There’s an epistemological and historiographical problem that I am trying to make sense of in relation to the Pragmatists — and perhaps in relation to our relation to the Pragmatists — and I am having trouble formulating my thoughts on the matter. So I have decided to take my question, such as it is, to the blogosophere, and see if our good readers here can offer some clarity — or, maybe, some complexity. Or both.
This weekend I am reading Twentieth-Century Multiplicity by Daniel Borus and No Place of Grace by T.J. Jackson Lears. Both are on my reading list, but only Borus is assigned for a class — the last organized class, by the way, that I will take in my entire academic career. Ever. To plunder the Kuhnian castle: I am headed for a major paradigm shift. First, though, I have to get through this semester.
What I’m wondering about is how to historically situate or understand a particular kind of interpretive move that historians make, though it is certainly not unique to historians. What I have in mind is our fondness for typological or characterological binarisms — the binarisms we can employ as shorthand to distinguish between two seemingly different ways that people extract or construct meaning from events.
I’m thinking, for example, of how one can look at American thinkers at the end of the 19th century and divide them heuristically into “optimists” (John Dewey, William James on most days) and “pessimists” (Henry Adams). This particular binary seems especially suited — or, I guess, favored — when discussing this period. Fragmentation, fracture, multiplicity, contingency, instability — however we might characterize the cosmology of that era, we seem to find it useful to situate the thinkers of the time in terms of whether or not that they saw in their own time reason for hope or cause for despair.
In fact, I would suggest that historians of this period themselves might be seen as tending to be either “pessimistic” or “optimistic.” In a footnote to his introduction, Borus writes, “Two diametrically different but superlative efforts to link culture to political economy are T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace…and James Livingston, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution” (15). Borus does not say what makes these inquiries “diametrically different,” but I would surmise that much of their difference has to do with each historian’s sympathy for a particular strain of thought emerging from the period. I mean “sympathy” in a kind of Collingwoodian sense: their effort to understand the thoughts of their subjects by re-thinking them and re-constituting them through their historical inquiry. Lears is recovering and legitimizing an elegiac lament for a lost past; Livingston is recovering and legitimizing an exuberant celebration of an open future. And so in a way these monographs may come to re-instantiate the very sensibilities they explore.
Perhaps one might expect the historiography of this period to embrace binarism as a mode of inquiry or even divide along binaristic lines because the period itself was so marked. Think, for example, of James’s distinction between the “tough-minded” and the “tender-minded,” where epistemology becomes a matter of two basic kinds of temperament. What’s interesting about James’s bifurcation of “minds,” and other similar distinctions, is the way that a binary can be used to point toward plurality.
A similar binaristic taxonomy of “mind” that paves the way for pluralism is Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes. Of course Berlin is writing after James, and in some senses perhaps in response to him — I’ll let the historians of philosophy weigh in here. In any case, Berlin uses a binary to accentuate the value of plurality. Indeed, Borus invokes Berlin’s binaristic metaphor in the introduction to Twentieth-Century Multiplicity as a helpful way of distinguishing between two kinds of thinkers or two kinds of thought: “The early twentieth century,” Borus writes, “was the moment of the foxes, even if there were quite a few hedgehogs. It is salutary to recall that Berlin saw the value of and need for both” (11).
Borus situates the Berlinian fauna within the period he is studying — but also, by implication, within his study of the period. What he says about the thinkers of the time is easily applicable to historians’ thinking about it: “Where foxes remind us of the dangers of overgeneralization, hedgehogs remind us how helpful and at times necessary significant and meaningful generalizations are” (11). That’s not just intellectual history; that’s historical method.
So here’s the best I can do in framing my question: to what extent is the epistemology of historical inquiry, especially inquiry about this particular period of epistemic turmoil, indebted to and taking place within the framework of the period itself?
If we look at American intellectual and cultural history in this time frame and see optimists and pessimists, tough-minded and tender-minded, modernists and anti-modernists, foxes and hedgehogs, are we seeing the object of our inquiry — the thinking of the time — or are we seeing everything through it?