U.S. Intellectual History Blog

From Traditions to Histories: Back from the Brink

[Editor’s Note: Today’s post is authored by William Fine, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown – emeritus. It responds to a forum in the January 2011 issue of Historically Speaking titled “From Histories to Traditions: A New Paradigm of Pluralism in the Study of the Past.” The lead-off piece is authored by Christopher Shannon, with three responses from Daniel Wickberg, Mark Weiner, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, as well as a final reply from Shannon. This particular forum is part of an ongoing HS series dedicated to “questioning the assumptions of academic history.” The topic was first mentioned at USIH about three weeks ago. Enjoy!]


In “From Histories to Traditions,” Christopher Shannon raises important issues about the discipline of history and where it’s going. But it’s difficult to see exactly what he’s proposing, which generates some uncertainty and perhaps uneasiness in his interlocutors. He calls for a pluralism broader and deeper than “liberal” history, but “tradition-based history” evokes fears of orthodoxy. Does his pluralist paradigm imply a postmodern relativism, or might it presage some new catechism?

To complicate matters, while calling for a shift “from histories to traditions,” Shannon draws upon Alasdair MacIntyre to characterize liberal history as already a “tradition,” though denying itself as such. Like the “liberal modernity” to which it’s inextricably bound, it’s unwilling “to confront its true nature.” While it sees itself using abstracted, value-neutral analytic practices and procedures to generate impersonal, value-free knowledge, the reality for Shannon is that history rests on mostly unexamined philosophical assumptions and moral values. Indeed, it’s a holistic culture or moral community that both requires and produces particular kinds of persons deeply committed to it.

Shannon distinguishes his new pluralist paradigm from liberal history, though he admits difficulty in describing it, and indeed it’s a somewhat murky concept. Because liberal history is now seen as a tradition, rather than a set of detachable, neutral analytical practices, it engages with other traditions on a deep epistemological, moral and existential level. As he puts it, a plurality of traditions “highlight[s] the substantive and incommensurable pretheoretical frameworks” used in historical study, which “put[s] historical debate on the proper footing,” which is to say, the “study of history across traditions… becomes something like interfaith dialogue.”

History seems to lead a double life: the liberal history “tradition” specifically, and history as a pluralistic space, a site at which diverse traditions, including liberal history, challenge one another. The latter implies not only rules of engagement, but a language that can mediate incommensurables, building on commonalities while respecting differences, fostering challenge without divisive conflict, moderating the interplay of traditions, etc. But this sounds like the old pretense of liberal rules abstracted from any cultural base. Or, if they do constitute a sort of super-tradition, at what point does it come up for critical examination? The question is, what becomes of history when it’s conceived as a faith, or as a site modeled on religious dialogue? Is this a post-secular post, a great leap backward, or some weird hybrid?

If reason cannot be divorced from faith, as Shannon contends, one has to ask, whose faith? Yet some sort of answer seems to be assumed, since the “new model of professional pluralism would distinguish itself from its liberal predecessor by an explicit commitment to the pursuit of Truth — that is, a truth beyond that which is empirically verifiable.” Pluralism may have its limits, even though Shannon assures us no “grid of catechism” is to be imposed. At one point, though, responding to the concern his paradigm might imply a Babel of views, he reassures us that a “truly traditional Muslim perspective” could be excluded. Maybe “Truth” just can’t be a plural.

The range of possible outcomes seems clear: utter incommunicability, conflict and fragmentation, a restricted pluralism, Truth wedded to faith, or the continuation of something much like “liberal history,” perhaps with ghettoized subfields. In any case, ours is a time when many see conventional history as shallow or thin, formalistic, detached from real life and public issues, fragmented, inauthentic. One is reminded of Christopher Lasch’s depiction of the late Victorian restlessness of the new intellectuals; or, indeed, the concluding paragraph of Max Weber’s essay “Science as a Vocation,” still the best articulation of issues of objectivity and neutrality. In this sort of milieu, tradition has great appeal — as do similarly capacious and integrating concepts such as revolution and epochal breaks and turns. This is due in part to its totalizing or holistic character, its insistence on the inseparability, on the non-abstractable character of things — the shallow and the deep, means and ends, technique and culture, everyday life and ultimate meaning, minutiae and fundamentals, practices and their original forms, facts and interpretive frameworks, how we’re living and who we are. It provides at once the reassurance of a meaningful whole, an invitation to explore non-obvious, deep and distant connections, and an urgent raison d’etre for critical thinking.

In this holistic approach to the discipline, all facets and levels are seen tightly bound, sometimes in ways that appear quite deterministic. Neither Talcott Parsons nor Louis Althusser could do much better. The behavior of professional historians is sociologically bound to their socialization as particular kinds of persons, and an identitarian mechanism ensures that “who they are” explains their approach to history. [In Walter Benn Michaels’ terms, this is identity politics with a vengeance, as issues of truth become matters of “who we are,” history becomes tradition, and science turns into faith.] Analytical and research practices are meaningfully, even logically, bound to underlying values and epistemological preconceptions; and a sort of historiographic determinism explains that liberal historians invariably celebrate the progress of choice, freedom and agency. Finally, a political determination guarantees that liberal history mirrors and helps reproduce liberal modernity.

Shannon’s totalizing view of the discipline gives his piece a something-for-everyone character. To Daniel Wickberg, it supports the view that history, for reasons more “practical and ideological…than intellectual,” diversified its topics instead of facing up to the philosophical challenge of the linguistic turn, clinging to “the modernist certitude of fact.” Like Shannon, he criticizes Gabrielle Spiegel’s effort to historicize postmodernism as [in fact?] politically motivated epistemic avoidance. For Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Shannon raises important questions about the “underlying assumptions and dominating practices” of history, including its empty careerist model of identity and “interpretive exhaustion.” Thus liberal history gears directly into the “meaningless” freedom-without-purpose of modern therapeutic society, which can prompt an escape from freedom into some new bondage. But she seems less concerned finally that “Catholic history” would threaten the discipline as a whole than that it would be absorbed into a “totalizing pluralism” in which fundamental debates have been replaced by each historian’s freedom to choose whatever perspective “works for her” and doesn’t “interfere with her lifestyle,” to use the clichés.

Mark Weiner believes Shannon’s arguments can provide a “quickening agent” for liberal ends, challenging historians to articulate their core values, find out who they are, and incorporate the interpretive and stylistic approaches of a wider diversity of traditions, including non-western. Here is an improved liberalism that recalls and updates Raymond Williams’ sense of culture as a critique of bourgeois society. At the same time¸ even as they criticize liberal history, none of the articles question the market model of history as a profession, rendering it a microcosm of liberal modernity. This may both assume and give away too much, foreclosing possibilities for critical thinking.

Of the possible outcomes, continuation of something approximating “liberal history” appears most likely, short of utter societal collapse. Over the last hundred years, history has faced challenges that strike at the foundations, which it has dealt with or sidestepped in one way or another, wobbling but coming back to some version of the “myth of objectivity,” to the artificiality of specialized attention. For better or worse, there are powerful mechanisms that tend to maintain the secularized professionalism of modern disciplines, including a periodic re-negotiation of boundaries and an only occasional focus on moral, political, epistemological issues with which they’re not well equipped to deal. Which isn’t to argue they shouldn’t make an effort. These mechanisms of course include the translation of epistemological challenges into historical topics, which both Shannon and Wickberg criticize. Along with this, as Novick describes, specialized journals like History and Theory can proliferate in all directions, allowing, in this case, epistemological issues “too hot to handle” to be “formally ghettoized as an esoteric concern.” Who now reads History and Theory?

These are part of the persistent and dominant tendency, which is to generate until-further-notice agreements to deal primarily with questions that can be answered to some level of felt adequacy, using recognized disciplinary procedures of rational analysis and conventions for deciding what constitutes evidence. For all its limitations, there is something to be said for this, just as there is for scientists giving most of their time and attention as scientists to the study of natural processes, rather than pondering the ultimate meaning of creation — unless like the old natural philosophers they can manage both at once. There are good reasons to talk about science as a tradition, perhaps analogous in some respects to faith. But that’s a long way from re-framing it as an interfaith dialogue, between, say, evolution and intelligent design — and the distance is not reduced by our yearning for “meaning.”

Paradoxically, to argue that history become authentic by conducting itself as a tradition may turn it into something radically different from what it’s been, which is perhaps the point. It both promises and asks too much, taking accountability and the hope of authenticity to the point of absurdity. We shouldn’t overly burden ourselves, as if everything in the world depended on what we think and say. [But of course all of this begs the question.] There’s a slippery slide of perception, as the discipline moves from a fiction of autonomy, to a synecdoche of the whole, to being seen as foundational, as if the global really could be remade locally. I can’t but recall my sad experience in “radical” American Studies in the late 60s and early 70s: first it was a site from which to launch an American revolution, then imperceptibly [to us] became a project to revolutionize the field of American Studies, and, finally, pretty routine academic politics. Passion, commitment and a fierce urgency were undiminished throughout. This is the sort of thing helps account for the otherwise bizarre turn famously described by Todd Gitlin, in which efforts to transform society turned into struggles to control the English Department.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I appreciate Prof. Fine’s reading of Shannon and the forum respondents.

    I would reiterate what I said on Tim’s thread about this earlier — Shannon’s understanding of how doing history as “tradition” would assure the orthodoxy of those who speak from/for it is troubling to me. His vision works for those of us who write/think/do history from the center of a tradition, but those of us who find ourselves ambivalently skirting the edges of several traditions while casting our lot in with none may not have a place at the conference table — unless we’re considered part of the “liberal history” tradition, which would be fine with me.

    The question Shannon’s proposal raises, but doesn’t really answer, is this: can “liberal history” and “tradition-based history” get along. Where is the epistemological shared language which would allow them to speak meaningfully to one another?

  2. Dear Bill,

    Thanks for reflecting on the Shannon forum here.

    Let me begin by saying, or confessing, that as a Catholic convert (since 1995-96), I really wanted to be on board with Shannon’s thinking. I’m intrigued by the idea of a Catholic sensibility in historical writing, particularly one based on Alisdair MacIntyre’s “concept of tradition.” I like the idea of presenting alternative histories that touches more deeply on Catholic concerns. However, I’m not familiar enough with the work of William T. Cavanaugh or Eamon Duffy to endorse their presentation and style. In that sense, I suppose I’m with Daniel Wickberg when he says, “Let us give it a try, and judge it by its fruits.”

    Then again, are Cavanaugh and Duffy the only exemplars worth noting? What of the long tradition of Catholic historical work by authors such as John Tracy Ellis (1905-92)? Do they not capture something of the spirit behind what Shannon is proposing? I wondered, in fact, why Shannon’s essay did not engage authors affiliated with organizations like the American Catholic Historical Association, or American Catholic Historical Society. Have none of them presented works that approximate “reason rooted in [Catholic] tradition”? Surely some of them balance an “analytic outsider” voice with a “normative insider” perspective? Is there something wrong with Catholic historiography that needs correcting? To be more particular, I wonder if Shannon has read Ellis’s autobiographical reflections, *Faith and Learning: A Church Historian’s Story* (1989)? Ellis seems like a great place to start for more perspective on what it might mean to pursue writing either (a) a new Catholic history that is faithful to its tradition and seeks interfaith dialogue, or (b) old-school providential histories that included dogma. Ellis navigated these rocky shores from the 1930s to the 1980s.

    Continuing, however, with Wickberg’s line of thought about a future with more MacIntyre-inspired histories, what will these new histories do? Will they talk about Catholic dogma freely? Will they seek to articulate particular histories related to Catholic questions? As Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn noted, will dissent be tolerated in this new school of Catholic writing? In light of the 2008 elections, I have my doubts (e.g. Notre Dame speaker controversy, and the shabby treatment of Obama-supporting Catholic intellectuals Doug Kmiec and Nick Cafardi). Will common ground in human rights be sought or explored? Who will police the boundaries of this new tradition? Will bishops be giving Imprimaturs to sanction official histories written in the MacIntyre-inspired Catholic tradition?

    (continued below)

  3. (continued from above)

    As for the other parts of Shannon’s essay, I ultimately felt that he used the terms “liberal modernism” and “liberalism” too expansively. This sentence from his response reveals some equivocation: “Let us also not forget the horrors promoted in the name of liberalism—slavery, imperialism, the extermination of Native Americans, and the Industrial Revolution” (p. 20). That is a horrifying list to be reduced to one cause. Is it not true that mid-19th century liberal capitalism is qualitatively different than the liberalism—the quest for individual autonomy and personal satisfaction—that emerged in the late 20th century West? What of the communitarian strain within liberalism, represented by philosophers and thinkers such as Bernard Bosanquet, Amy Gutmann, and Michael Sandel? And, closer to home for Shannon (and myself), what of Christian socialism? In sum, not all progressives—historians and otherwise—are blindly ignorant of the needs of balancing community, even community with deep roots, with a respect for individual liberties.

    Also, is not the “primacy of technique” that characterizes the historical profession today something like an empty vessel that can be filled with those inspired by different values and who write history for different ends? It may happen that “liberal historians” use this technique to promote cultural fragmentation. Then again, none of my graduate mentors (some being liberal historians) told me—explicitly or implicitly—that all my stories must—in presentist fashion—necessarily read individual autonomy “into all of human history.” I just never got that feel.

    Not all histories that use empiricist means necessarily have to celebrate autonomy run amok; moral ends need not relinquish empirical methods. It seems, then, overly reductionist to declare that the means are limiting the ends. What Shannon should have said, and what Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn points out (p. 19), is that historical means, like the means of any other profession, can be guided by the larger culture in which they are embedded. But lamenting our larger culture is much different than indicting current practices in research and writing (i.e. empiricism). Finally, what of standards? Shannon himself acknowledges that “the analytic techniques developed over the past 200 years of professional history writing stand as a positive advance in human knowledge.” So let’s not throw out the baby (techniques) with the bath water (larger cultural moral trends).

    With these points in mind, I agree with all three respondents (Wickberg, Weiner, Lasch-Quinn) in seeing Shannon’s call for more diversity as something that could be achieved by a properly functioning liberalism within the profession.

    In the end Shannon’s article—more than half of it—was disappointing to me. I wanted to be sympathetic to a call for something different in relation to Catholic historical theorizing. And I wanted to hear more about this potential for a MacIntyre-inspired style historiography. But I also wanted less grousing about liberalism and modernity. Indeed, on the latter I felt like Shannon beat down something of a straw man.

    – Tim

  4. Tim – Thanks for taking the time to offer thoughtful comments. I share your sense that Shannon could have been more specific in outlining how MacIntyre’s concept of tradition, and the Catholic tradition in particular, might be brought to bear in history. We seem to agree it’s unclear whether the latter is one of the contending traditions, or the paradigm for a new history framed as interfaith dialogue. As you indicate, Shannon says he would preserve the analytic techniques developed in professional history; yet he also insists they cannot be separated from philosophical and moral commitments on which they depend, rooted finally in “who we are.” Based on what Shannon provides, it’s difficult to see how history can be at once a tradition or faith and an arena in which the play of traditions takes place.
    What struck me about the entire exchange was that Shannon’s interlocutors seem to grant his claim that the various dimensions of history are all of a piece. I speculated that people find this sort of view appealing because, while they may reject the specific tradition he finds compelling, it resonates with the contemporary search for some foundation of authenticity and meaning. No problem with this per se. My worry though is that people may get more than they bargained for in asking from history more than it can deliver.

  5. Very interesting and helpful discussion. I got the impression that Shannon’s interlocutors were going out of their way to be hospitable to his views — in other words, for the sake of a fruitful conversation perhaps not taking issue with some of the axiomatic assumptions underlying his argument. But I didn’t take that as an indication that they share his view of history.

    Perhaps I’m drawing connections between two ideas which really aren’t connected, but I wonder if what Shannon is trying to get at is the notion that professional history functions as a “moral-tribal” community, along the lines of the talk Jonathan Haidt recently gave. There’s a piece in the Chronicle from this week by Peter Wood which gives a pretty good re-cap of Haidt’s presentation, media/academic response, etc. It seems to me that Peter Wood is somehow on the same page as Shannon in terms of what he’s arguing for, but maybe that’s too simplistic of a read.

    Anyway, here’s a link to the Chronicle piece:

    De-Tribalizing Academe

  6. LD – Thanks for your comments, and the links to Jonathan Haidt and the others. Based on a quick look at Haidt, and the Peter Wood and John Tierney articles, I think there’s something to your point that Shannon sees history as a sort of “moral-tribal” order, though he probably wouldn’t put it in such terms. Interestingly, while Haidt naturalizes our tribal inclinations and Shannon would spiritualize them, both draw on Durkheim.
    In his article, Peter Wood rejects the over-simplified Durkheimian analogies, taking the high road of “intellectual disinterestedness.” “Surely” he says, “we can cooperate in academic disciplines based on reasoned inquiry and scrupulous examination of evidence without making ourselves into a ‘tribal-moral community.’” At the same time, he is associated with the National Association of Scholars, a neo-conservative [?] organization that has been fighting against “political correctness” in academia since the ’80s. See his recent talk on Inside Academia TV – 2.14.11. Also, check out Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner, “Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Doctorates,” and other gems, in Robert Maranto, Richard E. Redding and Frederick M. Hess, eds, The Politically Correct University. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2009.

  7. Prof. Fine,

    Thanks for giving me some context on Peter Wood’s writing/work. I am still learning the batting order of the various teams at play in higher education. His viewpoint as presented in the Chronicle seemed fairly moderate in thought and tone, but maybe (probably) I am not picking up on the larger implications of what he is arguing, or how his argument connects with other agendas. It makes me wonder, though, how much more “reasonable” some arguments would seem to us if we didn’t know who wrote them.

    The reading suggestions are much appreciated, and I will check them out. Thanks. 🙂

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