Leonardo"s Notebook by Mattheus Mei

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Monday, December 22, 2008

QOTD: The Historian's Craft

... it sometimes seems to the general reader that "dispassionate historian" is an oxymoron.

- John Derbyshire, When Worlds Collide

Derbyshire in the preface to two excellent book reviews is commenting on the fact that in our day writing about Islam automatically elicits the question what's the angle.

In the case of Islam as Derbyshire points out you have Islamophobes and alarmists on one hand like - Robert Spencer, Bat Ye'or, and Ibn Warraq who he says are "keen to tell us about the fundamental, irreducible wickedness of Islam and its founder," and then on the other hand you have everyone else, albeit in not so neat a categorization.

It doesn't automatically mean that the rest are Islamophiles - certainly there are some of those, but also included would be apologists (David Lewis who he is reviewing in this piece) and that oxymoron he spoke of - those who's approach to History is of the more traditional variety which is simply to understand (through your own cultural schema) and explain the ebb and flow of history (Hugh Kennedy).

This though can't simply be explained as a product of our own national history, and the cultural rupture that occurred nearly nine years ago, that's only part of it.

It can't simply be written off as the intellectual dalliances of a few elites, as he notes "Historians with a bill of goods to sell are of course nothing new. Gibbon's pro-classical, anti-Christian bias; Macaulay's Whiggism; Carlyle's heroes; the Marxists' modes of production; Spengler's declinism; [and] Churchill's Anglo-Saxon triumphalism" Having bias doesn't automatically mean revisionism, it simply is extolling some attribute or group over another.

Even more so it's also a product of critical theory, post modernism if you will -- and to be trite, everyone's doing it - we're all Post Modernists now!

[cue creepy tragic music: DUH DUH DUUHHH]

And by everyone, in regards to history - replace Islam with any other ethnocultural group or value. The same question will be asked, what's the angle?

Critical Theory used to be the plaything of the liberal elites in academia - but with the increasing democratization of knowledge, the tools of critical thinking have broken free of their socio-economic, ethnocultural restraints. As Tim Cavenaugh so wryly put it in Reason Magazine, "the mainstreaming of pomo thinking has been largely a stealth project, something Americans do without committing overt acts of academia. We thought we were trying to clear away the cobwebs of shoddy analysis and elite hypocrisy, but all along we were bringing the tools of critical thinking to the masses."

For Historians, much like the rest of society which has been pomo'd, what Derbyshire here laments is that truth get's spun to fit the desired narrative. In the case of Spencer - it's to demonize Islam, for Lewis (the subject of Derbyshire's review) it's a beef with the dominant white western culture. To underscore the point,

The new Carolingian order [of the later 8th century]...was religiously intolerant, intellectually impoverished, socially calcified, and economically primitive. Measured by these same vectors of religion, culture, class, and prosperity, 'Abd al-Rahman's Muslim Iberia was at least four centuries more advanced than Western Christendom in 800 CE. An ironic intelligence from another planet might have observed that if Carolingian Europeans believed that Charles the Hammer's victory at Poitiers made their world possible, then it was a fair question to ask whether or not defeat might have been preferable.
To this Derbyshire responds -
What can one say about this sort of thing? Is there any truth in it? Well, yes, there is some. It is often the case, in history's great churnings, that one nation strides ahead of another, only to fall back into decadence or barbarism a century or few later. And as Michael Hart notes in his recent book Understanding Human History: "Although at times the Moslem world was more advanced culturally than the Byzantines, it was never much more advanced." Notice Lewis's comparison, though: Western Christendom, Carolingean Europeans. His is a much narrower scope than a thorough comparison of Islam and Christendom would require.

Counterfactual speculations of the kind that Lewis is trading in are in any case airy and insubstantial because we lack the knowledge required to evaluate them.
The most telling thing about this type of history is the second and third sentence of the response. Is there any truth in it? Well, yes, there is some.

And that's the difference between the likes of Gibbon and the rest - the standards and approach to epistemology. For most modern historians of any ideological, ethnocuoltural or political stripe - narrative and perspective is the dominant factor in determining truth not the otherway around. That's why Derbyshire says "some" in relation to truth in Lewis' work. It's not enough for a fact to speak for itself, to establish a truth as one may not have the ability to know that truth, one has to create categories to interpret the fact to establish the truth.

On the other hand, for Derbyshire - Kennedy does a decent job of presenting a historical understanding of Islam in his work. In Kennedy's work facts are presented and the narrative arises from those facts. And so Derbyshire says, "His aim in The Great Arab Conquests is strictly narrative: to tell a curious nonspecialist what the Arabs did between the death of Mohammed in A.D. 632 and the fall of the Umayyads 118 years later. There are no counterfactual speculations here." In fact he asserts that Kennedy as a writer of History, "is at pains all through his book to emphasize the scarcity and unreliability of sources for the period. This was, after all, the Dark Ages. Kennedy tells us what is known. When he has to choose between conflicting accounts, or fill a void with speculation, he does so with utmost caution and many warnings..."

So what's the angle? I've recently acquired Philip Jenkin's latest book (Merry Christmas to me), The Lost History of Christianity. He recently did a promo (as opposed to pomo) in the Boston Globe that was quite a teaser, enough for me to buy it, also there's an interesting Q&A at BeliefNet.

The beauty and danger with Jenkins' writing is that he challenges assumptions, but generally does it with a healthy balance of fact and narrative. This doesn't mean that Mr. Jenkins is innocent of pomo tendencies in writing - he's just more of a Gibbon, than a Spencer or Lewis. He's not out to completely change and scrap the narrative framework that we operate in as much as expand it to be more inclusive without having to make extreme mental leaps. He is a passionate dispassionate historian.

All of this to say that I can't wait to read it.

[Full disclosure: I had the honour and pleasure of meeting Dr. Jenkins at a series of Lectures he gave at USC on Europe, Islam and Christianity. They can be read here and here.]

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