U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Findings & Arguments

I recently read Mical Raz’s excellent new book, What’s Wrong with the Poor?, which Trevor Burrows reviewed at this blog a few months ago. One of the many aspects of Raz’s book that strikes me as especially impressive is the way she meticulously details what Daniel Rodgers refers to as a “contagion of metaphors.”[1] In nearly every field that touched on poverty – from linguists to social work to psychology – the trope of “deprivation” structured how experts understood the poor. Thus, social scientists and policy makers viewed poverty in terms of what the poor lacked, focusing their energies on treating the individuals suffering from this “condition” rather than attacking the structural inequalities that produced poverty in the first place. The experts working on poverty, moreover, imported this model of deprivation with almost no critical examination of the model itself, or whether it always applied to their particular research concern. Consequently, the framework of deprivation spread from field to field with seemingly no exception, only receiving serious pushback by the 1970s.

I found Raz’s account of the promiscuity of the meme of deprivation particularly useful because it seemed clearly anchored, in her narrative, to the political goals and agendas of those who embraced it. It makes sense, in other words, that the concept of deprivation proved so virulent – it offered the perfect solution to post-war liberals concerned about poverty but either unable or unwilling to look its roots in the face. Such a grounding pushes Raz’s book past a nearly documentary project – a report of her findings – and towards at least the start of an explanatory answer, or an argument about those findings. A former professor in my department once made this distinction in a conference, and I’ve never stopped appreciating how he gave me a clear way of articulating my discontent with historical studies that seem to conflate the two.[2]

For in Rodgers, we have the meticulous tracking of the metaphor of “fracture,” but he prefers to remain ambiguous about the question of “whence it came.” As Andrew Hartman and Corey Robin pointed out at the time, this seems unsatisfactory, and moreover (particularly in Robin’s review) unnecessary; there is a way to tether the metaphor of fracture to observable political and historical events that shed quite a lot of light on why it spread so far and wide. However, if one isn’t convinced of any interpretation that favors an “original cause” over other interacting dynamics then neither I, nor anyone else, can somehow insist that they pick one. Yet it does seem to me that a possible consequence of this reluctance is that the task of historical explanation remains unfinished. The metaphor of fracture became so powerful in the post-war period because – well, because it did. Or, there are many reasons we can list for this (as Rodgers does) but somehow the metaphor also took on a life of its own. But why is that? Did it have something to do with the particular historical moment or is that just something that metaphors sometimes do? I can’t help but wanting to press on this question further, although I am aware that at moments like these I might come across as the obnoxious kid that can’t simply accept that we’ve reached the end of the knowable.

Of course, these particular questions of why (and how intense your desire is to answer them confidently) in both Rodgers’ and Raz’s book are linked rather clearly to interpretations that deal directly with the political. However much Rodgers did not view himself as engaging in social critique (see Andrew’s review again for a discussion on this, especially in the comments) he obviously would not deny that in his book he discusses ideas with great political consequence. So one (including myself) might be tempted to interpret my own insistence on this point as a byproduct of my own compulsively political self, and certainly it is at least that. However there are multiple directions we could go with this issue – this question of why I so badly want the why questions answered! Yet as I intended this to be a short post, I’ll leave you hanging with those possibilities.

I will close, however, by gesturing towards an argument of my own. Whatever my predilections and biases – and of course, they are legion – I do think that distinguishing our findings from our arguments is an important skill for historians (and especially graduate students, who tend to hide behind the safety of documentation) to develop. For ultimately, we all agree that even the most intensely researched and expertly written accounts of what happened are so valued because they make it more possible for the rest of us, and future historians, to grapple with the why it happened. Otherwise, we declare ourselves antiquarians, rather than historians. Yet this is a distinction we often allow to become too fuzzy, and this has a whole host of consequences to the direction and purpose of the profession itself. But, like I said, I’ll have to pop open that can of worms and simply let them crawl about for awhile, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about their implications.

[1] Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011), 10.

[2] Another example of where I think this is a problem is in Jennifer Rosen-Rathagen’s American Nietzsche. As good as that book is, she does appear, to me, to conflate her findings with her argument. Her argument, as she describes it, “that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself,” is clearly well supported. But as far as I can tell, this is her describing her findings, and is not, in and of itself, an argument about those findings. [Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23.]

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this piece, Robin. I appreciate the clarifying distinction between findings and arguments, which I think should help me differentiate among the kinds of claims I’m making in my dissertation. After a long stretch of writing, especially in the middle of a chapter, it can feel like you’re just stringing together vignettes.

    I like how you apply this distinction to historiography. That’s also clarifying for me. I was just thinking about why I find certain “states of the field”—any field—to be annoying or, frankly, boring. Sometimes they feel like we are just tracking all the prior wrong turns in past scholarship before arriving at our enlightened present. Especially in the more theory-driven debates, it can feel like we are striving to develop the perfect research formula—the faultless frame with no blind spot. By contrast, the debates I tend to think more productive consider findings and argument alongside each other, separately and together. They don’t just throw away what prior generations have learned, and taught us. They acknowledge the questions that most engaged those scholars while taking care to preserve the key insights that can engage us—the enlightened—still.

    I suppose, after the long slog of researching and writing a dissertation, I have come to appreciate the work behind the findings, or documentation, as well as the huge potential yield, in terms of what you and others now can do with it—a point you hit on nicely.

    • Thanks for this comment, Alex! I very much agree with your reflections here. I would also add how one can appreciate the un-enlightenment past of historiographic argument as much as the invaluable work of findings — think of how many wonderful historians basically got it wrong, but because they were bold enough to set forward a brave interpretation, generations of scholars have benefited from interrogating and bouncing off of those ideas. Productive and even brilliant wrongness is very much a thing.

  2. As someone who has spent the past three years working on an essay that tries to convince literary historians to answer the “why” questions, this post really hit home with me, Robin, esp. this line: “a possible consequence of this reluctance is that the task of historical explanation remains unfinished.” From what I can tell, you are wary of positing knowledge of the “original cause” behind any particular historical occasion–because that sounds too positivist? too confident? too simplistic?–but you are also wary of historical narratives that _merely_ describe a sequence of events (like Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book?) without owning up to the task of explaining why specific actions, events, or shifts in consciousness occurred when and why they did? In short, you want us to press a bit harder on the why questions–to be able to explain not just _that_ s/g happened (the fracture, say) but _why_ it happened when and where it did?

    I wonder if we could re-frame your distinction b/t “findings” vs. “arguments” as a distinction between “descriptions” vs. “explanations.” I’m thinking back to an essay by Allan Megill called “The Four Tasks of History Writing,” where he distinguishes among: 1) “description”: telling what was the case. 2) “Explanation”—citing causes for some change in historical reality. 3) “justification”—providing successful evidence, proving that your descriptions and explanations are true. 4) “interpretation”—the narrative that has been told always imposes a perspective on the past.

    Whatever you make of Megill’s list, I’d be curious to know why (!) you feel such reluctance to specify _the_ cause behind any particular event, preferring instead to rest with a vague formula like “lots of factors were involved.” Perhaps I too am just too greedy for certain knowledge, or am unwilling to remain content with the limits of knowledge. If so, then I stand in a long line of discontented historians. Two quotes from Megill: “The historian’s job is to explain human behavior over time” (Lee Benson); “the study of history is a study of causes” (EH Carr) [not incidentally, both were Marxists]. Having ideas about _why_ something happened, it seems to me, is always in the back of the historian’s mind, if it is not explicitly argued. William Dray noted some years ago that whenever historians seek to explain the causes of the American Civil War, they “almost always, sooner or later, single out certain acts, events, or circumstances from the narrative as a whole, as being causes of the coming of the war.” That would seem as true for Rodgers and Ratner-Rosenhagen as anyone else.

    • Hi Patrick, and thanks for this interesting comment! Actually, I have no problem, personally, with original cause arguments. I shouldn’t have put it in scare quotes, I realize, but I guess I was keeping an ironic distance from myself (I rather like original cause arguments, perhaps too much) and moreover trying to keep the idea of what could qualify as an argument relatively wide and charitable, hence I would accept for sure an argument that posited multiple factors combining in such a way as to explain the historical event/process as indeed counting as an argument. (I don’t identify as a Marxist, incidentally, but I do have inclinations at times to that direction, and I love a good Marxist argument, usually because they have such a ballsy and straightforward one, and often times because I agree.)

      As for this distinction between explanation and interpretation, at first blush I was thinking, I like this!, but then I am wondering if explanation can ever be fully separated from the act of interpretation?, so aren’t they both elements of argument?

  3. Hi Robin: oh good! No shame in your game, or mine either, when a causal argument is in play . . . somehow I feel like we are in the minority here at the blog, so I’d be curious to test this idea out in a wider (public) setting, perhaps at an S-USIH conference down the road? In literary studies, causal arguments about history are all but dead except in the hands of Franco Moretti, and I have the feeling that most intellectual historians don’t make _explicit_ causal claims all that often . . . but maybe I’m wrong? In any case, yes, you are absolutely right about the relation of expl. vs. interpretation: you can’t ever “explain” history without first having a set of descriptions from which to mount said explanation (though I do think it’s possible to interpret without explaining). That’s what I took away from your original post–that we should try to do both as often as possible!

    • For sures; and yeah!, I think some kind of panel or discussion around this at a conference would be awesome. I do think intellectual historians do not do this as much as other historians, and a whole debate could revolve around a) if that’s true and b) if so, why?

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