U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beliefs as Motivating Forces in (Writing) History

Recent conversations on this blog and elsewhere about the historical study of religion, the place of religion (or religiosity) in historical study, whether or in what ways scholarship written by “confessing historians” can be regarded as inescapably (or admirably) confessional, the place (or lack thereof) for confessing historians in the secular academy, what “secular” even  means, the political and moral commitments that may (must?) be implicit in various epistemologies of historical inquiry — all these discussions have in one way or another bumped up against a set of (mostly unspoken) assumptions by which (or against which) professional historians construct our various explanatory schemes.  And since these are the very assumptions from which we write about our assumptions, it is often difficult to trace their contours clearly.  It’s hard to get a bird’s-eye view of the ground upon which you stand.

So I thought it might be useful to share with our readers a dialogue that proved particularly helpful for me in beginning to make sense of what, when I first encountered it as a grad student, made no sense at all:  the seeming reticence of (some) professional historians to take religious motivations seriously as “causal forces” in history.

In the fall of 2010, my first semester in the PhD program, I took Dan Wickberg’s seminar on “Slavery and Freedom in Modern Thought.”  In the first four weeks of class, we read David Brion Davis’s Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, Seymour Drescher’s Abolition, Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, and Christopher Leslie Brown’s Moral Capital.  Reading these texts and discussing them in seminar was both illuminating and frustrating for me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why.  So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to think:  I wrote my way towards my problem.  I am grateful to Dan Wickberg for answering my questions then, and for kindly granting me permission to publish his answer now. The email exchange is printed below.

In September of 2010 I wrote:

I wanted to pursue some of the matters we discussed in class today — pursue them in the sense of try to figure out exactly what it is that’s puzzling to me, or what it is I think.  Let me give it a try…

We began the semester by framing a historical problem:  how do we explain the rise of abolitionism?  And all of our authors have offered explanations which account for contingencies but not causes, and certainly not the necessary cause(s) which made abolitionism if not an inevitable response, then at least a (retrospectively) predictable one.  I don’t think we have yet encountered an explanation which seems to satisfactorily answer the question.

The fact that this problem remains unanswered epitomizes everything that is right for me about the secular, public university.  Whatever our historians’ personal views or convictions may be, the epistemology of the discipline demands that they (and I) make no appeals to any supra-historical phenomenon or agent or disembodied will or spirit or whatever in order to explain and understand what happens in history.  There is no invoking of Providence or the Holy Spirit or some Origenist view of redemption working its way through creation and leading us all towards an *apokatastasis* — that would be the equivalent of “cheating.”  Fideistic appeals in historiography are both profoundly intellectually unsatisfying and professionally unethical.  At least that’s how it seems to me.

But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to look at historical beliefs / ideas / popular pieties related to Providence, the Holy Spirit, the understanding of humans as co-agents of redemption in the world, or to look at the ecclesiology or anthropology [by which I meant something like “theories of human personhood”] of dissenting Pietists, etc., etc., as possible causes of the abolitionist movement.  And I think most of the sources we’ve looked at do that to some extent.  But sometimes it seems that they don’t dig deeply enough in that direction, and I can’t figure out why.

Is there some professional peril associated with a non-fideistic examination of fideism?  I’m certain that can’t be the case — surely there are plenty of “secular historians” who are specialists in the religious history of the Enlightenment and the Revolutionary era.  But, at least in what we’ve read so far, there seems to be a *non plus ultra* in the evidentiary chain.  For instance, locating the origins of abolitionist philosophy as an intellectual movement in Quaker piety, without explaining exactly what it is about Quaker piety that would lead to abolitionism, seems to be begging the question.  And from what movement or moment did Quaker piety arise?  And is that the same source from which Enlightenment thinking proceeds, or does the piety flow out of the Enlightenment, or vice versa?  And is that even important?

I just feel like there’s something missing or not examined or not considered in the discussion, but I don’t know if I feel that way because the explanations we’ve looked at so far are incomplete/unsatisfying on an intellectual level, or if my own fideistic background is rearing its epistemologically problematic and professionally lethal head in our wonderfully non-fideistic discourse community.

Perhaps the complicating factor is that changes / developments in the intellectual history of Christianity were often expressed by religious people through new theories of history.  We are studying a historical moment in which many of the chief actors were people who imbued history itself with religious or sacramental significance.  And all those various theories of history are themselves located within history — including whatever fideistic theories of history I myself may have picked up, examined, appropriated, rejected or modified during my own slog through this vale of tears.  I am certainly not interested in being a “Christian historian,” and I’m really not interested in being a “historian of Christianity” either.  I think I’m partly just trying to find my way through what seems sometimes like an epistemological house of mirrors.

Does that make even a shred of sense?

Here is Dan Wickberg’s reply:

Very interesting reflections.  I’ll see if I can clarify some of this, although I’m not sure I have *the* answer.  Although, as you say, most modern historians (and the professional discipline as a whole) have given up providential appeals, there is still a sense that they prowl around, as Max Weber would say, “like the ghosts of dead religious beliefs” in the profession, and so there is a kind of residual and critical awareness of having to guard against such beliefs.

What I mean is that Hegel and Marx, and on the British side Whig historians, moved away from a specifically Christian form of analysis, but maintained the sense of order and telos in history–the idea that history could be understood as a unified process in which a consistent set of powers moved inexorably toward an end–an end anticipated in the future as the realization of human freedom.  And while most historians have given up such metaphysical conceits as knowable or as helpful for understanding human action in history, they can’t quite give up the idea of order or pattern in the past.  So they remain suspicious and loathe to see such patterns leading in some inexorable way to the present.

Even as many have embraced Marxist or quasi-Marxist materialist explanations, for instance, they insist on contingency rather than necessity as features of history.  So, strict notions of causality are pushed aside, partly because of their deterministic and metaphysical qualities, and historians embrace stories of contingency, circumstance and complexity of motives–but without entirely giving up the notion of causality and of pattern/order in history.  In fact, it’s not clear that history as a discipline could exist without a commitment to the notion that there is an order in the past (e.g. the very categories of “ancient, medieval, modern” contain an understanding of a larger pattern imposed upon the past); otherwise history is, as one wag put it, “one damned thing after another.”

I agree with you that it’s reasonable to look at religious beliefs, values, and ideas as motivating forces in history, and many historians do take that stance–of the ones we have read probably Davis and Hunt most strongly.  The problem is that for most historians, who subscribe to some form of common sense dualism in which there are “ideas” and then there is “reality” (it’s like the value/fact distinction or the words/action distinction which many also subscribe to), it is unsatisfactory to see ideas as primary causes or containing within them an inherent logic that works itself out historically.  So ideas generally have to be seen as “contributing” or “influencing” or “shaping” outcomes and events, but not as somehow necessarily producing them.

Taking this stance, however, often leads historians to see these religious values and beliefs as markers or stand-ins for other somehow more “real” forces–economic and political ones, primarily.  A commitment to “multicausal” explanations based on contingency of factors gives beliefs some place in explanation, but tends to subordinate them to other more “real” forces.  What ends up happening is that rather than spend significant effort showing the way in which specific doctrinal commitments or particular ways of conceptualizing the world produce certain kinds of consequences, the tendency is to have shorthand concepts such as “Quaker piety” or the doctrine of the inner light and to assume that these generalizations are sufficient when put in contact with much more specified economic, social, and political variables.

So, I think your sense of things is right. This is why being an intellectual historian often involves a kind of struggle with much of the mainstream of historical analysis, which seems singularly uninterested in the logic of the ideas manifest in history (and it’s not just religious ideas, but ideas in general)–or sees that as a return to the larger metaphysical claims that still warrant suspicion. That professional history is a secular practice plays a larger part in this as well–historians, as heirs of the Enlightenment, retain the suspicion of “enthusiasm,” and can’t quite believe in the power of religion as motive force, rather than as a stand-in for other motives (such as clerical power, social control, etc.).  There’s a lot of lip service to the autonomy of ideas and their independent power, but in practice, not so much.

I thought this was a really good answer to my question — not least because it did such a good job of clarifying for me what I was even trying to ask.  And, as an added bonus, Wickberg’s answer situated these problems of historical explanation in relation to some of the challenges that might come with thinking of intellectual history as the history of ideas or the history of sensibilities.  At the time, he did not explain to me just how contrarian such a practice might seem even to other historians within the field of intellectual history.  But it wouldn’t have mattered — if I had not found in this approach an interesting and therefore useful way to think about the past, I would have made my views quite clear.

In any case, revisiting this exchange has helped clarify for me what might be at stake in our various blogospheric methodenstreiten here at S-USIH, especially our recent discussions of faith as both an object and a condition of inquiry.  For even those historians who are proudly averse to theory (or Theory) or who find “ideas” or “sensibilities” as somehow less “real” than other objects of historical inquiry — even they have their theories, their ideas, their sensibilities.  We all do. Whether we acknowledge them or not, we instantiate those tendencies of temperament and epistemic assumptions on every page we write.  So part of the work of intellectual history, it seems to me, is to exhume and examine (as best we can) those underlying sensibilities that do so much to shape our own and others’ accounts of the past.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks, LD, for sharing this correspondence, and thanks Dan, for allowing her to share it. It’s a model of graduate learning, or really, academic inquiry. I’ve been having such discussions with my graduate advisor for a decade, and have been saving all the emails for some future occasion–perhaps a “roast” when he retires. I never thought to publish some of them at the blog, but perhaps I should.

    So this gem of a sentence from Dan’s reply seems like as good of a definition of intellectual history as any other–at least, this is how I practice it: intellectual historians “spend significant effort showing the way in which specific doctrinal commitments or particular ways of conceptualizing the world produce certain kinds of consequences.”

  2. When I dabbled in medieval history way back when I did some reading about heresy, since that seemed like an interesting thing to write about. What struck me was the apparent inability – if it wasn’t a steadfast refusal – to treat heresy as a religious phenomenon. A social, political, economic phenomenon, what have you – yes. But that heresy had anything to do with beliefs about the nature of God, the divinity of Jesus, whatever – that’s unpossible. Of course there were scholars who treated heresy has having to do with religion, but not nearly as many started there as I figured would or should. I mean, it wasn’t their economic beliefs that got heretics burned at the stake. But maybe that’s just the Albigensian in me talking.

    • Heresy was a threat to social order. It’s targets were the proselytizers–if you kept your heresies to yourself, there was little problem. if they pressed you into revealing them, it was because they wanted to get you for other reasons.

      Heresy was a civil offense, and in fact the Spanish Inquisition was started by King Ferdinand, not the Church. [He wanted to steal the lands and riches of the conversos, the Jewish converts.]

      Often forgotten in these secular/confessing days is that for most of Western history religion was quite a public affair—Christians were persecuted for their threat to the social order, not for their Christ but for rejecting the other gods of the city.

      Fortunately, Protestantism proliferated sects by the sackful [now over 30,000] so quickly, it became impossible to execute everybody. As Voltaire said of 1720s London, “If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other’s throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.”

  3. I just wrote a historiographic analysis of the evangelical proslavery movement in the antebellum South, and found much recent scholarship attributing religious doctrine to the cause of the Civil War. John Patrick Daly’s book “When Slavery was Called Freedom” is an intellectual history of proslavery and abolitionism within evangelical churches, and Mark Noll wrote a religious history called “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.” Noll even goes so far as to assert the conflict between Enlightenment rationality and Biblical literalism provided civic energy for nation-building but contained the seeds of cataclysm.

    Stepping away from historical rigor, I would go so far as to say that the same religious tension that existed in the early 19th century is alive and well today, and that people discount it at their peril. It is easy to overlook, but a “family dinner with your aunt and uncle” will highlight just how far from Enlightenment rationality much of the United States lives.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Thanks Andrew. I’d like to think this kind of exchange is typical of graduate learning / academic inquiry. It sounds like that was the case for you, and I hope that’s the case in general. But it’s probably also a window into another under-discussed aspect of higher education — the workload profs have in just getting through their emails. If every grad student sent a question like this one every week, how could a prof do anything but be answering emails? I mean, I’m just a history TA and I answered six undergrad emails *this morning* (paper due date approaching). There’s so much work that goes into teaching and graduate training that profs don’t really get any credit for. They don’t do it for the credit; they do it for the cause. But a recognition of how much time it *really* takes to advise a grad student would probably be nice. However, that calculus would be deployed immediately in an argument for the efficiency of MOOCs at the graduate level. SMH.

    Varad, I think Wickberg’s answer here probably explains most of that weird silence about beliefs as meaningful factors in shaping the past. Along with that may go the sense that theological / doctrinal / confessional differences are just so much hairsplitting, or inside baseball. Of course that second source of reticence is only likely if you accept the first conclusion — “ideas” are indicators of some more basic and more important material / social reality. And I do think Wickberg is correct — it’s hard for (presumably) non-confessional people to grasp the notion that people’s religious beliefs sometimes really can have the most influence on their actions. This is where that Collingwoodian intellectual sympathy is so necessary, and so often missing.

    Michael, thanks for this comment. I recall a mention of the Noll book over on John Fea’s blog, but I haven’t read it. However, on America’s distance from Enlightenment, I am now reading Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. His chapter on “Enlightenment and Enthusiasm” is really interesting for the (counterintuitive? contrarian?) argument it makes that in some ways Methodism was very much an “enlightenment” enterprise. That many (even most?) Americans are a far cry from Voltairean skepticism is no doubt the case. But I think there is an experiential empiricism and a different conception of authority in some strains of “enthusiasm” that is as much a legacy of the enlightenment as professional historical inquiry.

  5. LD,

    I agree with you about Dan Wickberg’s answer goes a long way towards explaining “that weird silence about beliefs as meaningful factors in shaping the past.” That’s one of the reasons I brought up my experience with heresy; the other being that that’s the only place where I’ve had any experience that’s comparable. I will add that I’m by no means a confessing historian in the sense of having a confession or studying them. But even I can get that when you have all these people making statements about the nature of God, Christ, and so on, that there may be something to what they say. Sometimes, people really do say what they mean and mean what they say. But that’s no doubt a reactionary, not to mention naive, belief. My own personal heresy!

  6. Such a great exchange, LD. Not surprising, I nodded as I read both emails and thought, well, you answered the question I raised in my post. This is a place to explore difficult questions about causality and our limits of knowing what moves history. Cara pointed out under my post that I seemed to be assuming a singular understanding of Christianity and Mark Edwards pointed to the problem of seeing theology as core motivation for acting in history. I don’t want to try to walk back from what I wrote, but I find Dan’s explanation above regarding quite helpful. My problem is trying to discuss how Neuhaus’s “specific doctrinal commitments…produce[d] certain kinds of consequences” for the movements he was a part of. Doesn’t that mean dwelling in his theology? And while I understand it is not up to me to determine whether Neuhaus did this particular well in terms of some idealized Christian church, dealing with theology seems to me to differ in significant ways from say assessing the way a diplomat such as George Kennan applied 19th century political theory to the cold war or Susan Sontag challenge modernist notions about art. Perhaps it is just the difference between considerations that appear to be material rather metaphysical but I wonder if you might comment a bit further about the role of sympathy in addressing religious motivations in history. Is the collision between theory and theology a reality or a just an excuse not to get beyond endless historicizing?

    • Just for the record, I’m on Ray’s side in believing that ideas have casual power. As I just mentioned in response to Ray’s post, the real question being posed this week is, “what is theology?”

    • Ray, would you mind expanding a bit on why theology “differs in significant ways” from the other examples you mentioned? I’m interested to learn how you distinguish it.

      • I think the rub for me is that while theology no doubt functions as a set of ideas–like any other set–it is feels trickier that the usual socially constructed set of assumptions and notions. For example, even if we agree that those who espoused a Victorian notion of art as transcendent and educative, isn’t that notion different than dealing with the faith believers invest in a metaphysical being? While actors can be motivated by both their Victorianism and their faith, and we can certainly study both historically as social constructions with political implications, I am left feeling cautious about how I characterize the relationship a historical actor has to a metaphysical, transcendent point of reference. To put it bluntly, when I present in front of audiences that share the same faith as someone such as Neuhaus I feel self-conscious and a bit of an interloper when I discuss how his theology worked in his life. While such faith is obviously public, it also is private and somewhat more personal than, say, George Kennan’s view of Russians.

      • Ray, Neuhaus’ theology isn’t qualitatively different from the social gospel* politics of the leftish. In fact, he’d be pleased that natural law philosophy were accorded the status of valid “public reason” once again.
        *Known for millennia as “Christian charity.” Even when it became a semi-official socio-theological movement 100 years ago, “gospel” was sometimes even capitalized!

  7. Ray, I’m not sure that dealing with theology would or should be all that different from dealing with any other expression of thought. However, as Mark notes above, and over on your post, it is important to define what you mean by “theology,” perhaps not least because that definition would help determine part of the context of texts/ideas within which you situate Neuhaus’s thought for the reader. If Neuhaus’s theology — or, perhaps, more specifically, his christology or his ecclesiology; I don’t know — were crucially important in shaping how and where and why he entered various conversations, then I think you’ve got to unpack them, and you’ve got to do so within some larger context, though that context may not be 20th century Catholic theology, or Vatican II, or whatever. I don’t know — it just depends on what you’re trying to make sense of.

    And using terms like theology, christology, ecclesiology, etc., could misleadingly suggest some self-consciously systematic coherence within a text or texts, where no such coherence was aimed at / intended / accomplished. I mean, I suppose if someone were bored witless, s/he could go through everything you or I or anyone else has ever written on this blog and try to (re)construct our “theology” — or, maybe, our “beliefs.” (In this sense, “theology” might imply the formal or self-conscious expression of ideas about things divine in as logical a way as possible, whereas “beliefs” could be more broad — the things we hold to be true, or the principles from which we begin, or to which we return in our discussions.) But such a picture would necessarily be incomplete and perhaps even misleading — it could speak to everything we have spoken to, but would have to make sense of many silences and gaps.

    In Neuhaus’s case, it seems to me that you have to pay some attention to theology — to the formal articulation of doctrinal affirmations — and also to beliefs/commitments on which the theology rests (or vice versa). And you have to pay attention to that within some “theological context” — though that context could be “post WWII Christian apologists / popularizers” (C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer?) or “Catholics who engage in searing polemic” (William F. Buckley and Eugene Genovese?).

    The bigger problem, it seems to me, is laid out in the last two sentences of Wickberg’s email above. I’m surprised (and perhaps a little relieved!) that no one has as yet called out that characterization of the professional practice of history. From the silence on that score, would it be safe to assume that most readers agree with Wickberg that historians as a whole — present company of intellectual historians deftly excepted! — intend to give due consideration to the beliefs that are really important in shaping how and why people acted, but don’t actually manage to do so very well? If so, then that would be a good argument for why intellectual history matters and why it can offer better / more complete explanations/interpretations of the past.

  8. Ray, you wrote (in threaded reply to comment #6, above):

    “I think the rub for me is that while theology no doubt functions as a set of ideas–like any other set–it is feels trickier that the usual socially constructed set of assumptions and notions….To put it bluntly, when I present in front of audiences that share the same faith as someone such as Neuhaus I feel self-conscious and a bit of an interloper when I discuss how his theology worked in his life. While such faith is obviously public, it also is private and somewhat more personal than, say, George Kennan’s view of Russians.”

    It seems that what’s tricky is not the past, then, but the present. Isn’t that always the case? If you were trying to trace the significance of Neuhaus’s thought with no audience in mind but a bunch of non-fideistic secular historians (!), it seems that you wouldn’t pull any punches. Or maybe you still would, out of compassion — sympathy — for the historical subject who has become an object in the historian’s hands. If intellectual historians are concerned with uncovering the feelings, sentiments, beliefs, desires, etc., by which people made and made meaning of what is now “the past,” then we are mucking around in people’s hearts. That’s no small thing, and one might imagine how it would feel to receive the same treatment at someone else’s hands.

    But it seems to me that the real worry is not mucking around in the hearts of people long dead, but of people still very much present.

    I have mentioned on this blog a few times something called “the pastoral work of the secular historian,” and I’m kind of slowly working on some writing along those lines. It seems to me that your reticence before an audience of the Catholic faithful is a sort of “pastoral” concern — a caution about jarring people’s sense of what is so. That’s a salutary sensibility. But there’s also a “prophetic mode” of secular scholarship, though it doesn’t always thunder, and is probably the more effective the more quietly it speaks.

    Sometimes the pastoral is the prophetic. The watchful care and faithfulness to the historical record, a commitment to truthfulness, all those things Thomas Haskell points to in “Objectivity is Not Neutrality” — these commitments to a patient and an honest elucidation of the past can be revelatory and revolutionary. But I’m not so sure that’s something you can aim for, and I’m not so sure you should aim for it (see my comments on whether or not the classroom is the place to deliberately/overtly challenge people’s beliefs — can’t remember which post it was now!).

    I think if historians are faithful to our task, we will challenge pious faiths as well as pious fictions, whether we intend to or not. That’s why we get all that extra hazardous duty pay, right?

  9. This is a fascinating and enlightening discussion. Do any of the scholars and commentators here think part of the reason for the resistance to looking at beliefs (in the most general sense of that word, not necessarily religious) is the holdover of strict Marxist determinism, or other forms of historical determinism whereby mental matters in the most general sense, even ideas of right or wrong conducts, or models of the human being take a second place to material deterministic structures? Has there been resistance to psychology in certain quarters? Just curious.

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