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.