Saturday, July 31, 2004


Selective emphasis in history

"Selective emphasis, with accompanying omission and rejection, is the heart-beat of mental life. To object to the operation is to discard all thinking. But in ordinary matters and in scientific inquiries, we always retain the sense that the material chosen is selected for a purpose; there is no idea of denying what is left out, for what is omitted is merely that which is not relevant to the particular problem and purpose in hand." (John Dewey)

At Cliopatria yesterday, Timothy Burke had an excellent post responding to a recent thread of arguments (woven into Cliopatria by KC Johnson) that political historians are being crowded out of the academy by social and cultural history.

Below I quote an exemplary excerpt from Burke's post:
There is a real issue involved in the old conflict between political and social history that is badly served when either side reduces it to being about the status of white men living or dead. Considered more thoughtfully, questions like, “How do we best know the past, by studying the broad patterns and structures of everyday life that shape the lives of most human beings in a given era, or by studying the particular events and actions of powerful individuals?” are real questions and not easily resolved. ... You can’t just suggest that there’s something obviously inappropriate about deciding that the more important fact of American history is the imperial expansion of the United States as opposed to the history of the Constitution. That’s a real argument, and it has to be made in real terms, with satisfying rigor, with mutual respect and appreciation on either side.
I agree with this paragraph, but I would also slightly amend it in a way that I think is consistent with Burke's overall argument. Rather than asking "how we best know the past" in toto, the real question that every historian has to ask is how to best answer a particular historical problem. What we study depends on what we want to know. For some questions about the past, studying "everyday life" is essential; for other questions, the "actions of powerful individuals" must be examined.

As in any academic enterprise, historians have to be selective in their methods, but always with an appreciation that other methods are equally viable for other problems. Which problems are in most urgent need of solving is another question, and Burke is right to suggest that we need less finger-pointing and more serious discussion of this issue. But even if we were to ask this meta-question, we would not avoid selective emphasis. The past is too complex, its subject matter too vast, for us to ever believe that we have found the most important segment of it. I was originally attracted to history because historians seem to realize this, and their transparency about the necessary selectivity of intellectual life helps remind us that life itself is irreducibly complex, and that understanding it fully will always elude our grasp. We can say of history what John Dewey argued of philosophy--that when we selectively emphasize something, "there is no idea of denying what is left out, for what is omitted is merely that which is not relevant to the particular problem at hand."

Of course, Dewey went on to say (following the quote above), that "in philosophies, this limiting condition is often wholly ignored. It is not noted and remembered that the favored subject-matter is chosen for a purpose and that what is left out is just as real and important in its own characteristic context." The same, alas, is often true in histories. Bravo to Burke for reminding historians not to forget that emphasis is always selective.

Collective Improvisation:

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