Samuel Moyn, a former student of Hayden White who is now a professor of "law and history" at Harvard, recently reviewed some of the latest skirmishes in the longstanding struggle to determine the proper role of narrative in history. -- Among other things, he put Bill Gates, with his half-baked ideas about how "big history" should be taught, in his place: "Apart from the fact that Gates’s scientism sacrifices the critical perspective that humanists have learned to maintain since their disastrous nineteenth-century dalliance with biology and other natural sciences, the trouble with massive expansions of the time line, even just to the totality of human history, is simple: it forces historians to become scientists, effectively converting their discipline into what is already somebody else’s job. -- Gates’s big historians already exist: they are called physicists." ...
BONFIRE OF THE HUMANITIES
By Samuel Moyn
** Historians are losing their audience,and searching for the next trend won't win it back. **
February 9, 2015
History has a history, and historians rarely tire of quarreling over it. Yet for the past few centuries, historians have maintained an uneasy truce over the assumption that the search for “facts” should always take precedence over the more fractious difficulty of interpreting them. According to Arnaldo Momigliano, the great twentieth-century Italian scholar of ancient history, it was the Renaissance antiquarians who, though they did not write history, inadvertently made the modern historical profession possible by repudiating grand theory in order to establish cherished fact. The antiquarians collected remnants of the classical past, and understandably they needed to vouch for the reliability of their artifacts at a time when so many relics were wrongly sourced or outright fakes. Momigliano cited the nineteenth-century Oxford don Mark Pattison, who went so far as to remark about antiquarians -- approvingly -- that “thinking was not their profession.” It may remain the whispered credo required for admission to the guild.
More wary than anthropologists, literary critics, or political scientists of speculative frameworks, historians generally have been most pleased with their ability simply to tell the truth -- as if it were a secret to be uncovered through fact-finding rather than a riddle to be solved through interpretation. Anthony Grafton once honored Momigliano with the title “the man who saved history,” and it seems fair to say that the latter voiced the consensus of a profession that makes facts almost sacred and theories essentially secondary.
Even when historians started to think a little, they did so gingerly. If antiquarians merely paved the road for modern history, to proceed down it required doing more than displaying the hard-won truth. Momigliano reported that it took a while for our early modern intellectual ancestors to suspect that they could ever improve on the classical historians of Greece and Rome, thanks to the new facts that antiquarians had eked out. The true antiquarians simply stashed their goods and, Momigliano vividly wrote, shivered in “horror at the invasion of the holy precincts of history by a fanatic gang of philosophers who travelled very light.” But their heirs, like Edward Gibbon, author of the stupendous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, realized that storytellers would have to take on board speculation or “philosophy,” corralling facts within an intellectual scheme to lend them meaning. Facts alone were blind, just as theory was empty on its own. Yet Momigliano, sharing Pattison’s approval of the antiquarian origins of history, acknowledged the necessity of thinking almost regretfully, as if the results were an inevitably ramshackle edifice built on the bedrock of fact that it was the real job of historians to lay down. Theories could be stripped away, and stories renovated as fashion changed, but the facts on which the edifice was built would endure. The “ethics” of the profession, Momigliano testified, rested on the ability of historians to stay true to them.
In the early days of Gibbon’s Enlightenment, most of the frameworks on which historians relied were theories about the origins and progress of society; in the two centuries since, historians have been willing to have their facts consort with a wide variety of suitors, from nationalism to Marxism to postmodernism. The discipline has gone through so many self-styled theoretical “turns” that it is frankly hard to keep up. It is paradoxically because most historians have looked on theory with suspicion -- as a lamentable necessity, at best, to allow the facts their day -- that they have often been avid trend-watchers. Precisely because they are so fickle, opportunistic, and superficial in their attitude to speculation, historians seem to change popular theories often, treating them not as foundations to be built on, but as seasonal outfits to clothe the facts they have so assiduously gathered.
* * *
Today, historians worry that they have lost their audience, and their distress has made the search for the next trend seem especially pressing. At the beginning of her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt remarks that “history is in crisis” because it can no longer answer “the nagging question” of why history matters. David Armitage and Jo Guldi, in their History Manifesto, concur: in the face of today’s “bonfire of the humanities,” and a disastrous loss of interest in a topic in which the culture used to invest heavily (and in classes that students used to attend in droves), defining a new professional vocation is critical. History, so often viewed as a “luxury” or “indulgence,” needs to figure out how to “keep people awake at night,” as Simon Schama has said. Actually, the problem is worse: students today have endless diversions for the wee hours; the trouble for historians is keeping students awake during the day.
In the last few decades, Hunt has had the most reliable eye for new trends in the American historical profession, and what she considers important always amounts to more than the sum of her current enthusiasms. You may not like the enterprises she is bullish on; you may try to blow up one of her bandwagons -- as I did in these pages when she invented human-rights history -- only to find yourself riding it for life. What you cannot dispute is that she has a preternatural sense of the new new thing being touted by historians to study old things.
Like a few other famous trendsetters, Hunt, who recently retired from UCLA, was trained in the 1970s during the rising tide of social history, when what mattered most was learning about the ordinary men -- and, even more important, women -- lost to the enormous condescension of posterity. Having focused for centuries on kings (and, eventually, presidents) and their wars and diplomats and negotiations, historians realized that they had mostly ignored the social forces pulsing from below, and they longed to identify with the forgotten people who had been written out of history simply because they were not elites. Social historians often had left-wing sympathies, and, following the lodestar of E.P. Thompson’s luminous The Making of the English Working Class (1963), they wanted social history to chronicle the rise in political consciousness of the laboring people (and, later, other oppressed or marginalized groups) who deserved justice. Because they were interested in the shape of society and not only its working classes, social historians drew on a then-newfangled body of thought. It was not just left-wing politics but Marxism as a theory of society that prospered under social history’s reign; in turn, the whole tradition of such thinking, from the Enlightenment to Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, became canonical.
Hunt left the fold in the 1980s, bolting for what she famously dubbed “the new cultural history.” Worlds became full of meaning, renegade social historians discovered, and the representations of power that people create, the rituals they practice, and the ways they interpret their worlds now trumped basic information about the social order. It wasn’t enough to understand the class structure at the time of the French Revolution, Hunt argued in her landmark book Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984); one also needed to understand the world of political symbols and “political culture” that made social action meaningful -- especially since class turned out not to matter as much as the Marxists believed. Trading in Marxism for anthropology and “postmodern” theory, the new cultural history was, among other things, a protest against the tabulation of people according to static categories like “the workers” or “the peasantry,” and its breakthrough coincided with the failure of political efforts to win greater social equality.
Then Hunt changed her mind again. No sooner had the ink dried on The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992) -- a creative application of Sigmund Freud’s originally individualized psychoanalysis to a collective event, which remains her most interesting book -- than she declared that “theory” had gone too far. It seemed, Hunt complained, to be little more than a recipe for saying whatever you want. “Postmodernists often put the word ‘reality’ in quotation marks to problematize the ‘there’ out there,” Hunt and several colleagues wrote in Telling the Truth About History (1994). But this statement wasn’t itself realistic -- the point of theory is that no “reality” is self-interpreting -- and her verdict could hardly prove the uselessness of broader frameworks of interpretation, except to those who treat them as secondary in the first place. Frightened by the whirling fashions that seemed to threaten mere chaos, Hunt rallied around facts. She declared the cultural turn a vast mistake, and postmodernism a tissue of error. From whatever heaven or hell they reside in, the antiquarians were smiling.
* * *
But if facts provide permanent refuge to historians, fashions continue to entice them. Twenty years on, Hunt is again scrutinizing the latest trends, and the opinions she offers about them in *Writing History in the Global Era* should not be taken lightly. She begins by reviewing the shift from social to cultural history. As she confesses, one big problem with the search for “meaning” in the past is that it was so vague as to be useless, even if it showed that a shortcoming of social history was an incessant focus on anonymous and supposedly objective processes. But cultural history proved to be another cul-de-sac. Hunt explains it with a different metaphor: “What began as a penetrating critique of the dominant paradigms ended up seeming less like a battering ram and more like that proverbial sucking sound of a flushing toilet.” In Hunt’s telling, the clear need even two decades ago was for a new “paradigm” for historians to apply to their facts. But what is it?
Where cultural history often emphasized the small and the local, Hunt continues, the current wave of interest in “globalization” favors the far-flung. It gets its name from a process exalted by Thomas Friedman and excoriated by Naomi Klein, and Hunt shows that historians have hardly been immune from suddenly discovering the world beyond their cramped former national or regional redoubts. She also shows that the very term “globalization” has experienced a crescendo in the past two decades, with books and articles pouring forth from presses offering global histories on a welter of subjects. We have been treated to global histories of cod, comics, and cotton, and one publisher offers a series dedicated to global accounts of foodstuffs like figs, offal, pancakes, and pizza. German historian Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World, shows what life was like when it took eighty days to travel around the globe, anticipating our age of supersonic movement of people and instantaneous transmission of bytes. Even Hunt has recently gotten into the act, editing a book about the French Revolution from a global perspective.
Proponents of globalizing history have persuasively argued that history has remained “Eurocentric,” but Hunt rightly asks whether the contemporary fashion of writing history across large spaces does more than drastically expand the canvas for historical depiction. “Is globalization a new paradigm for historical explanation that replaces those criticized by cultural theories?” she asks. It may enlarge the scale of study, focusing on long-distance trade, far-flung empire, or cross-border war, but such a perspective could merely draw greater mountains of facts in view, without explaining what they mean or why they matter.
What global history emphatically does not prove is that the classic authorities for interpreting the past have become obsolete, especially since Karl Marx himself described the phenomenon now called globalization. Hunt’s starting point is different. She argues that because she and her fellow cultural historians so irreparably damaged the social theories that commanded history from Gibbon’s time to our own, the options for doing history now can only take one of two forms. One is to do without any reigning “paradigm,” which Hunt stipulates cultural history never had -- beyond a general commitment to recapturing meaning, without agreement on how to interpret it. The other is to invent a new paradigm. Hunt’s fear is that globalization, because it foregrounds anonymous processes once favored by social historians, will end up preferring the sorts of frameworks they once relied upon. Globalization could, that is, make obsolete the insights of the cultural revolution Hunt originally sponsored, while doing nothing to lead historians beyond the limits she now thinks are intrinsic to a global focus.
To her credit, Hunt makes it clear that her need for a new dispensation is hardly universal within the profession. It is conventional to group Hunt with her generational colleagues Joan Scott and William Sewell, since all three bolted from social history in a crowd, and all three have regularly explained their turns over the years. (Sewell is the author of the greatest book in the historiographical landscape, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation .) But as Hunt notes, Scott has stuck it out with postmodernism -- apparently believing it more defensible than Hunt does -- while Sewell has gone “backwards” to Marxism. Hunt is not satisfied with either choice: “Must historians choose between a return to the previous paradigms,” she wonders, “or no paradigm at all?”
For Hunt to ask this question, her twin premises -- that cultural history utterly devastated social theory, while generating no real interpretive worldview of its own -- must bear a lot of weight. Perhaps too much: Sewell doesn’t think the first is true, while Scott would bridle at the second. For that matter, you might wonder whether the source of the problem is the roller coaster of approaches and its endless loops, which produces the demand for a new new theory.
Bravely, Hunt forges ahead to shape her own paradigm, in what is the most interesting chapter of her book. She concludes that historians need a novel approach to society -- or, more precisely, a theory of the mutual relationship between the individual self and the larger society. Neither social nor cultural history, which submerged the individual in a larger system of forces or meaning -- often to the point of rendering him entirely insignificant -- could possibly fit the bill, Hunt says. But there is good news: “Ideas about the society-self connection are now emerging from an unlikely conjunction of influences.” Her goal is to spell out what these are, as sources for a new paradigm.
Two of Hunt’s sources are evolutionary neuroscience and cognitive psychology, which she tinkered with in earlier work. Her enthusiasm for them appears strange, given that the rule of biological processes is hardly less anonymous and deterministic than a globalizing turn that effaces human agency. Importing newfangled theories from other esoteric fields and leaning on works of pop science doesn’t seem like a recipe for success. Remember the crop of historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who put their bets on scientific racism? Nobody does, except as cautionary tales, because their work is worthless.
What becomes even more confusing is that Hunt grafts this trend onto a return to the hoary tradition of social theory that she explicitly admits is simply a broader version of the approaches that cultural history supposedly overturned. The idea that “the social is the ground of meaning” -- in Hunt’s ultimate formula -- was central to the tradition of thinking from the Neapolitan sage Giambattista Vico to Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. It may be that social historians badly misunderstood this tradition in their efforts to think about society in terms of broad categories of people, just as cultural historians reversed the error in celebrating “meaning” as a separate object. But in her proposed return to the social, Hunt is essentially admitting that we progress not by seeking a new paradigm, but by fixing past mistakes. One of the biggest is the trend-driven thought that historians had to choose between studying society and studying culture, even if that false choice once made sense to Hunt and her generation.
For this reason, Hunt’s book sometimes reads as if we have to live her own intellectual life story in order to follow her venture to craft a new paradigm. It could be, however, that all this talk of “paradigms” is misleading -- a distraction from the fact that the relation of self and society has been the constant concern of social theory since its origin, and that there is a huge range of options within that tradition to explore and improve upon. Hunt repudiates the common postmodern position that the self is a historical product, as if merely proposing a compromise between the claims of society and the self were specific or sufficient. Even when it comes to her own modish neuroscientific flourish, Hunt connects it to an older French thinker, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and his broader notion that selves are embodied. But like Marcel Gauchet, a contemporary Frenchman on whom she draws heavily, Merleau-Ponty is merely one figure within a rich fund of resources in social thought.
Hunt raises but never resolves what may be the key quandary for historians today. The emergence of global history inevitably makes one wonder if the categories -- starting with “society” itself -- that Westerners have devised to study themselves are applicable to peoples of all times and climes. Hunt repudiates extremist commentators who insist that Western categories can only ever explain Western things. It is not clear that this overcomes the difficulty.
* * *
Whereas Hunt wants to reckon with the fashion of globalization, Armitage and Guldi are interested in larger time scales and not merely expanded geographical spaces. Armitage, a trusted Harvard colleague of mine, has never been above spotting trends himself, having already helped define the study of Atlantic history, Pacific history, and international history. Now he has a couple of new themes -- long-term history and present-minded history -- and in his effort to expound them he is joined by Guldi, a younger whiz kid who is an expert in “big data.”
Their exciting argument goes like this: in the past few decades, historians have dropped their emphasis on what the French historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. In his celebrated history of the Mediterranean Sea littoral, published in 1949, Braudel insisted on the superior reality of the long-term rhythms of life. The commanding forces of demography and environment, Braudel assumed, made individuals -- even kings -- mere “dust.” Armitage and Guldi offer a series of reasons why, contrary to Braudel’s inspiring example, historians broke for the short term. Perhaps the main one was cultural history: “meaning” seemed inevitably tied to a specific time and place, in ways that grand stories across vastly different times would always slight. But there were other reasons, too, like the pressures of finding new topics in the professional competition for turf. The results, Armitage and Guldi believe, were profound, as the average time scale of history books was precipitously compressed.
But retrieving our sensitivity to what the pair somewhat mysteriously call “vibrations of deeper time” is not just an attempt to return to Braudel’s cool and remote surveys of aeons. The real reason to ascend to Olympian heights and the sweeping gaze they allow, Armitage and Guldi say, is to plunge into the political affairs of the city. How is it, they ask, that since classical times history played the role as magistra vitae -- roughly, a teacher for living -- and especially for the guidance of political actors, but now has been rudely displaced by other fields, and especially by dismal (and often disastrous) economic thinking? History used to be, if not exactly philosophy, then at least “philosophy teaching by examples,” as Thucydides originally put it, and as the early modern Viscount Bolingbroke repeated in his Letters on the Study and Use of History (1735).
In this plea for relevance, Armitage is cutting against the famous stricture of his mentor, the Cambridge University don Quentin Skinner: if thinking is to be done, it has to be done “for ourselves,” without the aid of historical perspective. Where Skinner voiced a conventional antiquarian view that the role of writing history is to cut the present off from very different pasts, Armitage and Guldi insist on the operative value of historical work, and indeed for the highest public causes. After chronicling the cult of the short term, the two turn to the pressing political reasons for abandoning it in order to bring the long term to bear on our present, with the help of new digital tools. Historians need, they say, to immerse themselves in the vast digital archives of searchable information now on offer, and compared to which their old search for archival documents looks narrow and quaint.
Even as they have some wise and penetrating things to say about the new services that big data affords, Armitage and Guldi make it clear that their brief is not for every historian to shift to the long term. In their defense, they cite none other than Lynn Hunt. Time-bound and local puzzles will always remain to be confronted; but for Armitage and Guldi, the really uplifting new new thing is that computerized data and computing power allow a set of rapid solutions to challenges that took Braudel and his ilk a decade to decipher. And these, they argue, could in turn allow historians a return to the public stage, whether it comes to debates about international governance or global land reform.
* * *
Armitage and Guldi are careful to distinguish their notion of the long term from other calls for “deep” and “big” history. Given her scientism, Hunt has a soft spot for the call for depth, one that is associated with another Harvard scholar, Daniel Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Smail refuses to restrict the history of humanity to the last few millennia and their documentary record, when archaeology and especially biology provide tools to extend history back much further. For acolytes of “big” history, like the Australian scholar David Christian, “deep” history that starts so late -- with human beings -- is itself too unambitious. It’s an argument that has resonated beyond the ivory tower. Bill Gates has been agitating for high schools to teach history starting with the Big Bang. “I just loved it,” Gates told the New York Times of his experience exercising on his treadmill while watching Christian explain the concept of big history on a video. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!”
Perish the thought. Apart from the fact that Gates’s scientism sacrifices the critical perspective that humanists have learned to maintain since their disastrous nineteenth-century dalliance with biology and other natural sciences, the trouble with massive expansions of the time line, even just to the totality of human history, is simple: it forces historians to become scientists, effectively converting their discipline into what is already somebody else’s job. Gates’s big historians already exist: they are called physicists. In any case, this is not what Armitage and Guldi seem to want. They justifiably insist that humanistic inquiry like history is supposed to provide an alternative to “the natural-law models of evolutionary anthropologists, economists, and other arbiters of our society.” More than that, excessive expansion sacrifices the idea that the drama of human history is about the fate of our ends, and therefore what we ought to care most about, even when they affect the nonhuman world.
Yet even in their comparatively modest call for long time lines to confront burning problems (including a literally burning earth), Armitage and Guldi have no answer to what has always been the really hard question: How do you interpret facts across a tiny or huge time scale? Just as the globe provides a larger space, an extended time line merely allows a longer frame. To think about what happens in the sunlit uplands beyond the confinement of the local and time-bound, you need a theory. Data -- including big data about the long term -- is never self-interpreting. Nor is orientation toward the past for the sake of the future solely a problem for which more information is the solution; it is ultimately a philosophical problem that only speculation can solve. This was the point of social theory from Vico to Marx: to integrate necessary facts with a vision of human becoming, which never lacked an ethical and political dimension. Arguably, it is this, most of all, that people need today, not merely a proclivity for the long term.
Armitage and Guldi have no use for Marx except to inspire their title, and to allow them to begin their book by invoking the specter of the long term and to end it by demanding that the historians of the world unite. Unlike Hunt, they do not regard the newly won chronological sweep -- like the larger space of globalization -- as something that has to be filled by some theory or other that allows new or big (or old or little) data to be interpreted in compelling ways. Or if they do, it is not the focus of their brief for ambition.
Even our boldest trendsetters, then, do not see the wall between history and philosophy as the final frontier to breach, in part because it was the first one erected to define the discipline by antiquarians in love with their facts. Armitage and Guldi wisely remark that fashionable “critical turns” conceal “old patterns of thought that have become entrenched.” Of these, the most durable is not the affection for the short term, but the refusal to risk the certainty of facts for the sake of a fusion of history and philosophy.
* * *
In 1966, Hayden White published “The Burden of History,” his still invigorating attack on his professional colleagues. “History is perhaps the conservative discipline par excellence,” White wrote, coming out swinging, and perhaps most of all against the factological ethics so central to the modern craft. The consequences, according to White, were grave: “As history has become increasingly professionalized and specialized, the ordinary historian, wrapped up in the search for the elusive document that will establish him as an authority in a narrowly defined field, has had little time to inform himself of the latest developments in the more remote fields of art and science.”
Momigliano wrote a notorious polemic against White (a former teacher of mine) precisely for denigrating the recovery of factual truth, which he thought central to history. But if Momigliano turned that recovery into a punishing imperative of the historical superego, White wanted to substitute a different “ethics” for history -- one that would make room for theory, or even insist on seeing beyond the contrast between history and theory, in the service of the present. Nearly 90 years old and still ahead of his time, White is back this year with his own lively new book, The Practical Past.
Because the past needs to be practical for us -- there is no reason to care about it except insofar as it is useful to the present -- White begins his book by once again putting Momigliano’s professional “ethics” in their proper place: "The older, rhetorically structured mode of historical writing openly promoted the study and contemplation of the past as propaedeutic to a life in the public sphere, as an alternative ground to theology and metaphysics (not to mention as an alternative to the kind of knowledge one might derive from experience of what Aristotle called the 'banausic' life of commerce and trade), for the discovery or invention of principles by which to answer the central question of ethics: 'What should (ought, must) I do?' Or to put it in Lenin’s terms: 'What is to be done?'"
It seems as if, in roundabout ways, all of our current historiographical trend-followers finally agree with White, in the face of what they regard as a great crisis for historical writing today. But it is one thing to call for speculation for the sake of relevance, and another to bring about a new marriage of history and philosophy. For the coming generation, one thing is clear: thinking will have to become our profession.
--Samuel Moyn is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His most recent book is Human Rights and the Uses of History.