U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Fracas

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have been working through the historiography/theory section of my exam reading list.  I am on the home stretch — finished Haskell and Wickberg yesterday, with only Megill and Klein to go.  I hope to turn the last page of Klein by the middle of next week, if not before.

What I am most enjoying about this section of my reading list, especially these texts published since the mid-80s, is the way historians routinely and collegially challenge each other’s assumptions and interpretations.  Novick defines an objectivity that never existed and proceeds to objectively (for the most part) explore its fall from favor. Haskell takes Novick to task for confusing objectivity with neutrality.  Haskell takes White to task for (among other things) eschewing revolutions even as he calls for revolutionary historiography.  Wickberg takes Haskell to task for exploring the causes of the “humanitarian sensibility” without exploring the sensibility. 

This whole section of my list illustrates very well the dynamic that Haskell describes in some his essays on the professionalization of the academy, the emergence of disciplines, and the epistemological ground of academic freedom.  In Haskell’s reading, the Peircean community of the competent is collegially competitive, a “miniature market”:

It is a market in which people compete not for money, but for the affective currency of criticism: fame instead of disgrace; honor in place of shame; compliments, not complaints, about the technical worth of one’s work. What each competitor strives to accumulate in this special “countervailing” market is not capital, but reputation, a stock of favorable impressions of himself and his work in the minds of his peers.  Since people do not necessarily lose self-esteem when they bestow praise on others, the competitors in this market are not playing a strictly zero-sum game, and the spirit of their competition is consequently often relaxed and friendly.  But esteem is not limitless in supply, and the deeply personal character of the productions and performances being criticized can charge the competition in this market with explosive emotional force.*

Collegiality is precisely what intensifies this “deeply personal” competition, while at the same time absorbing and channeling some of that intensity in ways that build camaraderie instead of undermining it. Says Haskell:

The community’s achievement of “logical goodness” depends not only on conflict and competition but also on its members’ adherence to such collegial values as honesty, a degree of tolerance (give one’s own susceptibility to error), dedication to the resolution of conflicts, willingness to be persuaded by evidence, logic, and reason, and so on.**

Those “collegial values” presuppose professional standards, including the standards of membership:  who is and who is not part of the community of inquiry. These values are enforced and reinforced via the collective approval or opprobrium of the disciplinary community. 

Sometimes that defense of professional standards and values can prove problematic.  Both Haskell and Novick examine a few recent (for the 1980s) cases of community policing of professional standards:  the David Abraham case and the Sears workplace discrimination lawsuit.  Novick viewed the Abraham case as an example of professional gatekeeping run amok; for Haskell, the response of feminist historians to the testimony of Rosalind Rosenberg was a case of “intellectually indefensible”*** partisan advocacy.  It is worth noting — and Novick and Haskell both mention the fact — that both were “partisans” in these respective conflicts, which in some ways makes the incidents all the more suitable as examples of where the professional gets personal.

Overall, though, the discourse of the academic community is a fairly friendly fracas. Or so it appears to me now.  But the fracas may seem congenial to me only because I haven’t really gotten scrappy yet.  I have yet put to forward an idea in the academy that I’m willing to fight for — I mean, really fight.  And that’s a good thing, because I’m not ready yet.  My idea isn’t ready yet.  But it will be.  And part of getting myself ready for the intense competition of professional academic discourse involves a careful study of how intellectual historians argue, with perhaps the occasional sparring match on this blog.

All in good fun — until it’s My Awesome Idea on the line.

Nah, it’ll still be fun.

*Thomas Haskell, “Professionalism versus Capitalism,” Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998), 111.



4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. One of the questions I got in the oral portion of my exams was which historian I was going to take on–who did I disagree with? At that point in my career, I didn’t feel like I knew enough to take on anyone (an impulse that my advisor encouraged, as he wanted me to learn from books instead of doing the graduate-student criticism of everything between two covers). Now that I know my primary sources better, I feel more capable of challenging other historians. At the same time, though, I feel like the books I read do less challenging and more adding or contextualizing or complicating. I wonder if it is a certain sub-set of history texts that challenge more, or a certain generation, or a certain kind of text.

  2. Believe me, I’m making my list, and checking it twice. Just not ready yet to jump into the fray — and, as you suggest, that is as it should be. I’ve just begun the intensive effort to master enough of the literature in my fields to be able to know what the hell I’m talking about.

    I should point out that when I say I’m not ready to jump into the fray, I don’t mean that I’m not ready to develop an argument that challenges previous scholarship — I have been doing that in seminar papers for a while. I’m just not ready to submit my work to a peer-reviewed journal. Right now I’m in training camp mode — getting in shape for the tourney.

    And I didn’t mean to imply that the only insight I have gleaned from my reading is an understanding of How Historians Engage in a Fair Fight. This is just one of many benefits I’ve derived from this section of my reading list. However, I will say that getting a sense of how the scholarly conversation — in this case, a conversation about epistemology and methodology — unfolds and moves forward is invaluable, not to mention enjoyable.

  3. What we do is disagree. We are professional contrarians. The moment there are two books in the world about a subject, there is disagreement in the world. If historian B agreed with historian A’s book, he wouldn’t write his own; there would be no need. And if historian B and everyone else agreed, history would have stopped long ago and we would all be out of business. History is revision, requires revision. And revision is disagreement. It can be collegial, maybe even friendly. But often not.

    Besides, we are speaking of academics. Collegiality and amity are qualities that can be of short supply among them. But that often has more to do with the usual jealousies and tribalism of departmental politics than any professional discord.

    Not to mention, some philosophers think strife and discord make the world go round. So let the fracas continue!

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