U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Change and Continuity

If you have not yet read Kevin Mattson’s thoughtful response to my criticisms of his work, please do so right away. It is a wonderful thing when a scholar that I respect engages me in such serious fashion. In return, I plan to post a response soon. I also plan to respond to several of the excellent comments on my original post and on Mattson’s reply. I am particularly interested in discussing Bill Fine’s criticisms regarding my take on style and substance, a topic picked up later by LD.  Alas, all of this will have to wait. I am in the midst of rushing to finish up a chapter of my manuscript in the hopes of meeting a self-imposed deadline.

In the meantime, I will pose a question that might generate commentary. My wise mentor Leo Ribuffo read Mattson’s essay and wrote to me about the disagreement that Mattson and I seem to have about change and continuity. Leo and I often disagree about change and continuity with regards to recent US history. He thinks I overstate the case for change. He also wrote the following, which makes for a great discussion point: “Judging change and continuity is the hardest thing historians do and probably the main justification of our existence. As you and I have battled several times, the American (perhaps human) and certainly journalistic emphasis is on newness and if we are to make semi-sense of anything we need a hearing for the counter-position.”

Agree? Disagree? 

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think Leo’s on to something. A lot of early modern history can be described as a debate about when it went from “early” to “modern.” That’s the change part, which is also the establishment position: there was a change to “modernity,” whatever that is and whenever it happened. That’s why a book like J. C. D. Clark’s English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime could cause such shockwaves when it was published in 1985, since it argued that the old regime persisted in England well into the nineteenth century, long past the date even those scholars who thought it hung around the longest were willing to attest for its survival. No doubt the fact that the book (apparently – I’ve only seen the “tamer” second edition) reads like the historical manifesto for Thatcherite Toryism made it doubly controversial.

    I’d presume that Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (1981) also can be taken as a minority report and dissent from the orthodoxy of modernizing. And that’s your counter-position, as Leo styles it.

    At the same time, one could argue that the nature of history as a discipline mandates an emphasis on change. After all, one argument you’re making, either explicitly or implicitly, is how what you’re talking about either is different from or changed what went before, and also how it is different from what came after, to which it led.

    Or maybe we should just return to Parmenides. That would certainly put an end to the change-continuity problem, since that would make it moot.

  2. Since we are mandated (to use Varad’s term) to study change over time, it would seem that we are obligated to study *both* continuity and change. You can only know what’s new if you have a thorough understanding of the difference/s. I would argue that the real debate seems to always be about the baseline for assessing continuities and difference. How do we pick our starting and ending dates for assessing change over time? I would say those choices are dictated by present concerns–i.e. the big issue that interests you, the historian, to make the exploration. What drives us? We often are not always conscious of what dictates our interest (e.g. connection to present question/topics, interest in a change relative to the participants of a time (their perceptions)). – TL

  3. Thanks for the promo, but I didn’t write my post on Buckley and the Port Huron Statement with your work specifically in mind — though I suppose to the extent that Kevin Schultz finds affinities between seemingly opposing thinkers surprising one could say that he shares your, er, sensibility, and so I was responding to that style of thinking about the past that you and he might share to some extent.

    I was most immediately responding to my own need to make sense of my readings. The sweep of history may favor change over continuity, or continuity over change — but this historian is all about finding (making?) coherence out of this rather daunting reading list.

    But if Hayden White is to be believed, finding/making coherence is, after all, what historians do in general. So whether we foreground continuity or foreground change, the final task may be the same. And on the practical requirements of how we go about that task, I’m with Tim — in order to adequately situate and interpret change, one has to be able to recognize all that didn’t change.

    More generally, I think the argument for “continuity” is counterintuitive for historians, not just epistemically but also institutionally (though I suppose those mutually inform each other). A sub-field in “the long 19th century,” for example, implies that there is something distinctive about that timespan that justifies its periodization — and so for any period of history. And in U.S. history, we tend do our periodization in rather thin slices. So to some extent we’re professionally invested in an argument for change — which makes it all the more important, for the sake of not begging our own questions, to be attentive to the strands of continuity.

    It seems to me that William James’s judgment of the basic conservatism of persons who have to account for new truths in the framework of old beliefs is something that some historians have fruitfully applied to the study of whole cultures — though to do so is to use the tools of the Pragmatists. Which, I suppose, is okay, as long as they’re the best tools we have. And how do we judge the value of a tool? By very pragmatic criteria, of course.

    • Yeah, sorry to give the mis-impression that your post on anti-Cold War liberal sensibilities was a response to me. That’s me projecting and mentally preparing for my response to Mattson.

  4. TNR review from a few months ago:

    “Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel utterly faithful to its moment, above all perhaps in the way it is morally disoriented by that moment: it is both a portrait of confusion and a document of it.”


    The confusion was new, and the things Bellow was confused by were new too. (Now if I can just make my way past these fun house mirrors, I think that’s the way out of the maze… Ouch, that’s a glass wall…)

  5. The last paragraph of the introduction to my book is an apology to the “historians of difference.” I tried to find continuity in some unexpected places, like between Dewey, Niebuhr, Kirk, and Lasch. This is a habit with me, almost an attitude: I MUST find connections, MUST synthesize, in my teaching and administration as well as scholarship. That said, I also split hairs in Chapter 7 trying to distinguish between a nationalistic anticommunist liberalism and a resilient transnational democratic socialism. Maybe I’m a convenient continuist?

    Thanks, Andrew, for getting us to think about this important question of narrative construction.

  6. I second Mark here — I’m glad Andrew raised the issue. It is an important question for sure, and one that I have been discussing elsewhere recently — which may explain any coherence in my response.

    In fact, one of my profs was talking about this particular dualism of continuity/change just last week; the insight on the relationship between historical periodization and a propensity to look for change was his insight. I don’t think he would insist on a footnote — but I don’t want to give the impression that I came up with that on my own.

    Now, finding this particular common ground between Buckley and Tom Hayden et. al. in terms of how they idealized the university? Good or bad, that was my idea.

  7. Andrew – Having done a little looking around since our original exchange, it seems that the distinction between style and substance is a colloquial expression with no particular, consistent meaning or application in history and adjacent disciplines. Sometimes it seems to be analogous to the form vs. content distinction, as in the New Criticism and Cleanth Brooks’ notion of the “heresy of paraphrase”; at other times “style” connotes a relatively superficial mode or manner of action, presentation, expression, etc.

    It seems at this point that how we think of style is linked to how we think about that with which it’s associated — political ideologies and movements, scientific communities, religions, etc. — and whether they are viewed as aggregates, loose combinations of elements with contingent relations, or as tightly bound, organic wholes. [Leaving aside psychology, such Robert Sternberg’s work on individuals’ cognitive, learning, teaching or intellectual “styles.”]

    Reading Deborah Coen’s recent article on Kuhn [Modern Intellectual History 9, 1, April 2012], I encountered Ludwig Fleck, a progenitor and influence on Kuhn, who published The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact: An Introduction to the Theory of Thought Style and Thought Collective. [1935; tr 1979, with a foreword by Kuhn].

    From Coen I went to Wojciech Sady’s essay on Fleck in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and encountered a seemingly different interpretation of Fleck that’s germane to our discussion of style. For Sady, Fleck’s sense of the thought-styles of scientific communities was very similar to Kuhn’s notion of paradigm, while Coen stresses some important differences.

    Coen accords with others who see Kuhn having a strongly holistic conception, in which all the elements of a paradigm within a scientific community are intimately and interactively related, on the analogy of incommensurable linguistic groups or cultures, living, as Kuhn puts it, in “different worlds.” [Kuhn, 1970, 111] But for Fleck, says Coen, the scientific community is not a thing-like group or closed community; rather, it’s formed out of the interactions of an aggregate of individuals; differences between such groups and their “styles” are matters of degree, not of kind; not deep, organizing all elements, but allowing similarities, gradual change, “knowledge in motion,” partial translatability, and hybrid mixes across boundaries. [For comparison, she refers to Popper’s hatred of Kuhn’s notion of incommensurability, what he called a dogmatic “myth of the framework”] As Coen says, Fleck “did not liken mutual incomprehension between successive thought collectives to a language barrier; instead, his historical account of changes in thought-style instead [sic] emphasized style, both artistic and rhetorical.” [121]

  8. continued…

    Clearly — I hope — I’m making two points. First, that Fleck uses “style” to refer to the largest units in the history of science, which abolishes an easy distinction between style and substance; but, second, he does so in a way that may open the door to a view of style as one element of a looser assemblage, to some degree detachable, mobile across the boundaries of paradigms or ideologies, able to combine and recombine with other elements in variable settings; only conditionally related to a given ideology or theory, like an instrument with multiple uses in different contexts.

    I realize now that I was reacting to your “So what?” from a Kuhn-like position; but in a more Fleckian vein — accepting Coen — your distinction between style and substance has a good deal of merit.

    The heart of the difference seems to be the distinction between Kuhnian holism and Fleck’s methodological individualist view. To carry it over, style may be to a degree separable in the latter view. This all made me think of Age of Fracture, which unfortunately doesn’t treat Kuhn, but traces a transition from larger to smaller units, among other things.

    All of this relates directly to issues of change and continuity, as we’d ask, “Of what?”

    Final question — does the notion of historical “context” sometimes function like a Kuhnian paradigm?

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