U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (11/05/2010)

I offer the following as a break from our (excellent!) long posts reflecting on conference matters:

1 (of 5). The Problem of Political Philosophy: Only Links to Offer

Bookforum‘s excellent Omnivore blog held forth on “The Problem of Political Philosophy” in a post a few days ago. If you’re not familiar with Omnivore, its posts are constructed as carnivalesque clouds of links on specific themes. Each link is usually a full story, opinion piece, or book review. My favorite link in this post is to a paper by Francesca Pasquali that brings together political theory, political philosophy, and public philosophy. The last has been a concern to me for some time because it links the work of Walter Lippmann and Mortimer J. Adler. Here’s a provocative excerpt from Pasquali’s abstract (bolds mine):

Public philosophy detects the shared values grounding political practices and employs them to develop criteria for guiding policy decisions. It is attentive to empirical data and constraints and it provides solutions that are effective in political terms. Political philosophy takes its distance from congiuntural facts and practically subscribed principles. While sensitive to practical problems, it does not aim at elaborating practically viable solutions: it is rather concerned with the theoretical adequacy of its principles. Public philosophy seems better equipped for developing proposals serviceable during hard times, when effective political responses are in need.

2. A Poll: “The Best Quality Journals in the History of Philosophy”

University of Chicago Law School professor (and philosopher) Brian Leiter, who runs Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, recently conducted a poll that should be interest to all intellectual historians. Using CIVS (Condercet Internet Voting Service), he asked readers to rank the best journals, of a list of seventeen, for publication on the history of philosophy. Here are his Top 11:

1. Journal of the History of Philosophy
2. Philosophical Review
3. Philosophy & Phenomenological Research
4. British Journal for the History of Philosophy
5. Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie
6. History of Philosophy Quarterly
7. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society
8. European Journal of Philosophy
9. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly
10. Canadian Journal of Philosophy
11. Journal of the History of Ideas

See the rest of his results here.

3. Teaching The Big, Hard Ideas—Online

Writing for the National Association of Scholars (a rather conservative group that advocates “working to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges”), David Clemens offers a rather pessimistic assessment of the ability of online courses to relay the essence of the humanities online. Here is a sampling of his reflections (bolds mine):

I recall a college administrator who while cutting literature classes spoke passionately about more “student access to higher education.” I said, “Access doesn’t do them any good if there’s no higher education when they get here. What you are cutting is higher education.”

Between dumbing down and advocacy teaching, peer editing and “student-centered” classrooms, Theory and CorporateU., PowerPoint presentations and courses on Buffy— higher education in the traditional sense has been smothered. …Instead of seriously examining such eternal questions of the meaning of life, the liberal arts and humanities wither away in favor of pragmatic but less formative pursuits. What do these words have in common: American, leisure, postcolonial, liberal, gender, disability, queer, environmental, animal? Answer: followed by the word, “studies,” all are degree-granting college majors.

The Big Question is whether the imperatives of current educational models make widespread embrace of online classes inevitable. It may be a situation of hug or die. …Conversely, online is ideal for what I call “boutique” courses, classes people take because they are interested in the subject, not because they “need” them. …That’s online’s proper role—to supplement face-to-face classes for students in special circumstances (pregnant, remote, homebound) and as a lab for exploration of niche topics. Will that prevail? I doubt it.

To bring this home, Clemens piece makes me skeptical that intellectual history courses can be effectively taught—or at least effectively absorbed by students—in an online teaching environment.

4. Defining American’s Knowledge of Religion

About a month ago, before the elections heated up, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” was all over the news. Like other “shocking” surveys that make an impression, this one was about how ignorant Americans are. These are usually about history (or those are the ones I remember), but this one covered comparative religion. Because it asked respondents their religious affiliation, it was also able to break down responses by sect. Here’s an excerpt from the survey’s Executive Summary (to catalyze your memory):

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. …Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

I’m bringing this to your attention not to replay the results, but to draw your attention to this excellent set of scholarly replies posted at The Immanent Frame, a blog hosted by the Social Science Research Council. Here is a sampling of the first reply by Richard Amesbury, Associate Professor of Ethics, Claremont School of Theology; Associate Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate University (bolds mine):

Insofar as it aims to grade Americans on their “religious knowledge,” the new Pew survey contains a strongly normative subtext: that there are certain things that every American ought to know about religion. …In an earlier piece, I suggested an alternative interpretation: that the things social scientists take to be important about “religion”—–in this case, a range of externally available facts about “the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions”—–aren’t all that important to many Americans. This need not imply that Americans are insincere or incapable of successfully orienting themselves in a culturally diverse environment; rather, it suggests that the conceptual maps they use to do this don’t always conform to the expectations of demographers.

Instead of concluding that Americans lack “religious knowledge” because they don’t know what social scientists think they should, we might want to ask what, if anything, the study reveals about lived religion.

Amesbury suggests the very thing I pointed out to a few friends in a debate about the results: We study epistemology because there are different ways of knowing. And in this case, the creators of the Pew survey did not address practical knowledge in relation to religion—or the kinds of knowledge (i.e. ethics, or how-to navigational skills) that practitioners seek from their chosen faiths. I hope that historians of American religion make these distinctions when they assess how religion operates? And this topic also matters to those assessing how religion fits into the Culture Wars in the United States.

5. A New Journal: History of the Present

Andrew Hartman alerted me to this via his FB page, but History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History should be of interest to U.S. intellectual historians. It relays its avowed purpose as follows:

Its aim is twofold: to create a space in which scholars can reflect on the role history plays in establishing categories of contemporary debate by making them appear inevitable, natural or culturally necessary; and to publish work that calls into question certainties about the relationship between past and present that are taken for granted by the majority of practicing historians. Its editors want to encourage the critical examination of both history’s influence on politics and the politics of the discipline of history itself. The journal’s object is to showcase articles that exemplify the practice of what might be called theorized empirical history.

I can definitely see some of our regular USIH contributors and commenters taking an interest in getting into this periodical. It seems like this endeavor borders on investigative journalism—which reminds me of a quip I recently heard, relayed by Bill Moyers: “The difference between a journalist and an historian is that the historian knows the difference.” Humor aside, it looks like History of the Present will be a place for historians to act in the Laschian tradition of social criticism. – TL

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m still stuck on conference matters — it’s the fault of Roger Cohen, who in “American Dreamland,” NYT op-ed, 11.4.10, writes

    Somewhere in the past two years — and I’d place that moment in the midst of the agonizing passage of health care reform — the conviction gelled in wide swathes of an underemployed, over-indebted, war-sapped, anxious, aggrieved nation that Obama’s United States was crossing the bridge from American self-reliance to the “big government” of the European nanny state. The nation, in other words, was losing its soul, what Benedict Anderson called the “imagined community” of nation-hood — one, in the American case, that glorifies opportunity and grimaces at social safety nets portrayed as the refuge of the freeloader.

    My question: Is Roger Cohen performatively invoking the national soul by using Benedict Anderson’s interpretive frame of the “imagined community” and metaphorizing the nation as an individual crossing a bridge, to describe the conviction of some that the nation is in danger of losing its exceptional soul — something real for them, though manifested only indirectly through signs such as national policies, and Chevrolet ads.

    Bill Fine

  2. Reiterating here what I wrote on Andrew’s FB page . . .

    From the mission statement of History of the Present: “Articles will, of course, be informed by Derridean or Foucauldian or psychoanalytic or Marxist theory, but only as any of those theories contribute to the writing of history as critique.”

    I am guessing that statement is not meant ironically, in which case the journal is interesting only if the present they’re talking about is 1986.

  3. Bill: I’m going to read the article now (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/opinion/05iht-edcohen.html) and will report back with a comment. I’m not all that familiar with Cohen.

    Varad: It is an awkward sentence. I took it (literally, btw) to mean that those theories are welcome so long as they ~don’t~ result in any conclusions about the end of history as a relevant endeavor. So the theories have to apply to still-existing efforts at narrative, not theoretical navel-gazing. So I guess that means the submitter/author has to see rhetorical irony and self-referentiation (a word?) in the historical object/subject under consideration (e.g. Tea Party rhetoric collapsing on itself?). – TL

  4. Bill,

    I agree with Cohen’s “conviction gelled” assertion. I also wholeheartedly (irony intended) agree with this point: “The United States is today in an emotional place of extreme political volatility.”

    As for your question about whether Cohen is invoking Anderson to discuss our national soul ~as a reality~ yes, I think so. It’s an accidental and/or ironical reference, perhaps? In any case, it does seem like a curious, mixed-up statement. The point of Anderson is that the community we call a nation was, and is, never “natural.” Cohen should’ve said, perhaps, that the populace lacks in imagination, or the ability to re-imagine in an improved product. Or he might’ve argued that the trauma of the health-care bill exploded our collective ability integrate narratives that have always been mixed and side-by-side, via liberalism, in our general political discourse.

    – TL

  5. Tim: That sentence raised my hackles because it struck me as exemplifying the very mixed message the editorial mission statement is sending. On the one hand it claims the journal is cutting edge and based on the latest archival research, yet on the other hand the “theorized” aspect of the “theorized empirical history” it promotes is warmed over postmodernism and social constructivism. That hasn’t been cutting edge since Reagan was in the White House. A few more examples:

    1) “The point is to link the present to the past not as its inevitable outcome, but as the contingent product of changes in relationships of power and in the ideas through which such relationships are conceived.”

    2) “Its object was to marry philosophy and history through archival work that disrupted ‘the false testimony of linear history’ and challenged contemporary certainties and prevailing political categories of analysis.”

    3) “We take seriously the influence of poststructuralism, but History of the Present is not a poststructuralist or postmodern journal. It is not meant to push a particular theoretical line.”

    Of course it’s not meant to push a particular theoretical line, since that line is already assumed in the foundations of the enterprise. Otherwise they wouldn’t be reheating stale old bromides about “relationships of power” and “challeng[ing] contemporary certainties and prevailing political categories of analysis.” Seriously? If I didn’t know better I’d say this was either something spit out by the Postmodernism Generator or an early ’90s English department grad student sucking up to his dissertation advisor in his prospectus. Though what the difference between those two possibilities is I lack the wisdom to discern.

    This manifesto is the equivalent of starting a new magazine about home theater technology and then choosing the VCR as the subject for the cover story of the first issue. The journal might be called “History of the Present” but its editors are living in the past.

  6. Varad: I see what you’re saying. On the other hand, how could anyone start up a journal with the title “History of the Present” without having to navigate a few paradoxes? And perhaps their acknowledgment of postmodernism/post-structuralism in language is just a way of giving theoretical credibility to their enterprise–via a recognition of the limits of our ability to navigate the past/present divide with any certain, credible perspective? I offer this as someone who fully realizes the destructiveness of postmodern language theory in relation to the history profession (i.e. its posture of futility in relation to having any professional certainty in history, its posture that history simply reproduces power relations w/out challenging them). So, I agree that this has a late 80s/early 90s grad school feel to it. But what theoretical structure should we offer the editors in the stead of postmodern language theory? As a starter I’ll offer that they should probably go pragmatic/practical (i.e. be evidential, and use multiple perspectives) instead of resorting to language theory. – TL

  7. Varad–
    There wouldn’t be a need for a journal like History of the Present if the historical profession had ever taken seriously the critique raised by theory in the 80s and 90s. Almost immediately those who proclaimed that we should take a “linguistic turn” took immediate steps to insure that such a turn would not threaten the empirical common-sense of the discipline. So what appears to be warmed-over post-strucuturalism of a mid-80s Comp Lit variety is in fact a critical practice that historians gave lip service to but never tried. Instead we got Lynn Hunt, Joyce Appleby, and Margaret Jacob insisting that we need to “tell the truth” about history by embracing its empiricist foundations while being “sensitive” to language. For the past decade we have heard that we need to get “beyond” the linguistic and cultural turns–which, as far as I can tell, means we need to pretend that they never happened and reaffirm our old epistemic practices with all their unquestioned assumptions. For mainstream historians–including, say, Gabrielle Spiegel in last year’s AHA presidential address–all of that dalliance with theory is exhausted and can be explained by crude socio-psychological needs. History of the Present appears to me to be asking historians for a mode of inquiry that takes seriously the challenges of post-structuralism. If you think historians have already “been there, done that,” please point to the substantial works of history that were celebrated by historians in their day and that do what History of the Present proposes.

  8. Tim: Going “pragmatic/practical” as you put it would certainly be an improvement over trying to squeeze a few more drops of blood from the turnip of postmodernism. The linguistic turn is a cul de sac now, if it wasn’t always. The vein is depleted; it’s time to abandon it.

    That said, I want to make it clear that my objection is only to the form of theory on offer here, the so-called linguistic turn, which I regard as exhausted. But some theory is required. I fully sympathize with Michel de Certeau’s dictum that all historiography presupposes a philosophy of history. The question is, what philosophy? A practical, empirical, multi-valenced approach such as the one you propose would certainly be an improvement. I think it’s one any historian would be able to use fruitfully. Really, it’s one every historian probably should be using!

    As for what I would propose on the theoretical side, I’d go more towards the philosophy side in the philosophy of history. That’s where my own interests are leading me these days, not only because it’s something I don’t know nearly enough about. I’m no naive realist, I fully accept that there is a difference between the past and history. To my mind that premise leads to all sorts of interesting questions that historians (and philosophers) might ask: What is the ontological status of the past, the present, and the future? Why do people think about the past? How do they think about the past? What are the reasons they think about the past in the ways they do? Borrowing an idea from the philosophy of language, is history merely an artefact of indexicality, i.e., a result of some one’s being “I here now”?

    Something else I think historians pay too little attention to is time. History exists because time exists. So how are they related? Is history merely a way of representing time? Does believing in the intelligiblity of the past entail a certain conception of time? If the past no longer exists, does it make sense to talk about events as having occurred a thousand years apart when, to paraphrase Augustine badly, they both are equally non-existent today? To put it differently, which makes more sense for a historian to adhere to, presentism or eternalism?

    When I first saw the link on Andrew’s FB page I thought the journal was some sort of revived Collingwood-en enterprise, given that Collingwood forcefully expounded the view that the past no longer exists and therefore all history, because the past is ideal, takes place in the present. How wrong I was! Personally, I have always been sympathetic to this view, but I know it isn’t without drawbacks. More to read up on!

    That’s not much in the way of theoretical structure, but I do think these sorts of questions would yield more bountiful and interesting results than the stale grad school stuff. I actually believe that postmodernism has some interesting things to say about the discursive (to use a word I hate) aspects of history, in terms of narrativity and the like. But on basic matters such as what the past is and what history is, and why the historical is one of the “transcendent” modes of the human mind, as Collingwood called it, there I find postmodernism and contemporary literary theory quite unsatisfactory.

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