U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Doing the backwards Kuhn

Interesting thoughts about historical methodology and theory from Adolph Reed in 1997 (I highlighted the Kuhn reference I mention in my title):

9: It is natural enough–given the primacy of racial subordination and oppression–that Afro-American thinking has been so thoroughly dominated by issues of racial strategy. What Myrdal overlooked, however, is that even the narrowest, most ‘provincial’ lines of debate derive from and are structured by a normatively significant language of politics, a discourse bound by shared ‘values, beliefs, perceptions, and concepts.’ In their various critiques Fontaine, Reddick, Thorpe, and Frazier in effect were calling for black intellectuals to adopt a more critically reflective stance vis-a-vis the foundations of prevailing patterns of black social and political discourse.”

10: “Under these influences, Afro-Americanist scholarship congealed around an intellectual core characterized by naivete concerning both the historical autonomy of political thought and the theoretical and epistemic foundations of its own enterprise. As a consequence, research has been largely blind to the regions of deeper normative meanings that are tacit within expressly pragmatic black political debates; for penetrating those regions requires reconstructing the historically specific intellectuals conventions that set the terms of episodic controversy. Not having access to the conventional groundings of black discourse, furthermore, undermines the project of commenting other than trivially on the durable features and self-driving characteristics of Afro-American thought. Instead, such commentary has tended to depict either a perennial chase after platitudinous symbols–‘freedom,’ ‘equality,’ even ‘struggle’–or a Whiggish saga of the linear unfolding of a grand idea.

11: For students of Afro-American thought the call for critical reflectiveness is therefore most importantly a call for making the normative underpinnings of black thought accessible. Thus we must examine texts as historical artifacts of specific discursive communities. This is in turn entails a need for greater theoretical self-consciousness about two discrete aspects of our approach to our subject matter; one bearing on the relation between the Afro-Americanist and Americanist fields, and the other more generally on the history of ideas. First, to the extent that black thought takes shape within a broader American language of politics, credible recovery of the normative principles tacit in black discourse requires accounting for that constitutive grammar of political debate. … The study of Afro-American thought can be enriched by rigorous study of American thought and should be so informed.

This methodological innocence–a function of the prevailing naivete about historical contextuality–has left Afro-Americanists without a basis for discussing either interpretive standards or purposive orientations to research. This point should not be taken to suggest a call for a research ‘paradigm.’ Such an effort hints of solipsism and would deploy scholarly resources most inefficiently. Besides, exercises in paradigm building very likely invert their Kuhnian inspiration anyway. By forgetting that paradigms–when and where they exist–are born, not made, efforts to call them into existence commit a version of the well-known error of confounding the history of science and its summary reconstruction as a sequential logic in the philosophy of science. In this area Hegel’s dictum holds: ‘The way is the long way around’; one might add, ‘if there is any way at all.’ Rather, what I am suggesting is simply that we inform our work with the insights–and the ambiguities–generated by hermeneutical and otherwise procedural discussions throughout the broader history of ideas (and, for that matter, literary criticism).

Proper attentiveness to historical contextuality requires breaking the thrall of presentism and similar forms of interpretive naivete, which in turn requires cultivating an attitude of humility and cautious self-doubt in approach to texts. These qualities can be enhanced by making the field’s reigning assumptions and procedures objects of scrutiny and by considering Afro-American thought to be a ‘relatively autonomous’ subset of American thought in general and the history of ideas writ large.

One Thought on this Post

  1. When I saw the title of this post, I thought you were proposing a new theoretical dance move—ala a philosophical funky chicken, or a metaphysical fox trot. I digress.

    But seriously, this is an interesting passage from a man whose writings (at least the few I’ve encountered) are infused to the Nth degree with the present. But perhaps he is speaking ~only~ to those working on African American history?

    Even so, if no phrase you’ve found fits as a descriptor—theoretical or practical—in relation to what you are doing, or have encountered, my feeling is that you should introduce your phrase until you encounter something else (from the past or present) that fits your bill. Novelty for novelty’s sake is to be avoided, to be sure. But I wouldn’t assume ~for sure~ that what you’re thinking has been precisely expressed before as you want to express it. I mean, you’re not trying to build a new paradigm (are you?), but rather searching for the right “phrase” to describe your sense of what’s in front of you. – TL

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