind, you can learn what dualism looks like when elaborated by someone who takes it seriously; you can learn, by contrasting the science of the 17th century with our own, to what extent having correct views about the physiology of the brain makes a difference to the philosophical treatment of the mind-body problem; you might even find an argument or two you hadn’t thought of, and that will survive the 350-year journey. I won’t be surprised if you don’t. I’d be happy if you did. But that’s not why I do history.
Descartes’ work, which has been the main object of my research, is of interest independently of any present utility. The physics and physiology are obsolete; the “principles” upon which Descartes builds his science have been, to say the least, drastially revised; his theology many philosophers would treat as irrelevant to present-day debates. Even so, his system is a wonderful piece of work. One comparison I would make is with the history of the arts. The prospect of extracting morals is not necessary to the value of art history. Artworks are immensely complicated items the study of which is rewarding for its own sake. So too are philosophical works.
Once upon a time in the West
The passage that no doubt roused Kvanvig’s ire is this. Kagan is arguing that history has the strongest claim to be queen of the sciences. Considering the claim of philosophy, he begins by looking in his dictionary.
[…] among the many definitions I find in my dictionary the following strikes me as most central: “inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.” The pursuit of philosophy does not preclude the study of human experience to provide material for contemplation and analysis by ordered reason, but experience is clearly subordinate and ancillary. Even Aristotle, who for centuries was known as the philosopher and liked to begin his inquiries with reference to the experience and thought of real people, did not investigate these widely or deeply but just until they produced the inevitable intellectual difficulties, the aporiai, to which he then applied his great powers of logic and reason. There are great advantages for our understanding of the nature of things in it: pointing out sloppy thinking and helping to correct it; the ability to analyze things that appear unitary or to bring together others that seem hopelessly disparate; the search for simpler, more general principles than those available to the empirical students of human experience, among others. But philosophy inevitably leads to metaphysics, the investigation of first principles and the problem of ultimate reality, which over the millennia has led to massive disagreement, no progress, cynicism and rejection. Wags have described the pursuit of metaphysics as looking in a perfectly dark box for a black cat that doesn’t exist. More seriously, the situation has driven professional students of philosophy to such despair as to reject entirely the most basic and compelling questions as impossible, in fact as non-existent, merely the result of bad thinking or improper grammar. In that spirit the Enyclopaedia Britannica defines philosophy narrowly as “the critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and an analysis of the basic concepts of such beliefs.” Aristotle must have rolled over in his grave when he first learned of the thin gruel modern teachers have made of his rich philosophical porridge. Fortunately, a small band of scholars have not given up the search for wisdom that is true philosophy, but their tribe is small and their enemies legion. A field of study in such shape can not help us much in our efforts to comprehend the human condition.
One famous wag described history as bunk. Kagan quotes him. Reading this, you might think so too. Yale has some good philosophers. Too bad Kagan didn’t go talk to them. He might have learned that his sketch is about forty years out of date. The last sentence but one leads me to believe that the caricature presented here owes something to the Straussians. They would be that small beleaguered band.
Here are a few of the errors in this passage. The topos of perpetual disagreement goes back to Cicero at least. It hasn’t led very often to cynicism and rejection. If this is your gripe, you may as well reject philosophy altogether; it didn’t start with the positivists. The rejection of metaphysics by the Logical Positivists was not an expression of despair (Toulmin and Janik see pessimism about language in the background of the Tractatus, not despair about metaphysics). If anything what you see in Russell, Carnap, and company is a kind of exhilaration at the prospect of applying their new methods. Certain first-generation Wittgensteinians come closer to fitting Kagan’s description. But the reign of philosophy as therapy was brief and the territory ruled by it was never large.
Instead of going on, I will try to extract a useful lesson from this passage. What we see in Kagan is a kind of punishment for past sins. A punishment no longer deserved, but not entirely without ground. Some analytic philosophers did peremptorily dismiss most philosophy before Frege and Russell; some followers of Wittgenstein did treat traditional philosophical questions as if they were symptoms (↓12). I reproduce here, as a reminder, an anecdote from the Dark Ages:
[…] when the analytic approach to philosophy, which made god-terms of clarity and precision, began to seize control of the intellectual curriculum, Kierkegaard was cast into the outer darkness. Indeed, when I undertook my own graduate studies, in the ’70s, it was not uncommon for a professor to begin a seminar by reading a passage from Kierkegaard or one of his disciples and sneering, “How could anyone take this gobbledygook for philosophy?”
(Marino, unlike Kagan, knows that things have changed.) The lesson here would be one of modesty. Long long ago some people thought they had a surefire method by which to distinguish sophistry and nonsense from sound philosophy. They were mistaken. We might be too.
Against monarchy, or, for that matter, duarchy
Dumb questions tend to elicit dumb answers. “Which of the humanities should be queen?” is dumb. Kagan acknowledges that philosophy is of some use; Kvanvig, having taken Kagan to the woodshed, grants that history is relevant. Consider the decision to go to war in Iraq. Just war theory was invoked: this is philosophy. Our relations with Iraq since the fifties, and the conditions of its founding, were also invoked: this is history. To ask which deserves the throne seems to me an idle exercise.
(↑1) De ingenuis moribus, composed around 1404 (see also the Hanover Historical Texts Project). Biographies at BBKL and the Catholic Encyclopedia.
(↑2) See, for example, Martha Howell, Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Cornell University Press, 2001 · 0801485606), one of many such manuals.
(↑3) For an exposition of De Man’s thought in the essay “Literary history and literary modernity”, from which the quotation about texts and wars is taken, see Ian Balfour, “History against Historicism, Formal Matters, and the Event of the Text: De Man with Benjamin”, Romantic Circles Praxis Series, s.d. The quotation about death comes at the end of a long, dense discussion of some essays of Wordsworth (The rhetoric of Romanticism, 81). What I’ve read online makes it clear that De Man is not saying something so silly as that biological death is just a matter of words.
(↑4) For another example, see Marc Fumaroli, Chateaubriand. Poésie et Terreur (Éditions de Fallois, 2003). Chateaubriand was a stereotypical Romantic in certain respects. He regarded himself as a solitary, an outcast, without a settled existence. He opposed Napoleon and the censorious policies of the Royalist governments that followed. But he also remained firmly attached to the Bourbon line, even when after 1830 Charles X and his family were exiled.
“Would that this were possible…”: Václav Havel? A historian should know better than to toss off generalizations like this.
(↑5) An astute criticism of certain French philosophers’ opposition to order tout court can be be found in Jacques Bouveresse, Le philosophe chez les autophages (Paris: Minuit, 1984; see Jean-Pierre Cometti, “Jacques Bouveresse et les siens”). A sample:
La révolte de l’imaginationThe revolt of imagination and of philosophical speculation against order ought to be inspired by the desire really to modify the existing state of things with regard to what is unsatisfactory or intolerable in it; it should not content itself simply by exploiting, with easy, predictable success, the fact that any order is naturally resented by the individual as a constraint and a hindrance whose character the first philosopher to come by can easily show to be unjustified, arbitrary, and absurd. et de la spéculation philosophiques contre l’ordre doit être inspirée par le désir de modifier réellement l’état des choses existant dans ce qu’il a d’insatisfaisant ou d’intolérable, et non pas se contenter simplement d’exploiter avec un succès facile et prévisible le fait qu’un ordre quelconque est naturellement ressenti par l’individu comme une contrainte et une gêne dont le premier philosophe venu peut aisément faire ressortir le caractère injustifié, arbitraire et absurde (36).
This is already better than anything Kagan says about postmodernism. Bouveresse is a philosopher, which I suppose reinforces Kvanvig’s point.
(↑6) As Kagan fulminates against academics, the post-modernists in the White House are busily creating, as one of them said, “new realities” (see Ron Suskind, “Without a doubt” New York Times, 17 Oct 2004; the relevant passage is excerpted at Liberty and Power).
(↑7) Here are two early examples. In the fifteenth century Lorenzo Valla showed that the “Donation of Constantine”, a document that purported to recognize the primacy of the Papal See and to give it title to territories in Italy and elsewhere, was an 8th-century forgery (see the Journal for the history of ideas 57no1 (Jan 2004) and MLN 119no1suppl (Jan 2004) for recent work on Valla). In the early seventeenth century Isaac Casaubon demonstrated that the Hermetic writings were not ancient Egyptian but Greek and composed no earlier than the first centuries AD. That dating, once accepted, deprived those texts of their authority.
(↑8) For some actual argument concerning Dead White Males, see Bernard Knox, The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections on the Classics (W. W. Norton, 1993 · 0393034925). Knox gave a Jefferson Lecture with this title in 1992. Another discussion of some of the issues (e.g. the question of “great man” history) can be found in David Ames Curtis, “Translator’s Foreword” to Vidal-Naquet and Leveque, Cleisthenes the Athenian (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996; the original was published in 1964); see also David Potter, review of Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 9 Feb 1992.
(↑9) Here are a few items. One place to start is the section on explanation in Gardiner’s anthology. The History and theory collection includes a section on narrative, which is variously construed either as the characteristic form of explanation in history or as an alternative to explanation (especially to covering-law explanation). Hexter’s book includes a helpful chapter on comparison in social history. Hexter, like Kagan, says that the explananda are events, or rather human actions (21), but this appears to be a claim about narrative history, not history tout court.
Gardiner, Patrick. Theories of history. Glencoe: The Free Press, 1959.
Carr, David. Time, narrative and history. Bloomington: Indiana, 1986.
Mink, Louis. Historical understanding. Ed. Brain Fay, Eugene O. Golob, and Richard T. Vann. Ithaca: Cornell, 1987.
Fay, Brian, Philip Pomper, Richard T. Vann. History and theory. Contemporary readings. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
(↑10) See “Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond at Princeton University”, Background Briefing, Radio National (Australia), 12 January 2003;  Jared Diamond, “The Ends of the World as We Know Them”, New York Times, 1 Jan 2005. There is a recording of his 20 January 2005 lecture at the Royal Society.
(↑11) This would be either the database compiled by the Political Instability Task Force (formerly the State Failure Task Force), or else a subset of the database of “regime characteristics and transitions” compiled by the Polity Project (now Polity IV). These groups are indeed trying to learn from history. But somehow I don’t think they’re what Kagan has in mind.
(↑12) Among the Wittgensteinians, Morris Lazerowitz and Alice Ambrose stand out for having written several books the gist of which is summed up in a note by Lazerowitz on the term ‘metaphilosophy’: “For some philosophers, I have discovered, the word has come to be the name of the special view I have advanced and elaborated over the years: the view that represents a philosophical theory as a gerrymandered piece of language, which, because it is presented in the ontological idiom, is capable of creating the intellectual illusion that a theory about things is being stated and also of giving expression to a cluster of unconscious ideas” (“A note on ‘metaphilosophy’”, Metaphilosophy 1no1 (Jan 1970): 91). I don’t recall that very many people were converted to his view. But neither was he the only one to treat philosophical theories in that way.

LinkMay 27, 2005 in History of Philosophy · Philosophy of Philosophy