U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History as Mourning: A Response to Rivka Maizlish and James Livingston

The following essay comes to us from Erik Hmiel, a Ph.D. student in intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

As a friend and admirer of Jim Livingston, and a new friend of Rivka Maizlish, reading their exchange has been a particularly exciting experience. Not only because both are exceptional thinkers, but because their exchange raises crucial questions that too many historians choose to leave unexamined. Some would say this lack of epistemological self-consciousness for which the historical profession is often mocked is of no consequence for the practice of history itself. We prefer to treat our discipline as a “craft” to be learned, rather than a mode of human experience with un-escapable metaphysical resonance, a practice that might fulfill Rivka’s “longings.” Yet I think it all the worse if we as historians are unable to engage ourselves in the questions of “why” and “to what end,” as Livingston puts it, the “assumptions that drive our discipline.” What’s at stake in that engagement is nothing less than an examination of (among other things) the fundamental question of epistemology. But why choose that question? Why not accept that we, of course, cannot know the past as it actually was, and just “get on with it,” with the hard and modest work of the historian, using her tools to frame the most honest, rational, and sound reconstruction of the past that we can?

The answer, I think, can be found in what I take Rivka to mean in exhorting us to examine conceptions of time other than those suggested by the baldly historicist view that animates so much historical thinking. But let me see if I can be clearer about what I mean here. The historicist is, in a sense, the reductionist par excellence. Everything is reducible to history, everything has a history: human beings, animals, the natural world. On this view, one cannot step outside of history; to do so would amount to the fatuous assumption that one could evade time itself. Insofar as the historicist maintains this view, she commits herself to an epistemology that informs certain assumptions about knowledge, ethics, religion, politics, and the like. And for the historian, that epistemology commits her to a certain orientation to time as such. That is, time can be contained or experienced only through its manifestation in the world of events, ideas, and practices. Yet there can be no ultimate “container,” no fundamental or transcendental conception of time itself because of its instability and unpredictability, its arbitrariness if you will. What remains for the historicist is to leave aside the question of time itself, to evade it by committing oneself to the position that the grounds of our self-understanding must ultimately be historical, and because historical, metaphysically groundless.

This was Martin Heidegger’s understanding of history and, ironically enough, it is betrayed in the methodological assumptions of many contemporary historians who would readily dismiss Heidegger’s work. Yet one might find curious the suggestion of significant common ground between a supposed irrationalist “prophet of extremity” and the rationalist reconstruction of, say, a shrewd historian of demography. One finds a sense of that common ground, however, when looking at how quickly Rivka’s suggestions of longing, her romantic pleas and talk of the soul, come to be associated with irrationalism. If we admit of finding meaning or purpose in history beyond of our reasonable drives to represent it with the most rational and acute accuracy, if we long for “presence,” the desire to transcend the caprice of time for something more, then we are forced to necessarily step outside of time itself, to confront it as the arbitrary container of our lives (past and present), and to concede our longing for something irreducible, even sacred.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche spoke of the ancient Dionysian rites, wherein activities of ecstasy and sexual pleasure culminated in the return, or re-presentation, of the sacred thing or person. Over time, these rites are re-enacted. But such reenactment leads to a return only in the form of representation: the sacred thing or person is merely an imitation. For Nietzsche, this is the birth of tragedy. As historians, intellectual or otherwise, we engage in the act of representation as a means of recovery: whatever people, events, or ideas we write about, we deem to be worthy of a place in the historical record, rescuing what would otherwise remain in individual memories. Yet being the secular historians we are, we assume that in such recovery we are not seeking the presence of the past, but merely and modestly representing it, making our contribution to historiography. Disciplinary boundaries and specialization ensure that tragedy needn’t enter into our minds as we practice history, and we ensure ourselves in our attempts to remove ourselves from our subjects to the greatest extent that we can.

Yet, as Freud suggests, representation serves the function of mourning the loss of our primary attachments. The ephemerality of time, its feeling of constant recession into moments of past-ness suggests to us our inability to truly grasp it, as though always already lost to us. Considered in this way, the work of the historian is a form of mourning the loss, the recession of the past, through representation, protesting time as such. To mourn is not necessarily to grieve, but rather to compensate, to control. We historians do this through our historical representations. If representation is akin to mourning the loss of our co-presence with the world as such against the movement of time, can we think of history as a work of mourning our fundamental remove from the past, as a longing to be in touch with it, even in acknowledging its difference from us?

It is on these terms that there needn’t be such a stark dichotomy between the presence of the past and its fundamental alterity, as Livingston suggests. As Thomas Kuhn came to lament of his work, different historical paradigms, while incommensurable, are not incomparable, and certainly not unintelligible. His emphasis on intelligibility suggests our need to relate, to be in touch with the past, in order to fulfill our need for self-understanding in the present or, as his good friend Stanley Cavell put it, self-knowledge. As historians who are dependent on our agreement in language games for the sake of intelligibility, the need for acceptance and confirmation from other historians, we necessarily, by virtue of that desire for recognition, engage in the transcendent. That is, our works of history qua representation function as a protest against time; we mourn its inevitable recession. Yet by maintaining a historicist epistemology, in reducing that impulse to merely historical circumstances without dealing with the problem of time, we lose focus of history as a human practice, as a cultural act akin to art or poetry, in which we mourn that recession. To say that “man is a historical animal” may be true enough as far as it goes. But it says nothing about temporality as such, or about language and its implication in our longings for intelligibility, from others, maybe from God. For those weary of disciplinary boundaries and increasing specialization in the historical profession, we might do well to embrace Rivka’s suggestion that historians appreciate the longings of their subjects and transcend a crude historicism, while acknowledging that the historian herself is indeed longing.

For what, that’s anyone’s guess. But I’d like to think, at least, that this is what an epistemologically self-conscious history would take into account, one that admits of historian’s implication in, and implicit or explicit desire to escape from time by paradoxically engaging it.  Such self-consciousness, I think, goes far to suggest, again, the extent to which Jim and Rivka are not necessarily at odds. Jim wants us to act on the past by accepting its difference from us. Rivka wants to forge connections with the past by taking from it inspiration, nourishment for our souls. Are these two really so mutually exclusive? Can we, with Jim, find in the acceptance of the past’s difference an acknowledgment within ourselves that our focus, our epistemology in fact, cannot be exclusively historicist? Can we, likewise, find that our capacity and desire for inspiration and soul-nourishing is very much bound by history’s horizons, both in recession and procession?

Our friends in European intellectual history seem to have more to say about this than we do. Peter Gordon, for example, in writing of the infamous philosophical debate between Heidegger and the neo-Kantian Ernst Cassirer in Davos Switzerland in 1929, published an article in Modern Intellectual History suggesting that the debate served as an allegory of intellectual history itself. That is, Heidegger’s insistence on man’s fundamental “thrownness” in historical time and Cassirer’s Kantian insistence on the transcendental “spontaneity” of the mind represents a competing philosophical impulse within intellectual history, between historicizing ideas, reducing them completely to their time, place and circumstances, and taking those ideas as fundamentally irreducible to context because of their “transcendental” philosophical import. Gordon’s article is epistemologically self-conscious in that it allows his subject to affect his methodological presentation and approach. That is, he takes their historical debate as “usable” insofar as it constitutes a means by which we might examine more closely ourselves as intellectual historians and the assumptions that guide us. Such examinations needn’t mar the legitimacy or rationality of our historical reconstructions. But they are far more honest insofar as they reveal the extent to which the writing of history (and intellectual history) is informed by longings that both confront and transcend the historical. [1]

Likewise, what Pocock called the “Machiavellian Moment” in late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Florence represents that tension’s significance for the Florentine political thought that would be transmitted across the Atlantic to Madison, via the intermediary of James Harrington. Guicciardini, Giannotti,  Bruni, and Savanarolla took from the political writings of Aristotle and the histories of Polybius the importance of politics as the reconciliation of historical time with Christian eschatology. The replacement of Christian time with linear time involved both a preservation and annulment of the transcendent, which came with the development of historical self-consciousness. Such was the unique dimension of Florentine political thought that proved so crucial to conceiving the maintenance of the Republic. As Pocock put it, “To attempt the erection of a civic way of life upon epistemological foundations which allow the recognition only of universal order and particular traditions is to be hampered by certain limitations. It can be argued that the history of Florentine political thought is the history of a striking but partial emancipation from these limitations.” [2] The emancipation entailed a shift away from thinking about government in Hierarchical and monarchical terms, and toward to Republican ideas, which involved a fundamental shift in the view of time. In the former scheme, time was conceived as eternal.  The succession of historic events was viewed as existing within this scheme, but not of its dimension. Thus, history was in but not of this world, as Livingston has grown so fond of saying. The shift toward Republican ideas, and with it historical self-consciousness, entailed a partial break from this view of time. Time came to be viewed as a succession of fundamentally discrete events from which citizens could learn from. Weathering the storm of fortuna (which was later replaced by “commerce”) with the transcendent conception of virtu came to be the key balancing act that was so central to Florentine political thought; reconciling the universal (which transcends time) with the particular (historical self-consciousness) came to be central to the Republican tradition. [3]

If we want, then, a usable past that might serve political functions, such a reconciliation must be taken into account. And what that tension and reconciliation suggests is something the intellectual historian must deal with, in an epistemologically self-conscious way. That is, the key to understanding the concept of a usable past, specifically past ideas, comes not from attempts to envision a seamless connection between past and present, nor from an obstinate barrier between lessons of the past and the vision of future, but from an acknowledgment from the historian that her historical representations are, in a sense, a-historical—they are longings from within time to stand outside of it.


[1] Peter Eli Gordon, “Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger at Davos, 1929-An Allegory of Intellectual History” Modern Intellectual History 1 No. 2 (2004): 219-248

[2] J.G.A Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Floerentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 50.

[3] Ibid., 55-80.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Erik, this is a beautifully written essay, and I agree with it in principle and largely in particular.

    But what irks me is this:

    For those weary of disciplinary boundaries and increasing specialization in the historical profession, we might do well to embrace Rivka’s suggestion that historians appreciate the longings of their subjects and transcend a crude historicism, while acknowledging that the historian herself is indeed longing.

    The implication seems to be that “we” do not already do this, and that “we” currently practice a “crude historicism” that is attuned to neither our subjects nor ourselves and our own desires and purposes in writing history. It is not clear whom you mean to include by this “we,” but I think you can safely exclude not only Jim Livingston, but also the historians who regularly write for and comment on this blog.

    Indeed, while it is quite possible that some modes of intellectual history more than others might more easily lend themselves to a relative lack of attention to or appreciation of desires, beliefs and longings as anything other than instrumentalized (and instrumentalizable) epiphenomenal stand-ins for “what was really happening,” the dangers of such approaches are frequently discussed and debated on this blog — as are the dangers of approaches which foreground beliefs, desires, longings over other things.

    Now, this is a blog, not a comps reading list, and I am not suggesting that contributors or commenters must “know the literature” before entering the conversation. I sure didn’t. As new readers, writers and commenters come along, we revisit themes, topics, and even specific arguments again and again (and again).

    But I would suggest that any reading of the critical response to Rivka’s post which assumes that commenters here are pushing back against a mode of historical inquiry that foregrounds beliefs, desires, longings, sensibilities, is a crude oversimplification of the conversation on both Rivka’s post and Jim Livingston’s follow-up piece, and a mischaracterization of the discourse of this blog in general.

    It seemed to me that the critique of many commenters largely centered on whether or not Rivka’s argument, as presented, adequately distinguished between the longings of historical subjects and the longings of the historian. The interrogation of the Nietzschean language, the requests for clarification on the use of quotations as either/both primary loci for analysis or secondary guides for analysis, and the concern about the necessity for the historian to perform what I would characterize as “both moves” of a Collingwoodian approach (think the thoughts of the past from the inside, examine them from the outside) — these were the concerns raised in the comments. Rivka addressed these issues in her responses, and clarified and sharpened her argument in the process.

    But I take exception to the notion that these critiques demonstrate an unwillingness to embrace epistemological self-consciousness on the part of those who offered them (myself included) or on the part of this blog’s commentariat in general.

    Now, whether the discourse on this blog is fully representative of the field of U.S. intellectual history is another matter entirely. James Livingston has suggested that this blog is “the flamboyant other” of Modern Intellectual History, and this blog published Daniel Wickberg’s minoritarian “state of the field” assessment challenging some of the epistemic assumptions of the forum that ran in MIH last spring.

    So calls to epistemological self-awareness (or, as some would characterize it, navel-gazing) directed at this blog community are a little bit of preaching to the choir — which certainly never stops me from doing it. But the push-back from readers in this case was an insistence that Rivka’s call itself demonstrate more epistemological self-awareness. I don’t think anyone was suggesting or assuming that this is something she lacks; but we wanted to see it in the text, and I think that was a fair — and fairly argued — critique.

    • LD,

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment. I do realize the danger in my perhaps gratuitous use of the first person plural in the essay, and I in no way intended to suggest a complete disregard for those on this blog and elsewhere who do practice an epistemological self-consciousness. I certainly don’t believe, pace Rivka, that Livingston is a crude historicist and, in fact, welcome his calls for a rethinking of our approach to writing history. What I was responding to was something I observed in the comments section (there was one comment in particular): a tendency to assume that her “romantic” pleas were tantamount to a call for irrationalism in historical reconstruction. While I think such ideas are understandable, to my mind they betray a common epistemological assumption that informs much historical writing as I’ve come to experience it as a graduate student. And, like Wickberg, I think that those same assumptions are fairly prominent in a good deal of American intellectual history writing, which is what motivates my desire to interrogate how and why those assumptions might operate. That observation is in no way a shot at the members of this blog who themselves often engage with such topics; that’s why I’m such a fan of the blog in the first place. Yet, as I briefly suggest in mentioning Peter Gordon’s essay, I often find myself perplexed at what seems to me a methodological divide between American and European intellectual historians. I’m hard pressed to think of recent works of American intellectual history whose methodological approach ( which is arguably more philosophical, with closer readings of texts, and more willingness to weigh in on the ideas and debates they document) mirrors that of historians like Gordon, Samuel Moyn, Martin Jay, or Allan Megill. I’m thinking of writing another post about this issue. Any thoughts?

  2. Wow, what the hell is going on in Madison? Every time I think I’m ready to reply to yet another interesting and provocative post, somebody else from that place steps in. Very cool, very encouraging. Not for me, necessarily, but definitely for the discipline.

  3. I have been interested in this string of posts, in a catch-as-catch-can way, betwixt and between returning from travel and doing some teaching, for healthy egoistic reasons, having seen my book trundled out again as an example of badly done and unimaginative history. Jim Livingston’s critique makes a little more sense to me now–I failed to focus on an evaluation of the purpose, value, and validity of the 1920s thinkers I studied, merely reproducing their thought.

    The scope of the concerns of those writing, from Rivka Maizlish through Livingston and Erik Hmiel, is much more profound and challenging than this self-regarding issue, however. I sympathized at times with the reader’s comment that folks dispense with the philosophical terms and just state what we want from history, but I have been greatly stimulated by the exchanges.

    The references to Susman interested me, as I have been thinking on him of late and thought of him a lot when writing on the 1920s. Susman shared in the intellectual assumptions of his times, very concerned about “myth” vs. “history” in a pre-postmodern way. He very much wanted to use history as a tool to promote change (in his hope, socialist change), much as he treated culture as a tool, I think. For Susman and the American Studies folks and intellectual historians of the benighted generation that preceded him, people were very much past-conscious human beings, and historical experience, as remembered and “reproduced” by scholars and non-scholars, was essential to civilization. They also tended to assume there was a uniform “mind” or culture for any particular group or entity that drew their interest (like “America”). Historical consciousness generally often took the form of “myth” — religious-like beliefs about the past and about one’s civilization built up over time. As such, myth was quite powerful, but, for Susman, blocked change because it was not conducive to political or social dynamism. Thus, Susman preferred “history,” by which he meant accurate, factual, empirical analysis of the past. History promoted dynamism and could most serve the interests of socialists, but it was a history predicated on assuming a unitary civilization, defined by shared myths and a common “mind,” and it was a history in some ways about myths. It was not primarily about mourning, or identification, or being present to the past, as far as I know. He cited Frederick Jackson Turner, who took a major American myth and made it underwrite a progressive historical analysis that was vital for decades.

    I re-read C. Vann Woodward’s “The Search for Southern Identity” today and it was all there: He was on about the distinction between myth and history, and the role of the historian in puncturing and debunking deep-seated myths that had become essential to American nationalism and in his view damaging in all kinds of ways. History was a tool to alter such national myths; in his own case, it was a tool to address myths related to the sanctity of southern white racial attitudes and segregation.

    I think Susman and Woodward represented a generation of liberal modernist intellectuals who shared a distinctive set of political and social values that they imagined they could promote in America, as intellectuals, through their mastery of American culture (including American myths and history) and their capacity to use culture as a tool for change. This was the argument my book advanced.

  4. Erik (replying down here b/c I despise comment threading) —

    Honestly, what I have been thinking about ever since I posted that irascible comment on your use of “we” is this: I am wondering about the cohortative mood, whether deployed sincerely or ironically, and what role it has or hasn’t played in “the American jeremiad.” I will check in with Sacvan Bercovitch on that and report back. (Seriously.)

    On irrationalism, I think I know the comment thread to which you are referring — by one of our regular commenters, I believe, but someone coming from a different academic discipline than history. But I don’t recall that anyone was bothered by Rivka’s invocation of the idea of the soul per se, or even her talk of her own soul. I think it was the seeming confusion between rethinking Nietzsche’s thoughts and thinking like Nietzsche that most people found alarming/problematic.

    • On irrationalism, I think I know the comment thread to which you are referring — by one of our regular commenters, I believe, but someone coming from a different academic discipline than history.

      Guilty as charged. 😉
      I regret not having had time to follow closely this ongoing discussion. I just re-read my comment on Rivka M.’s post and it was phrased quite cautiously: “there may be a danger” (emphasis added) of irrationalism — was my exact phrase. But I’m willing to concede that even this might have been too strong. I really don’t have a dog in this fight, not in the way most writers and commenters on this blog do, nor, to be honest, am I even that interested in debates about historicism and historical method etc., so I’m sorry if I muddied the waters by sticking my oar in (call the metaphor police, please). But inasmuch as my comment helped provoke Erik Hmiel to write this post, I suppose it might have served some purpose.

  5. I found this essay provocative. Thanks for writing it.

    I have some questions.

    “What’s at stake in that engagement is nothing less than an examination of (among other things) the fundamental question of epistemology.” Is epistemology a question? Or does epistemology have questions? Is not the fundamental question of epistemology, rather, “how do we know what we know?” Is that the question we are arguing about here? I don’t think so. I think we are asking and seeking to answer second-order questions: what do we do with the things we think we can find something out about.

    “… conceptions of time other than those suggested by the baldly historicist view that animates so much historical thinking.” I think LD has covered this well.

    Historicism as reductionism… hmmm. Is the epoche a reductionism? Is deconstructionist focus on margins a reductionism? Are theories of race, class, gender, and sexuality reducitonisms? Is reductionism just an insult to be thrown around at things one doesn’t like?

    “Insofar as the historicist maintains this view, she commits herself to an epistemology that informs certain assumptions about knowledge, ethics, religion, politics, and the like. And for the historian, that epistemology commits her to a certain orientation to time as such. That is, time can be contained or experienced only through its manifestation in the world of events, ideas, and practices.” I confess that I simply do not understand what any of this means. Could you help? Could you insert some specifics in the empty places currently occupied by the term “certain”?

    “… the grounds of our self-understanding must ultimately be historical, and because historical, metaphysically groundless.”

    Why would this be a bad thing? Why would we care? If we study history because we find it interesting, what do metaphysical grounds matter? To the degree that we renounce a priori metaphysical commitments, we gain the possibility of meaningful conversation with strangers who have different metaphysical commitments. That seems good, too.

    To take a different tack, let me try to establish some common ground between me–a Marxist–and my friends the confessing historians. We both have metaphysical commitments tied to the sense of history as an organizable narrative of change over time.

    That makes us historicists in this language game, right? To the degree that I commit to the un-disprovable belief that history is organized around surplus extraction and property relations, a view that leads to a certain messianic vision of the last becoming first (my confessing friends can make the appropriate changes to their story) am I not satisfying the quest for a more meaningful history and remaining steadfastly historicist? Is the desire voiced in your essay for a history that is metaphysical but also not Christian, not Marxist, not Whig? Or are you okay with some Christian, Marxist, or Whig varieties of history? In the words of the gang on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” when Charlie announces his plan for a Broadway-style musical: “Who is this against? Who is this versus?”

    “… to concede our longing for something irreducible, even sacred.” Here, as is so often the case, the appropriate response is Tonto’s: http://viabrevis.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/tontoenglish.jpg

    For the tragedy stuff re: the original presence and the dilutions of repetition, I dunno. A very American reading of Nietzsche. Deleuze’s Mallarme-ian take on repetition as selective affirmation–which owes much to American pragmatism–is much more appealing, I think.

    “…the work of the historian is a form of mourning the loss, the recession of the past, through representation, protesting time as such. To mourn is not necessarily to grieve, but rather to compensate, to control.”

    I think this goes directly against your argument vs. historicism. For Freud, mourning/repetition is an endless circling of a lost object, a kind of enjoyment that keeps us living in the past, reexperiencing its traumas. To historicize is precisely to work through the trauma–it is to stop mourning (but not necessarily to start organizing).

    The most Freudian mourning-esque labor in all of historical writing is the obsessive dedication to honoring a certain moment of the past correctly, of accurately conveying its mentality, of not judging historical actors by anachronistic standards. It is typified, in US history, by the Agrarians, who come to mind when I read some of this writing.

    Finally, these passages all seem easily flippable:
    “That is, our works of history qua representation function as a protest against time” why not “That is, our works of history qua representation function as renunciation of the protest against time”

    “Yet by maintaining a historicist epistemology, in reducing that impulse to merely historical circumstances without dealing with the problem of time, we lose focus of history as a human practice” why not “in transcending the notion of overlapping and incommensurable conceptions of time, we gain appreciation of the made-ness of History as a Western practice”

    And why not: “To say that ‘man is a historical animal’… says everything–not nothing–about temporality as such, about language and its implications in our longings for intelligibility, from others, maybe from God”?

    • Kurt,

      Thanks for these thoughts. Let me see if I can’t respond to them point by point. Re. your claim that my argument against historicism is misplaced: I’m not sure what deconstruction, or race or gender have to do with the question I’m raising. What I’m referring to is a particular orientation to history that views it as the end all of explanations for aspects of experience that fall outside of the realm of history: i.e., metaphysics, religion, politics, ethics. Of course, all of these things have a great deal of implication in history, that is undeniable. But what I’m getting that is that none of these, including our own orientation as historians, should be reduced to understanding the past simply for its own sake. The desire to represent the past as accurately as possible is noble. But what my question asks is: why do that? What do we get out of it?

      Which brings me to your second quibble about epistemology. I admit, I use the word in a rather broad sense here. But I think that asking what we get out of our representations of the past is in a sense tantamount to asking how and why we come to know something, or want to know something.

      On your point about metaphysical commitment: the idea that we can “renounce” a priori metaphysical commitments seems to me absurd. The impulse to historicize is itself metaphysical. We construct narratives in certain ways, tell ourselves certain stories, because we live through these stories as our necessary myths about ourselves. This does not mean that they are “true” or “false,” but, rather, better or worse stories because of the metaphysical committments we attach to them that comes in the form of both methodoical and disciplinary standards to Christian, Marxist, and Whig interpretations. On that note, yes. I’m all in favor of a Chrisitian, Marxist, or Whig interpretation of history. Some of my favorite historians are Christians or Marxist, and it shows in their work.

      On my point about mourning. I think the section you’ve quoted does not go against my point about historicism. I agree with you that representing the past accurately is a means by which to work through the loss of our committments. But, as Dominick LaCapra suggests, an obsessive detatchment from that past as means of controlling it by not allowing ourselves to be affected by it results in a certain brand of neurosis that comes to be reflected in our methodological committments, and our orientation to, our “uses” of history as such.

      And as far as the “flippable” sections of my essay are concerned, well, I’m not sure what you get out of pointing that out. Showing that I’m being repetitive? I suppose I was attempting to reiterate a point for the sake of clarity.

  6. I would suggest that thhere is a confusion about rationality and rationalism. I think to defend and maintain non-rational areas should certainly be welcome in any discipline. If Rivka mentions the soul and this bothers scholars of a hard materialist sort (I don’t know how else to classify the dissent, sorry) that is clearly their problem, not Rivka’s. There is nothing wrong with appeals to concepts like the soul and/or desire in the kind of context in which Rivka is writing. It all comes down to the specific claim that is made on behalf of such concepts and the context. I had always thought that there is a clear distinction between the non-rational and anti-rational. There are areas of life that don’t concern scientific facts or data which we could label non-rational. To me a person is irrational or anti-rational if they indulge in extremist denial of facts from natural science or historical record i.e. that gravity is a mythic story. I also think there should be a place in History for the kind of personal writing that is anything but dry. After all, LD says she was saved by History. Why or how could scholars leave that part of it out if it applies to their research? None of this is to challenge any empiricists among us, nor to challenge those working towards a purely disinterested approach to history, simply to say that there needs to be different kinds or styles of History?

    • This moots any criticism of “confessional” or “providential” history. I personally don’t like them—I consider them to be theology and I like to know what hat a writer’s wearing.

      Most “rationalist” folks are pretty scornful of woo, but imposing any narrative on history carries the same dangers. I prefer historians to wear historian hats–very few wear the “public intellectual” hat very well anyway, and indeed usually are proof of the Peter Principle when they do.

      [POV is usually inevitable anyway, by the author’s choice of subject and focus on these details rather than those details. There’s still plenty of opportunity for hackery without making it one’s prime objective.]

  7. Mitch, thanks for drawing the distinction between the irrational and the anti-rational.

    On “saved by history,” I always assume that people understand I am deploying evangelical rhetoric in a somewhat ironic fashion. That is, the study and practice of history has been transformative inasmuch as historicism has offered “salvation” from various metaphysics.

    But I’m far too skeptical of my own or anyone else’s rationalism to claim that the secular practice of history has been “saved” from all metaphysical thinking entirely.

    Still, the way for a professional historian to explore the limitations of rationalism’s sufficiency is via rational means.

    So, perhaps William James on The Varieties of Religious Experience would be a text to work through. However, contextualizing some of James’s observations by seeking a chemically altered state of consciousness as he once did, while it might (or might not) allow me to “re-experience” some of James’s experience, wouldn’t be of much help in writing history.

    One can get high on James, or high on Nietzsche, or on — I don’t know — Richard Hofstadter or Lionel Trilling. (If anyone reading this has ever gotten high on Richard Hofstadter or Lionel Trilling, then an intervention may be in order.) But what one writes from such a high might very well end up being more mystical than historical.

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