I open with this false dichotomy not merely to draw your eye. In reading a dual review of two biographies about Einstein, published this morning in the Chicago Tribune, it seems that this fallacy is a quiet assumption of the reviewer, Daniel Sutherland.
This is not to disparage the review or reviewer; the piece is informative and insightful. Sutherland, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, relays that the two books in question, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe and Jurgen Neffe’s Einstein, both contextualize their subject.
The differences between the two works are substantial. In building their respective cases for Einstein, according to the reviewer, Isaacson focuses on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while Neffe utilizes the long duree of the Annales School in exploring the history of science back to the seventeenth century. Isaacson apparently treats Einstein sympathetically, while Neffe is “concerned with deflating the myth and settling accounts.” Finally, Isaacson’s work is long (680 pages) and Neffe’s is relatively shorter (461 pages). But length didn’t daunt Sutherland, as he found Isaacson’s book “hard to put down.” With that, the reviewer’s preference between the two books is clear. And since Sutherland is a philosopher by training and not a historian, questions that would concern an historian are naturally not as important.
But Sutherland touches on a few issues that are crucial to intellectual historians in his review. They come to the foreground in what I see as the intellectual heart of Sutherland’s review. Here’s a passage from that heart:
“A final challenge for the biographer is Einstein’s genius. What is a genius, and what did Einstein’s consist in? Was his brain different from other brains, a suggestion that inspired the doctor who performed his autopsy to abscond with it? What was unique to his thinking? Einstein himself said he was not more gifted than anyone else, just more curious and tenacious than the average person. . . . The question of genius quickly expands into a broader analysis of what made his achievements possible. What effect did his early reading have on his discoveries, and how much help did he have from those around him? What cultural and social conditions contributed to his revolutionary thoughts? As Neffe says, ‘Einstein never saw himself as part of a team,’ and we tend not to as well. How much of his genius is a simplifying story that ignores the complexities of the way science works, and how much of it can be rightly attributed to him?”
This heady stuff for a newspaper review, but it touches the heart of a philosophical problem in working on the margins of biography and history. Which way do we turn, Sutherland asks?
The answer is simply to split the middle between individual and environment. This seems common sense enough, but Sutherland refrains from addressing the question of which author found the best balance: he leaves it to the reader. To me this shouldn’t be the philosophy of a reviewer of the popular bio-history genre. The reviewer must attempt to assess whether a book’s author properly balanced the individual with his or her environment. What is proper, you might ask? I’m not a 100 percent sure, but I’d like to hear the reviewer’s assessment of the issue in the context of the subject (in this case Einstein).
Now I know something about the practical questions of newspaper publishing and the history of reviewing. Do readers want to know what’s in a book, or the reviewer’s opinion of the book? This tension in reviewing began around the turn of the last century, and has been documented, for instance, in Joan Shelley Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992). Why can’t newspaper book reviewers find a balance between the two? Is it some kind of fear (such as exposing biases) on the part of the newspaper or the reviewer? I don’t know. I’m sure this issue was discussed, in part, at the recent BookExpo panel on the “intellectual history of book reviewing.”
Is it responsible for a reviewer of the bio-history genre to leave open a judgment of balance? When historians find occasion to review this book genre, should we leave our readers suspended in this false dichotomy or try to take a stand?
Isn’t the problem of balance most acute in intellectual history? Doesn’t an author who underplays environment contribute to hero worship, thereby fostering forms of elitism? This is has been a perennial problem in, or accusation against, intellectual history. But in turn, doesn’t a focus on the environment undercut the uniqueness of the individual, thereby undermining her or his dignity? If the answer to these questions of paragraph are all affirmative (or at least mostly so), then the question of balance cannot be ignored.
Since we at USIH conduct reviews, I also wonder about the thoughts of my fellow contributors on this issue. Ought we not seek a strict balance in assessing the strengths of this genre? Or should we at least offer an explanation if we think is not balanced? – TL