Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Conversation Between Daniel Hobbins and David Cressy

The History department hosted a round table conversation with Dr. David Cressy interviewing Dr. Daniel Hobbins about his new book, Authorship and Publicity Before Print: Jean Gerson and the Transformation of Late Medieval Learning. I have yet to read the book, Dr. Hobbins, though, was on my committee and I have taken several classes with him so Gerson and late medieval culture became part of my schooling. During the course of the event other people also got the chance to put forth questions. This is my summery of the event based on my notes. As always, any mistakes made are mine.

Cressy: Authorship and Publicity Before Print is a book about conversations. There are four conversations in the book. The nature of this period, which you do not view as an extension of the Middle Ages, publication before print, the career of Jean Gerson and, finally, this a book about media and communication.

Hobbins: This project began with Gerson. I did not want this book, though, to be about just Gerson. This book changed from the original dissertation and I expanded it. Anyone who wants to use the term late for a period is heading toward trouble. Traditionally the late Middle Ages has been viewed as a time of trouble. I am responding to Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages. Huizinga saw a decline from the twelfth century. He made heavy use of Gerson. In the words of one scholar: last contribution of the Middle Ages was spoken before 1378 (Start of the Great Schism). One can also view this period as a harvest of medieval thought or as a precursor to humanism. There is a need to move outside of this box and see the late Middle as a period in its own right.

Cressy: Gerson seems to be everywhere in the book and he was a very important person in his own time, though his work did not manage to cross the channel or the Alps. Why is he outside of our narrative?

Hobbins: Gerson does not fit into the narrative. I would have a difficult time if I wanted to put him into a textbook. He is not the High Middle Ages and he is not the Renaissance. The Western Civilization textbook is not designed to teach that civilization does not develop linearly.

Geoffrey Parker: What role does the Schism play in the distribution of Gerson manuscripts? Why does Gerson not make it into England and Italy?

Hobbins: By the Council of Constance there is this panic over Wycliffism. So you can see how easily texts can spread during this period. That being said, in this period, books are not distributing fluidly. For example Thomas a Kempis was a bestseller but did not make it into Spain.

Barbara Hanawalt: What about Gerson’s dabbling in popular politics such as in the case of Joan of Arc?

Hobbins: Gerson preached at court so he was part of a political network. There is a move away from mendicants to having the secular clergy occupy these positions. His big cause early in his career was the assassination of the Duke of Orleans in 1407. This leads to his work on tyrannicide. This work is quoted by James I in the seventeenth century. Gerson ended his life in exile after Paris ended up as part of the Anglo-Burgundian regime in 1418. His work on Joan of Arc was used at her retrial in the 1450s.

Cressy: What did it mean to be a public intellectual in the fifteenth century?

Hobbins: There is not the coffee house public of the eighteenth century but there is a public discourse. You have theologians reaching a wide public. How does this fit into a narrative of decline? That being said this could not have been more than ten percent of the public. This is still, though, far more than the audience reached by medieval scholastics such as Aquinas.

Gregory Pellam: Gerson was responding to Petrarch. Was this a key feature in the development of a French nationalism that the French are always correct?

Hobbins: In the fourteenth century English theologians are being condemned by the papacy for mixing logic and theology. Gerson is part of this anti English tradition. Nationalism is a very controversial issue. Is Joan of Arc an example of nationalism? She was hearing voices telling her to go support the king of France against the English so God, in her view, supports France as opposed to the English.

Cressy: We have a public that is being fed news. It would seem that this is a public sphere.

Hobbins: Jurgen Habermas, when dealing with the Middle Ages, talks about nightly courtly publicity. He simply co-opted the traditionally image of the Middle Ages, without dealing with the wider culture.

(The political philosopher, Jurgen Habermas is the author of the controversial thesis that the eighteenth century saw the birth of the "public sphere." Medievalists have been quite keen on showing that there was a public sphere during the Middle Ages. The question becomes what counts as a public sphere. It is clear that there existed a more of a public than Habermas thought. Habermas was writing during the 1960s at a time when medieval studies was still a study of church and aristocracy. Since then scholarship has "discovered" the common man and have made him a historical force to be reckoned with. There is a similar debate with nationalism. Nationalism is usually associated with the nineteenth century. Did it exist during the Middle Ages? Depends on how you define nationalism.)

To what extent was Gerson concerned about his work getting outside of his control?

Hobbins: Scribes mangling texts was a common concern going back to antiquity. Gerson, though, writes in praise of scribes. He recognized the important role that scribes play in putting forth his ideas. He lived to see his work being distributed. He gathered material that he wrote to be distributed. Imitation of Christ is often wrongly attributed to Gerson. Why did Gerson not write it? He never took the time to write a masterpiece.

Cressy: Gerson’s brother served as a sort of manager. He helped distribute his work.

Hobbins: We would still have Gerson without his brother. A Dominican like Aquinas would have had a stationer copying his work and passing them along. Gerson also had a privileged circle of copyists.

Cressy: Any comparison to modern times? Modern issues seem to play a large role in your book.
Hobbins: We are in a transitional time. Printed texts are imitations of manuscripts that is the only way they could have caught on. Gerson is almost begging for a printing press. He had his work put on tables so people in mass could read them.

History 112: The French Revolution and Napoleon

1. I know we said that Jefferson was influenced by the Enlightenment. How much and in what way did the American Revolution influence the French Revolution?
2. I noticed a resemblance between our Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights. Is there some sort of connection?

First of all there is the practical connection between the American and French Revolutions as the main reason why, come 1788, that France is in the financial mess it is in is because of what they spent helping the colonies in terms of both military and financial aid. By the way, America never paid back the money it borrowed from France. Also there is the ideological issue as both the Americans and the French were influenced by the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers could look across the Atlantic and say: look, these policies we are advocating are working in America so why not try them here in Europe. (In truth America during the 1780s was not in good shape with the Articles of Confederation. But progress is relative; at least we were not resorting to cannibalism or holding our females in common.)

3. What were the effects of the French Revolution (and the Declaration of Rights) on other countries?
4. My question has to do with the influence of the French Revolution. Ihave heard many times that aspects of the French Revolution were usedin countless revolutions and wars. Can you briefly go over them?


The French Revolution was closely connected to the Enlightenment. This is not to say that the Enlightenment caused the Revolution. Just that the Revolution made use of Enlightenment ideas. This made the Revolution an issue for anyone facing the issue of the Enlightenment, whether pro or against. In a way the French Revolution, with its turn to violence, harmed the cause of Enlightenment and by extension liberalism. The fact that the Revolution became associated with excess and extremism strengthened the hands of political and religious conservatives. I personally count it as a misfortune that it was France, with its strong anti-clericalism, that became the standard barrier of the Enlightenment. I suspect that we would have had a far healthier transition into modernity and a better grip on issues of religion and public life if it had been the English or German Enlightenments that took the lead.



5. There seems to be a pretty big contradiction between the idea of equality that the men of the French Revolution were fighting for and their suppression of women. How was this justified? One justification was that women didn't own property, so they were able to be overlooked, yet even if they did own property, they were still thrown into the "property-less" category. This seems like a terrible justification to me, so how did they get away with it? How much support was there in favor of sexual equality during this time?
6. In Chaumette's Speech at the General Council of the City Government of Paris Denouncing Women's Political Activism, he basically says women shouldn't be involved with politics because they will slack on their house work, which is so ignorant. But my question is on their involvement in the government. I was not aware women had tried to play a role in the actual running of the government, how common was this?

The idea of women playing a role in the government is still something very theoretical. At this point the issue of working class men taking a role in government is still being debated. Now the people debating this issue are fully aware of the stakes. If you assume that every person has some point blank right to take part in government, which traditional political thought had never accepted, than why not allow women to take part. At which point comes the counter liberal argument that it does not benefit the public interest to hand political power to just anyone. Taking part in government requires one to have a certain level of leisure and education. For someone to have a vote and be able to make use of it they are going to need to have the time to take off from work to go to the polls. (This is a problem that plagues the laboring class vote today. They are not willing to take the time off from work to go and vote.) More importantly one has to have the time and education to inform oneself about the issue. Otherwise one is just picking between random names. (When I go to the polls I tend to leave large parts of the ballot blank. I usually have no idea what platform various people running for school boards and other local offices are supporting.) In a society where there is no mass education and where most people do not much in the way of leisure time it makes sense to limit political power to those groups where, by and large, the people do have the necessary education and leisure.

7. Did the French have the same debates and arguments about slavery as we
did in the United States?

The French discussion of slavery is very similar to the one that the United States was having at this point in time. At this point slavery is something that exists but everyone assumes can and should eventually be gotten rid of. The slavery issue takes a radical turn in the United States with the invention of the Cotton Gin, which makes the production of cotton cloth economically plausible. Slavery, for the south, becomes not just something that exists but necessary for the existence of the “southern way of life.”

8. I don't quite understand what Barnave was saying about French colonies. Was he suggesting that people in these colonies should not be protected under the declaration, thus allowing them to import slaves from these colonies under the pretense that they don't share the same rights as the mainland French?

Antoine Pierre Barnave was advocating for the continued tolerance of slavery, at least for the short term, on pragmatic grounds. If the cause of world liberty rests on the success of the French Revolution and if the cessation of the French slave trade would harm France than the cause of world liberty requires that France continue its slave trade; opposing slavery is supporting tyranny. I admit that there is something morally repulsive about this logic, but he does have a point.

9. I find it odd that Napoleon would put his relatives as "dictators" in his recently obtained territories. Did they actually have training as military leaders? Where they as qualified and accomplished as Napoleon...or were some of them just mooching?

Some of Napoleon’s relatives were fairly talented like his brother, Jerome, and his step son, Eugene, were fairly talented. Others, like his brother Joseph, were less so. The funny thing about Napoleon is that he was attempting to created his own revolutionary version of Old Regime Europe.

10. Napoleon's empire seems to fall apart remarkably quickly after his downfall in the reading, is this a result of what was already occurring or more simplified than a truth of what was a in reality a longer process?

It was a fairly quick breakup. There were a lot of people who were very keen on breaking it up. It is a testimony to Napoleon’s great talent that he managed to keep his empire together for as long as he did.

ASAN Meeting Tonight

In response to the Autism Speaks Walk last fall and the creation of an Autism Speaks chapter on campus my friend Melanie (See here for her simply devastating letter to President Gee) decided to form an Ohio State chapter for the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and drafted me as an officer. Unlike Autism Speaks, ASAN does not operate on the medical model for autism. Of particular interest, Autism Awareness does not have autistics in its leadership; it is run by neurotypicals on behalf of those on the spectrum. Autism Speaks believes that they need to speak for autistics because autistics are incapable of speaking for themselves. ASAN, in contrast, is operated, for the most part, by autistics and for autistics.

We have our first meeting tonight at Barnes and Noble at 5:45 P.M (It works perfectly with our book club) and the Lantern even put out an article to help generate some publicity. This marks the second time in a week that I have appeared in the Lantern.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Asael III

Introduction, Prologue, I, II

Kuphdin burst into the library a half hour later, breathing heavily and visibly annoyed. Asael swiveled around in Kuphdin’s leather chair at the front desk, with his lower jaw jutted out in a grin. He made the mistake of relishing the situation for a second too long and Kuphdin beat him to the first remark. “The reading of the Shith by members of the Holy Order does not constitute a court of law and if you say otherwise in front of the masters at your examination you will fail.”

Asael blinked, confused. “I like how you change the subject at hand to make this all about me.”

“I am not a knack and I cannot read your mind, but I know you well enough to know what you were thinking at tzaphra. Anyway we have had this debate before.”

“And, as I recall, I won that exchange.”

“In the bei dina of pale faced eleven year olds with flapping tongues.”

Asael tapped his fingers together around the book he had been holding, determined to get this conversation back to where he wanted it. “You are late.” He blurted out in his high pitched drawl.

“The library opens upon my arrival so I am late about as often as the Rabanai Mesivta Tochtona[1] are wrong.”

“Oh but the lack of your physical presence has left this library and the approval stamp in the hands of pale faced eleven year olds with flapping tongues. Eloha Elyona![2] Robbed of your guiding hand, can you imagine the heresy that could have been approved with such a stamp?”

Asael handed the book over to Kuphdin for him to see. “The Peaceful Tidings translated into Ashurit, our ancient holy tongue, published by the department of theology of the Reland University in Saebethia.”

Kuphdin looked bemused: “The Melcothian scriptures in Ashurit. Missionary work.”

“Yes Brother! I glanced through it and I have already found three grammatical errors.”

“So this is a grammatical plot to subvert the holy tongue. Considering the events so far today one might think this was divine providence.”

Asael jumped up and began gleefully to circle around Kuphdin while spasmodically waving his hands.

“What Melcothian missionaries from Saebethia are launching an invasion. I know; they are burning the men at the stake, raping the women and torturing the children with sermons worse than death. How horrible!”

“You forgot the pious priests cut down by grammar! And no there is no invasion. I am afraid you will have to push your war plans for another day. Oh grandson of Serariah Dolstoy”

The mention of his grandfather caused Asael to wince: “So what is all the fuss about to make you not late?” Asael said this with particular emphasis on the last two words.

“All the fault of a purveyor of idleness and sin which, Rachmana be blessed, is not to be found within these sacred walls,” said Kuphdin as he brandished a copy of the town newspaper, the Shalma Lantern.

Newspapers were not allowed in the monastery, but for the past few years, at Kuphdin’s insistence, the Lantern had been delivered on a daily basis to the library. “It is a basic requirement and all respectable libraries have them,” he had explained to his superiors. So every day the library received its newspaper, delivered to the front gate of the monastery.

“Apparently one of the novices took delivery and engaged in an act of non reading and the fruits of discord are not filling this sacred institution at this very moment, lifting its leg and taking a pee right on my shoes.” Said Kuphdin.

Kuphdin opened up the despised paper to reveal the headlines in bold print:

Alliance with Saebethia

Kuphdin cleared his throat and continued reading in an absent minded undertone.

The Foreign Ministry admitted today to the existence of ongoing negotiations for an alliance with Saebethia, which have been taking place over the past several months. This contradicts statements made within this very paper only weeks ago, by government chair holders denying any such activity. From the Chamber floor Melchior Feiglin of the nationalist Tol[3] party was quick to denounce the nasia[4] and the ruling Malchia party. “I think it is time that our friends in the Malchia party have the good grace to drop the pretense of being members of the Ashurit speaking nation and call themselves something more fitting for a party of foreigners; may I suggest the Tory party. It seems that after whoring after Danians and unable to satisfy their lusts they have gone searching after foreign nocharin. And lo and behold they have found Saebethia.” Although the Shinar war has been over for twenty five years and there has been peace with Saebethia ever since feelings remain high. …

Kuphdin dropped the newspaper on the desk, beside the stack of new books, and looked up at Asael. “So it seems that we are now set to become allies with your patria.” Asael snorted: “Just because my father and his forefathers going back over a thousand years lived in Saebethia and were oppressed by Melcothians does not mean that I am in any way Saebethian.”

Kuphdin smiled in way that spoke part fatherly concern and part fatherly condescension. “You look Saebethethian, you speak the language and, technically speaking, you do carry Saebethian citizenship. If you ever needed an escape, you could make your way to the Saebethian embassy and a passport and a boat ticket would be yours for the asking.”

Asael rolled his eyes. “And now the Foreign Ministry, the Saebethian government and the Lantern conspire to make this a relevant issue. As if I do not get enough unwanted attention as it is.”

Kuphdin chuckled, taking in the opportunity to put Asael back on his heels. “Just you wait. Before the year is out the war will be history, Saebethia will be the model of civilization that we must aspire to in order to take our place as a leading nation in this modern world. Saebethian fashions will conquer every noble house and well born lady. And you, young sir, will be a symbol of our new Khazaria.”

Asael let out a laugh and smiled. Kuphdin could tell that it was a happy laugh and smile. “You sound as if you support this.”

“Just reflecting on the reality of our government and society. The government will decide that patriotism is loving Saebethia. It will filter down and before you know it no one will be able to imagine loving Saebethia not being patriotic.”


[1] The Sages of the earthly academy. Since, according to Ro’ai-Ana belief, the Sages act according to divine assistance, they are, by definition, never wrong. The exact nature of this infallibility is a matter of some controversy.
[2] God Above
[3] From the Ashurit word for "take." The Tol party preaches a religio-nationalist dogma, insisting on the need to protect the state from non Khazars and non Ro’ai-Anians. There chief target has traditionally been members of the Danian minority group.
[4] Lit. means prince. In the modern Khazarian political usage it refers to the Prime Minister.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bill Cosby at the Draft

Here is a great video featuring Bill Cosby commenting on the draft and channeling Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. Since John Madden has retired (thank goodness) could we draft Cosby to fill his place?

History 112: the French Revolution (Q&A)

1. Was there a single event or meeting that caused France to volunteer tobe on America's side of the American Revolution? Or was it just, "We hate England too.”

The fact that Louis XVI helped the American colonies should serve to indicate that he was not the reactionary autocrat that proponents of the Revolution made him out to be. Louis XVI was part of a generation of “enlightened despots” who viewed themselves as upholders of Enlightenment ideals. A word should also be put in for a very effective American diplomatic effort, to court French upper class opinion. The main person in this was Benjamin Franklin, an American philosophe.

2. Davies writes that "the revolution was imminent in almost all of Europe." So why exactly did it break out in France first and not somewhere else? What was unique about France's situation that caused a revolution?

This is a million dollar question that historians are still debating. It is important to realize that this very much is a question. From our teleological perspective it is very easy to take it for granted that the French monarchy was hopelessly inept and that Enlightenment thought would inevitably lead to a revolution. In truth there were things right with the French government and it could have made the necessary changes to stave off revolution.
If I were living in 1788 and was told that either England or France would have a revolution and chop their king’s head off I would have said England. England had plenty of heterodox thinkers running around, an unpopular monarch, George III, intent on increasing royal power when he was not insane and plenty of useless aristocrats lording over the populace and creating popular resentment. Most importantly England had already got rid of their king once before, during the English Civil War. So what that the French government was bankrupt and bread prices were going through the roof, there is nothing unusual about that.

3. Why did Necker getting kicked off cause such a controversy?

Jacques Necker was the finance minister, who first pointed out that the government was heading toward financial disaster and that spending cuts, particularly in the realm of the royal household budget, were needed. This lost Necker his job. He then went public with this and did the unheard of thing of publishing the government budget. Necker was not an aristocrat; he was Swiss and came from a common background. Louis XVI brought him back in 1788 precisely because he was seen as someone who commanded the public trust. Of course this did help matters when Louis XVI continued to get annoyed with Necker for saying the same things that got him fired in the first place and fired him again. If you hire the “people’s man” because he is the “people’s man” and then fire him for saying the sort of things that made him the “people’s man” in the first place the people are going to take it quite personally.

4. The French revolution in itself seems very bloody and violent. However, I am still surprised when Davies writes, "The Revolution started to devour its own children...Danton and his associates were denounced and executed in April 1794, for questioning the purpose of the terror. Robespierre, the chief terrorist, met denunciation and death on 28 July 1794. "Is there a way of explaining the seemly illogical and counter-intuitive executioner's list of the French Revolution?

The fact that the Revolution turned to such violence should not be surprising. The Revolution from the get go was built around violence the moment things moved beyond the Tennis Court Oath to the Bastille. If you build an ideology around revolution and the notion of revolution having some innate value than the revolution has to keep going. How else are you going to keep the revolution going if not by going to further extremes? If there is going to be the side of revolution than there has to be a side of "counter revolution." So one has to continuously search for “counter revolutionaries.” If you get rid of the “obvious counter revolutionaries” such as royalists and Catholic loyalist than you have to turn those who are not revolutionary “enough” and make them the new “counter revolutionaries.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

War and Peace: My First Conference Presentation and My Weekend at Purdue (Part II)

(Part I)

The second paper was “The Moral Significance of Recognizing Violence in Pogge’s Borrowing and Resource Privileges,” presented by Mark Balawender of Michigan State University. Thomas Pogge attacks borrowing and resource privileges, arguing that the developed world acts as an enabler to authoritarian governments as they borrow money and cause economic harm to their people. This process of borrowing money in exchange for resource privileges allows corrupt third world governments sell out their own countries. There is not normative standard to judge the legitimacy of governments. This allows authoritarian governments to seize power and gain money quickly even though this harms the population. How does one deal with this from the perspective of liberalism which allows economic transactions that only incidentally cause harm to other people?

A useful analogy is the case of two parallel paths one higher up than the other where the rocks from the higher path can cause harm to those on the lower half. Such a situation is okay where the population freely chooses which path to take. What happens when you have a case where the path one chooses is dependent on one’s social or economic status? This would create a different moral situation. Thus such instruments of global Capitalism as lending money to corrupt third world regimes in exchange for resources should be classified as forms of violence and should be viewed as wrong within the parameters of liberalism.

I found this presentation amusing mainly because it reminded me so much of Talmudic dialectics. As a good traditional liberal I oppose the aiding and abetting of authoritarian regimes. As a believer in free markets, though, I have the ultimate weapon against such regimes, Capitalism. Under free market conditions it is not in my interest to support authoritarian regimes even when control over their natural resources. Such regimes are likely to fall and the new regime is unlikely to respect its predecessor’s agreement, particularly if they are able to make the case to the world that this was a bargain made between thieves, designed to impoverish the country. I raised this issue with Balawender and he responded that Pogge had used a similar argument.

The final presentation of the first session Nathan Stout of Western Michigan University, “The Torture Memo: A Philosophical Critique” Prof. John Yoo’s Torture Memo, on behalf of the Bush administration, allowed for extreme interrogation tactics. Yoo defines Al Qaida members both as enemy combatants and as unlawful combatants. He assumes that 9/11 was a declaration of war on the part of Al Qaida and therefore the United States entered a formal war with Al Qaida no different than a war with a established state. This makes what happens next to fall under the military; Al Qaida fighters are military combatants. On the flip side, since Al Qaida does not keep to the established protocols of war, they are unlawful combatants, no different than spies. Congress does not have the authority to interfere with the President’s handling of unlawful combatants and the President is free to do with them as he wishes. How does one go about defining combatants and unlawful combatants? We assume that enemy combatants lose their rights to life and liberty because they choose to participate in war. This is in keeping with Just War theory. An unlawful combatant wishes to fight while maintaining the protections of a non combatant; he therefore loses the rights of lawful combatants. Yoo’s model would require one to assume that Al Qaida soldiers had a right to fight to begin with. Yoo, though, rejects the notion that Al Qaida is in any way a legitimate political entity. This being the case one should not be able to say that the United States is at war with Al Qaida.

I have not studied Yoo’s arguments, though the argument he makes seems to be very similar to the one that I made in a debate on Atheist Ethicist. I argued that the Al Qaida fighters held on Guantanamo Bay get the worst of both situations. As out of uniform combatants they have no legal rights. As prisoners captured during combat they do not need to be tried. The challenge being raised against Yoo seems to have a very simple solution, accept that Al Qaida is a political entity and should be treated as a state. I raised the scenario with Stout where Al Qaida would have acted “legally.” Al Qaida issues a formal declaration of war on the morning of 9/11 before they hijacked the plans. Uniformed Al Qaida soldiers get past security and hijack civilian airliners. After somehow getting all civilians off the plans they then crashed the planes into military targets such as the Pentagon. America declares war against Al Qaida and invades Afghanistan. Uniformed Al Qaida fighters clash with American forces out in the open, away from civilians, and are captured. I would have no problem with saying that Al Qaida prisoners should, under such circumstances, be treated with full legal rights as if they were from England, France or Canada and protected from torture. Since this is not the case, I have no problem in stripping Al Qaida fighters of their legal rights and handing a blank check to our government to torture them.

(To be continued …)

RVA’s Response to “Does History Have any Utilitarian Value?”

Here is RVA’s response to my recent post on the purpose of history specifically and the humanities in general. This is part of a running conversation going over a number of posts and I encourage readers to go back to the beginning. One of the perks of writing a blog is that one gets to come in contact with many interesting people. It has certainly been a pleasure talking to RVA, though he has chosen to maintain his anonymity, which I respect.

I'm very much intrigued by your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarian value." I often struggle with this question and have not come to a conclusion, although I sympathize with your position. I would argue that whether the humanities have any utilitarian value ultimately depends on your conception of what a "legitimate" society should look like. To play the devil’s advocate, I’ll venture a counter-argument, noting at the outset that I don’t necessarily agree with the following theory. The discipline of history has intrinsic utilitarian value because it insulates “history” from political and social propaganda by government and organized factions. If we assume that historians strive to be honest and earnest, objective inasmuch as possible, then they serve two important roles (which I delineated from your Part III post): 1) preservation of primary sources, 2) creation of objective secondary sources. (Assuming that the creation of an “objective” body of discourse is itself possible.) These two functions have practical value, not for the scholarly or academic issues they study and analyze, but because the work of historians collectively creates a body of discourse that strives for an authentic recitation of historical events. Each individual historian is himself superfluous, but the collective construction of history becomes the fruit of their labor. This body of discourse will then be protected by historians from outsiders (e.g. governments) and other historians who seek to “falsify” or “distort” history to suit their own political or social ends. The mere fact that than an objective body of discourse exists lets an individual in society make a comparison between “history” and “interpretations of history” by outsiders. If one's conception of a "legitimate" society requires it to sincerely acknowledge its own history, then preservation of its history becomes vital, and therefore History has a utilitarian function. The utilitarian value DOES NOT emerge from learning lessons from the past, but from preventing the manipulation of a society's history to suit political/social ends (e.g. Eastern European autocrats selectively constructing Nationalist ideologies to suit their political ends in post-Communist Europe).

On a related note, I sometimes wonder what it would be like living in a world without formal historians. Informal and ad hoc history would be similar to how American Law treats "out-of-court statements presented for the truth of the mattered asserted": hearsay. It would be distressing to encounter a society where history would have no more depth than a Wikipedia entry. Is formal History inevitable in any advanced human society? Not sure, but probably not. I think stable societies are a fragile phenomenon and there is no guarantee of their continuance. Thus even if History becomes formalized in a society, its continued operation is always premised on the continued stability of the State, which is never a guarantee. I can also imagine police states in the distant future which are repressive far beyond anything the 20th century encountered. When societies begin to disintegrate, there's a strong possibility of losing substantial portions of the accumulated knowledge of a civilization (which was why Seldon thought an Encyclopedia Galactica was necessary in light of the coming collapse of the Empire, even though this was only the Foundation's purported purpose).

Is formal history necessary for a legitimate society? Murky. I would say probably because it would otherwise be difficult to combat the construction of self-serving narratives by social, political and religious factions. In some respects, attempts at formalizing History would be inevitable because there would always be skeptics and dissidents (at least I hope there will be!) who would challenge self-serving historical narratives, and some skeptics would in turn attempt to formalize the History to prevent its usurpation by others. Or it could be that skeptics would merely create their own counter-self-serving narratives to advance their own interests?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Panel Discussion on Disabilities at Ohio State

This past Wednesday I participated in a panel discussion on disabilities and campus life sponsored by the Mount Leadership Society. The Lantern did an article on it titled “Students with disabilities highlight resiliency, optimism.” I would like to thank the Mount Leadership Society for hosting such a wonderful event and the Lantern for covering it. As one of the panelists I am featured in the article:

Benzion Chinn, a graduate student in the History Department, had the group laughing at some of the bizarre situations he's gotten into because of his Asperger's syndrome. Once, he said, police were called on him for the exaggerated motions he was making while speaking. He was only asking his professor a question about his test, but someone had mistaken his demeanor as threatening.
He said he has difficulty processing social information, such as body language. "So when people are silent and I am just talking on and on about 16th century religion wars, I assume that people are really, really interested," Chinn said. "On the flip side, what I am very good with is analytical forms of information, particularly text." He joked about how convenient this is for all the reading he has to do in the pursuit of his Ph.D.

For a more detailed discussion on the police incident see here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ohio State’s History Department’s Ranking

In a previous post I mentioned that Ohio State has a very good history department. According to U.S. News and World Report, Ohio State’s history department ranks twenty-fourth in the nation with a score of 3.8. To my chagrin, though, Michigan’s history department actually ranks seventh right along with Columbia. Of course for graduate school what matters is finding a professor to work with and I could not be happier working with Dr. Matt Goldish.

Does History Have any Utilitarian Value? A Response

In Part II you state, "The humanities have no utilitarian." In Part III, you state that history-buffs are of "no practical use to anyone" because they do not analyze primary/secondary sources and do not use the historical method, which in turn implies that the work of historians does have practical value. In Part IV, you challenge post-modernists who do not believe that the humanities have intrinsic value. My confusion may be cleared up if you could explain the relationship between those statements. Does your assertion that the "humanities have no utilitarian value" exclude history (i.e. Does history have utilitarian value? Practical value? Non-utilitarian value?). Also, is History part of the Humanities or is it a Social Science? Does it make a difference as to whether History has utilitarian value if you classify it as one or the other?

I view history as part of the humanities and not as one of the sciences, social or any other. As part of the humanities, history has no utilitarian value; it does not produce any goods with direct empirical benefits for human beings. Also history is outside of the sciences as it has no predictive value. During the nineteenth century it was quite common to view history as a science and to formulate specific laws. Hegel and Marx are good examples of this. In fact Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, because he saw what he was doing for history what Darwin had done for biology. This endeavor to find laws for history and create an overarching narrative has failed. Admittedly there is still the popular notion that one can learn from the past. But you will find about as many professional historians who believe this as you do scientists who reject evolution.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series there is a character named Hari Seldon who, through his study of psychohistory, is able to formulate laws as to how human societies work to such an extent that he is able to predict the future with mathematical precision. He foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire and a Dark Age lasting thirty thousand years. Through the creation of the Foundation, Seldon hopes to preserve the knowledge of the Empire so that the Dark Age would last only one thousand years. (Asimov essentially took Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and turned it into a series of science fiction novels.) No historian can do what Seldon does. We are just as clueless as everyone else. History as a science, therefore, is going to have to stay, for now, in the same realm as hyper-space travel, in science fiction.

So what purpose does history serve that we bother to have students waste some of their valuable time studying it? The most obvious answer, and in my view the least important, is that history is useful for giving context for present day events. For example it is reasonable to expect that young people participating in our recent election of Barack Obama should know something about the civil rights movement and of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It may also be reasonable to expect that they know something about the history of American slavery, about the Civil War and about Abraham Lincoln. It is reasonable to expect that with all the discussion about the recent downturn in the economy that people should know something about the Great Depression. Again this is not learning lessons from the past, this is just being able to put events into a certain context. The key difference between lessons and context is that context does not point and say that this happened in the past therefore you should do … . (whatever action fits into the ideology of the speaker) This understanding of history justifies at the very least that students in elementary school and high school should have to take some basic history courses taught by a teacher with a degree in education but not history.

For me history is important for three reasons. The first is that history is a method of thinking, a way of interrogating texts that is of vital importance for processing present day issues. When I read a newspaper or listen to a public speaker, because I filter everything through the historical method, I read and hear a very different text. One that the authors of the text usually do not want me to pick up on. This interrogation of texts is quite similar to a police interrogation of witnesses and suspects. While it is possible to learn this method without studying history, I would say that history is a very useful setting because it allows you to step away from the issues of your day. For example most people living in modern America have no particular strongly felt convictions one way or another as to who was right in the Hundred Years War, the English or the French.

This leads to my second reason. History, when properly taught, encourages one to transcend issues. While the English and the French fought the Hundred Years War, for the historian, neither side is right or wrong. Both sides are products of their specific place in history. The historian, in his own mind, gets to bring both sides together and make a sort of peace between them. Imagine a generation of politicians trained on this sort of historical thinking and imagine how different our public discourse would be. (For more on this concept see Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History.)

The third important thing that history does is that it forces one to confront a culture whose values are not one’s own. Not only is one forced to confront this different culture but one also finds oneself, in some sense, being drafted to defend this culture, now dead and buried, to a world that has passed on. In one sense this is very conservative as one is defending the past; in another sense this is very liberal as it involves challenging present norms in society.

With these three reasons in mind, I can affirmatively say with a clear conscious that history is an important field of study. Important enough that not only should children study it in elementary school and high school tbut that hey need to be taught it by a teacher trained in the historical method and not an education major staying a chapter ahead of them in the textbook. Furthermore history is something that should be a requirement in universities. Finally, for a select few, history and the historical method should become a way of life that they devote themselves to mind, body and soul.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

History 112: Candide and Kant (Q&A)

1. During his lifetime how did the public react to the works of Voltaire? Was he praised or like many others was it not until many years later, possibly after his death was his works recognized for what it was?
2. Did Voltaire get in any trouble with the Church for this work? It seems to have some negativity toward religion?


Voltaire is another good example of what I have said previously: you can get away with being heterodox as long as you know how to play your politics. Voltaire flipped back and forth from being successful and unsuccessful in this political game throughout his life. At various times he was imprisoned and exiled and at other times he wined and dined with kings and nobles. This is the contradiction of Voltaire; he made a name for himself as this anti establishment figure and he cashed in on this notoriety to become an international celebrity. (This is not that different from artists who denounce big corporations and then attend events sponsored by big corporations.) Candide itself was a major bestseller in its day. Unfortunately for Voltaire he did not reap the financial awards as there was not much in the way of effective copyright laws in the eighteenth century. Before the nineteenth century almost no one was able to make a living from being a writer.


3. Do you know, or have any guesses, as to which STD Pangloss is talking about in this section?

"O my dear Candide, you must remember Pacquette, that pretty wench, who waited on our noble Baroness; in her arms I tasted the pleasures of Paradise, which produced these Hell torments with which you see me devoured. She was infected with an ailment, and perhaps has since died of it; she received this present of a learned Franciscan, who derived it from the fountainhead; he was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it of a captain of horse, who had it of a marchioness, who had it of a page, the page had it of a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus; for my part I shall give it to nobody, I am a dying man."

Dr. Pangloss has syphilis, a “popular” disease during the eighteenth century. Voltaire goes with the popular assumption, still being debated to this day, that syphilis came from the New World. Notice the clergymen involved in this "genealogy" of transmission. You have a Franciscan giving it to Pacquette. (One assumes while doing other things besides for confession.) And you also have a pedophile Jesuit. Voltaire sticks all sorts of subversive material most of it between the lines to avoid censors.

4. Kant praises Frederick II for the tolerance within his country. Was he Kant's patron, or was Kant giving him acknowledItalicgment and using the state as an example simply because it was a good example at the time?

One assumes that Kant had Frederick II of Prussia in mind when he talked about the tolerant ruler. I do not think that Kant was directly funded by Frederick II, but Kant was a professor at the University of Konigsberg, so he was not in a position to mouth off against the government. Voltaire actually was personally very close to Frederick II.

5. In Kant's essay when he is discussing how the restrictive phrase "Do not argue" always comes up in the context of everyday relations with others, he says, "Only one ruler in the World says, "Argue as much as you want and about what you want, but obey!" Who is the ruler he is referring to?

I assume that he is referring to “Reason.” Reason is the authority against which everything must be judged. We have been discussing the move away from traditional authority based on ancient books and religious leaders. This essay by Kant is one of the classic statements of this transition.

6. Ok, maybe I'm not understanding the reading correctly. But does Kant believe that there should be no government because government obstructs/discourages our ability to think and reason? And that Enlightenment can only happen when people go against their government (aka "emergence from his self-impost immaturity")?

As we have already seen, particularly with Rousseau, the Enlightenment search for liberty has an ironic tendency to turn into apologies for authoritarian forms of government. If you read carefully Kant is mainly interested in religious freedom, political freedom seems to fall by the wayside. This is particularly important within the context of Frederick II, who was very tolerant in terms of religion but maintained a highly authoritarian regime in all other regards. As one Enlightenment philosopher commented: your Berlin freedom consists of saying any nonsense about religion. Let someone stand on the streets and talk about liberty and you will see that you live in the most oppressed land in Europe.
Kant’s emphasis on Duty is also going to have repercussions in terms of individual freedom as nineteenth and twentieth century German history will show.

7. Has enlightenment, as Kant describes it, ever been achieved? He warns that it is a slow process, because if it happens too quickly, the masses will cling to a new set of prejudices and never work past their "immaturity." I cannot think of a time when there was not some sort of great unthinking mass, as Kant call's the general public, clinging to some sort of prejudices or popular ideology. What are your thoughts?

As Kant states: "Do we presently live in an enlightened age?" the answer is, "No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment." I do not think that any era could ever live up to Kant’s standards. Being an enlightened individual, committed to challenging authority and finding things out for oneself is difficult; the alternative is just so tempting. This is one of the first things that one has to realize when trying to follow this path. If you think that it is some slogan you can choose to adopt you are probably not one of the enlightened. Enlightenment is something that only a few people in any generation could ever hope to achieve.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part IV)

(Part I, II, III)


I would like to say a few words about the issue of post modernism and why I object to it.




This is a picture of me at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles (MoMA). I am standing next to one of the exhibitions, which consisted of the New York Daily News covered in bird droppings. Now I am not opposed to the message of work, namely that the Daily News is a load of bird droppings; I agree. I also agree that this work raises a valuable issue in that it challenges us to consider the nature of art; what is the difference between a work of art such as the Mona Lisa and page of newspaper covered in bird droppings. The problem with this is that, while this is a great point, it is the enemy’s point. The conclusion to be drawn from being unable to distinguish between the Mona Lisa and a page of newspaper covered in bird droppings is not that the page of newspaper with bird droppings should go up in a museum and that we should have a museum of modern art devoted to such work but on the contrary, that we should not bother sticking up the Mona Lisa in a museum and that we should send the Mona Lisa and all the rest of the works housed in the Louvre in the trash bin along with the page of newspaper with bird droppings, thus allowing us to use the Louvre for something that actually benefits people.


At the Barcelona debate in 1263, Nachmonides was forced to respond to Christian charges that the Talmud confirms the truth of Christianity. At the beginning of the debate Nachmonides admitted to being puzzled by this; how it could be that the rabbis of the Talmud, living centuries after Jesus, could believe in Jesus and still reject Christianity? It seemed to be a matter of course for Nachmonides that, if the rabbis of the Talmud believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, they would have done the intellectually honest thing and ceased practicing Judaism and converted to Christianity. Obviously Nachmonides never met a post modernist.


Post modernism thrives on people undermining the legitimacy of their own work and still having the chutzpa to ask that society fund them in their endeavors. It is called deconstruction. If post modernists really believed in what they were doing and were intellectually honest they would admit that the entire humanities field, including their own particular slice, was worthless and they would pack up their things and leave academia. Frank Donoghue wishes to blame our business oriented society for killing off the humanities and he is right. What Donoghue does not ask is why the humanities have so utterly failed to defend themselves and make their case to society in the face of the business suits and number crunchers. For that you need Allan Bloom. Bloom, in his Closing of the American Mind, blames the modern left, with its worship of cultural relativism and its deconstruction of values, for bringing about a situation where even the humanities have no value. If all values are relative and there are no ultimate questions let alone ultimate answers than why should someone spend years of their lives studying Plato and Aristotle; why not just go to law school and make as much money as you can. Bloom was a tenured professor at the University of Chicago so his main concern was attracting students. As a graduate student, who made the choice to study history instead of going pursuing law school, my concern is getting a job at the end of the day. If the humanities have no value than why should a university bother to make the investment in hiring me.


I have a suggestion for all post modernists out there. If you do not believe that the humanities have intrinsic value and if you do not even believe in ultimate questions and in ultimate truths then please have the intellectual honesty to leave the university system; pack your bags and get a job in the real world. There are few enough jobs in the humanities as it is; the least you can do is leave those jobs to those who actually believe in what they are doing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

History 112: Enlightenment I (Q&A)

1. In the Davies text they spoke of Rousseau as a man that overcame a lot and as a man that was a forward thinker about equality and rights. In the excerpt online about his views on women, he sounded like a pompous jerk [for arguing that women needed to be kept in their place]. I was just curious if his views on women were acceptable back then? Was his views typical of the general public, and what about other forward thinkers, did they also agree with his view on women?
2. What were the common folk's opinion on how women should be treated? Also what was the Church's take on this? Were women of "wit" or "letters" looked down upon, as Rousseau thought they should be?

Rousseau was hardly alone in his sentiments even among Enlightenment figures. Not only did they have, by our standards, fairly negative views on women, their advocacy of freedom and reason was built around the premise that women needed to be kept in their place outside of the public sphere. (This is not all that different from Thomas Jefferson saying that “all men are created equal” and still being a slave owner.) This is not a matter of hypocrisy; they meant something very different from what we mean when we talk about freedom and liberty.
I assigned this particular sample of Rousseau’s writing precisely because it is something so offensive to the modern ear. This piece stands in stark contrast to Voltaire’s “Plea for Tolerance” which sounds very modern. Of course as we shall soon see Voltaire is also not a modern. One has to ask was Rousseau really so forward thinking and is it really meaningful to talk about people being forward thinking. You say that Rousseau sounds like a “pompous jerk.” As a product of modern liberalism, I would agree with you. People not trained in the historical method will read Rousseau and pat themselves on the back and think about how “tolerant” and “forward thinking” they are. We, as practitioners of the historical method, on the other hand see this as an opportunity to turn the question on ourselves. Why is it so obvious to us that Rousseau was a pompous jerk; might there be something that we are missing?
The Catholic Church traditionally has a rather funny relationship with women. On the one hand the Church venerates the Virgin Mary along with a slew of female saints. There is, as we have discussed, a long tradition of Catholic female visionaries such as St. Teresa de Avila. This veneration of women, though, has very little to do with real every day women and in fact may have been detrimental to women. If the Virgin Mary is the model of womanhood against which all women are judged, what woman can every hope to come out ahead.

3. Rousseau and Wollstonecraft provide starkly contrasting views on women and their role in society. How did the role of women differ between different social classes in the late 18th century Europe? If a woman wanted to become educated during this time period, what options did she have for doing so?

As we have seen previously “oppressive” societies are not such much oppressive as there being a system that one can play if one keeps from offending the wrong people. (For example Galileo was able to be a heliocentrist up until the moment he made fun of Pope Urban VIII.) If you are an upper class woman, while you would not have direct access to a university education, you would still be capable of getting an education, likely through private tutors and books, and even take an informal part in the public sphere. (In fact much of the Enlightenment takes place in salons hosted by upper class women.)
This was not an option for lower class women. That being said, lower class men also did not have these options either. In a sense lower class women were “freer” since there less restrictions upon them in terms of them being women.



4. How would Rousseau have responded to Mary Wollstonecraft's idea that it is better for everyone when a woman is self-sufficient?

As with most polemical debates, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft are talking past each other. For Rousseau the primary issue is not individual liberty. On the contrary the pursuit of individual liberty is a trap that leads to irrationality and tyranny. One has to submit oneself to the “General Will” and pursue the rule of reason by promoting the welfare of society. Wollstonecraft, like most people in the liberal tradition, thinks in terms of individual liberty.

5. Davies says, "Rousseau and Voltaire were as different as chalk and cheese", but from what I gathered from the reading, they seem quite similar. Rousseau believed that "since the evils of the world are overwhelming, all one can do is to put one's own affairs into order," meaning that you should practice self interest. Voltaire believed that all men should be free, no matter their station. So, in essence, Voltaire wanted common men to practice self-interest through government and Rousseau appealing to the "enlightened elite" encouraged self-interest. In essence, they have the same belief but are applying them to different socio-economic groups...Is this right, or am I missing something?

Rousseau and Voltaire had very different understandings as to the nature of progress and the nature of society. Rousseau believed that the advent of civilization, with the rise of private property, had corrupted human nature. He is the exact opposite of Thomas Hobbes; while Hobbes’ man in a state of nature is a bloodthirsty barbarian, Rousseau’s natural man is completely peaceful and lives at one with nature. Rousseau is critical of the very mechanisms of progress so beloved by the Enlightenment, reason, culture and the state. From Voltaire’s perspective Rousseau was as much an enemy of the Enlightenment as the Catholic Church.

6. How did the Classical Republic form of government not rise in the Renaissance if the Renaissance was a rediscovery of these texts? Were there advocates for this? Why did they not succeed or why weren't there any defenders for Republics?

The Renaissance has Republican governments such as Florence and Venice. And republican governments continued to exist in the eighteenth century in places like the Dutch Republic and the city states of Switzerland. The accepted consensus at the time was that republican governments worked well for small states, but that for larger states one needed a strong central power such as a Monarchy. This assumption has its roots in Aristotle who argued that democracy only works well when you only have a few thousand active participants. The success of the “American experiment” is important precisely because it showed that a republican government could work on a massive scale. This is the underlying theme of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who toured American during the early nineteenth century and commented on American life.

7. I did some more research on the Second Treatise and understood that it was best known for popularizing the right of revolution. Some sources also say that the Treatise influenced Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence". Do you think John Locke would be happy to see his work, his thoughts influenced another document that eventually used against his own country?
8. Reading the Locke text, it reminds me very strongly of the Declaration of Independence, especially in the first few lines and in the method for denying the rights of a king over men as being a good form of government. Being written nearly a hundred years earlier I certainly see it as possible that this document was in mind when the Declaration was written, do we have any evidence as to whether this is the case or no?


The line “life, liberty and property” end up in the Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty ad the pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution puts the word “property” back in. John Locke died decades before the American Revolution. He actually took an active interest in the American colonies and even helped write the constitution for the Carolinas. I must confess that I myself find the use of Locke by the Declaration of Independence to be remarkably unconvincing. (Read past the opening passage of the text and judge for yourself) I doubt if Locke would have found it convincing. This may sound very unpatriotic, but if I had been alive during the Revolution I would have been a Tory, like a third of Americans back then, and would have supported the British. I am a big Anglophile and I consider it rather unfortunate that we separated from England.


9. Norman Davies mentions briefly that "Differences between Western and Eastern Europe were growing" but did not go into details. Can you discuss more about these differences in class?

Davies is actually a specialist in Eastern European history, particularly Poland. So while most textbooks ignore Eastern Europe, he actively tries to incorporate it. Hopefully from reading Davies you will get a picture of Poland that moves beyond the Pollack jokes that we have all grown up with. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries England, France and Prussia (which will eventually come to form Germany) are going to industrialize in ways that other countries such as Spain, the Italian states and Russia do not. As such England, France and Prussia are going to take this tremendous leap forward at the expense of other European countries and eventually much of the world. Why this happens is an open question that I hope to discuss in future lectures.

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part III)

(Part I, II)

I see the field of history as consisting of three parts. First there is the collection and editing of primary source material. Then there is the analysis of the primary source material, creating secondary source material, in order to see in what directions the primary sources point. Finally there is the creation of a narrative, which puts together the conclusions of the secondary sources into some consensus. The history familiar to the general public is really this last stage. For the most part academic historians devote themselves to the second stage and it is this stage that forms the real heart and soul of the study of history. It has actually very little to do with narrative.

The issue of narrative is a sore spot for historians. It is the part of history that is the furthest from objective truth and the closest to personal opinion. If historians cannot be scientists they still wish to be better than artists or literature professionals. Again, considering the tight job market, this is not an academic question; real careers are on the line. I recommend Hayden White’s Metahistory, where he subversively treats history as a form of literature. What is important to note about White is that he only deals with issues of historical narrative. I suspect that most historians would gladly do away with narrative as at best a distraction and at worst an illusion that undermines "real" history.

Narrative remains in place largely because it is necessary to make one's work relevant, first to fellow historians, then to scholars in the humanities and finally to the general public at large. One of the ways that this is done is by showing how one’s work fits into someone else’s narrative. For example Dr. Goldish has a particular expertise in early modern Jewish thought and how it fits in with what we see with European Christians. He wrote his dissertation on Isaac Newton and his use of rabbinic sources. Similarly his recent book, Sabbatean Prophets takes sixteenth and early seventeenth century Jews and show how it is similar to, for example Phyllis Mack’s discussion of mid seventeenth century Quaker women in England. I see almost a caricature of this type of thinking at conferences where presenters rush to list off names of theorists just to force some greater “context.” With Dr. Goldish it never sounds forced; this speaks both to his talents as a historian and as a writer.

Working with Dr. Goldish has been very beneficial to me because of this and has given me far greater range as a historian. I came to Ohio State with very strong skills in terms of textual analysis. I grew up studying Talmud, plus I have Asperger syndrome so I am naturally very comfortable with texts. (I was not actually officially diagnosed with Asperger syndrome until after I came to Ohio State.) When I came Dr. Goldish told me point blank that the other students do not have my text skills; he did this in order to soften the culture shock for me coming to a secular university and, for the first time in my life, having to deal, on a daily basis, with people not trained on Talmud. What Dr. Goldish then went to work on me was narrative, telling a larger story.

At the end of the day narrative does have an important role to play in history. If narrative is necessary in order to show some higher relevancy and get a job it is because it is important to do something that is actually relevant. Kenneth Miller has a line: “biology without evolution is stamp collecting.” Evolution serves to take all the bits of information that we have about organic life and puts it together in one coherent “narrative.” Similarly with history; the Civil War buff, like my adolescent self, who can throw out lots of random facts about the Civil War, is not engaging in history. First he needs to be able to analyze primary and secondary source material through the lens of the historical method. Next he needs to be able to put everything together into some narrative. Without this all that we have is a cute factoid machine that is of no practical use to anyone.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part II)

(Part I)

What does Goldish mean when he says that your work must fit into "some larger narrative?" Do you fit your work into a narrative that other historians have created?
On a normative level, should historians be creating "narratives?" And who are these narratives created for? The general public? Other historians? Academia in general? Posterity?It seems I would favor your initial desire to just do a textual analysis, and eschew from making your work fit into a larger narrative. The mains reasons to fit your work into a narrative would be for personal ends (i.e. career advancement, pleasing your superiors) than for any pedagogical or academic ends. One last thing I'd like to touch on is the relationship between "fitting your work into a narrative" and post-modernism's criticism and skepticism toward such metanarratives. I agree with your general assessment that post-modernism offers interesting analytical tools, but is probably misguided as an end in itself. Could you elaborate your thoughts on this topic?

There is, without question, a pragmatic issue at stake; one day, with the help of God, I hope to find myself, with my dissertation in hand, applying for a job at some university. I will be sitting in a conference room with a collection of professors from both inside and outside the history department, administrators, graduate and undergraduate students. (I have been one of those "other" people sitting in the room.) It is likely that there will not be a single Isaac Abarbanel scholar, apart from me, in the room. Most of the people will not have much of a background in Jewish studies nor will most of them even be medievalists or early modernists. At some point a scholar, maybe from the gender studies program or a modern American history person, is going to ask, not necessarily even with words, "why anyone should care?" There is, furthermore, a particular subtext to go with this question; why should anyone care enough about what I am saying to give me a position at this university that could just as easily be given to someone who does gender studies or modern American history?

At a broader level anyone who wants to work in the humanities is going to have to answer this question in the courthouse of society. The fact is that jobs in the humanities are dwindling; there are not enough jobs for all the newly minted Ph.D.s that our universities produce each year. This situation has only been made worse by the recent down turn in the economy. (For more on this topic, I recommend The Last Professors: the Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities by Frank Donoghue. Donoghue, coincidently, used to work at Ohio State.) Ohio State recently slashed their search for someone to fill a new position in the women’s studies department. I do not expect the people in the women’s studies department to forget this and it is going to be an issue for anyone, like me, who does “dead white male” history, trying to get a job at Ohio State.

The humanities have no Utilitarian value. I now that nothing that I or any of my colleagues, both the ones whom I work with here at Ohio State and the ones I will compete with in the future, do is going to cure cancer, stop Global Warming, or end our dependence on foreign oil. My younger brother is about to start medical school. I joke that he is a modern doctor while I am a medieval doctor; you come to me if you need your humours balanced or some limbs cut off. It is certainly a fair question to ask why society should fund my work and not simply leave it as a hobby for those who enjoy this sort of thing. Last I checked Ohio State is not offering any jobs for people who can beat Super Mario Brothers. (I seem to recall a Farside cartoon on the subject.) This question is particularly acute because up until the nineteenth century history was merely a hobby for gentlemen of leisure. Edward Gibbon was a member of the British Parliament in the eighteenth century who, on the side, wrote a seven volume work called the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that we could go back to this state of affairs. There are thousands of accountants and lawyers with encyclopedic knowledge of the American Civil War. (I used to be one of those people during my adolescence.) Why do you need professional Civil War historians?

(To be continued …)

Friday, April 17, 2009

History 112: Some Thoughts on the English Civil War Readings

The ETEP module “The English Revolution” has been put together by Ohio State’s own David Cressy, who along with Geoffrey Parker forms the foundation of one of the strongest early modern history departments in the country. You would be very hard pressed to find a non Ivy league school with a stronger history department than the one at Ohio State so I encourage all students to take advantage of it. Cressy offers the provocative title of “English Revolution” instead of the traditional term “English Civil War.” I suspect that this is an attempt to plant the English Civil as an event of historical importance on par with the French Revolution. That the English Civil War, despite the fact that ultimately the monarchy would return, brought about certain fundamental shifts in European thought.

In the secondary source reading, Keith Lindley offers a comparison of the Whig, Marxist, Revisionist and Post Revisionist views. The Whig narrative emphasizes the progress toward liberal democracy. It features Parliament as the good guys fighting for freedom and Democracy against the autocratic Charles I, who wanted to return England to Catholic “superstition.” The Marxist narrative emphasizes class struggle. Parliament represents the rise of the bourgeoisie class and their victory represents the victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy of Charles I. This victory has the unintended side effect of helping to create a new conscious working class which then comes to challenge the bourgeoisie Parliament. The Revisionist narrative rejects any claims of meta-narrative and sees the English Civil as simply a series of happen chance events. The Post Revisionists are Revisionists who are attempting to bring back long term causes into the narrative.

We have already discussed the Whig narrative in class (as well as on this blog) at length. This can no longer be considered a legitimate school of historical narrative. The only legitimate reasons for discussing it are that it exerted a tremendous influence during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it continues to exert a powerful hold on the public conception of history. The English Civil War was a lot more complex than simply Parliament good Charles I bad. Hopefully from reading some of the things that Charles I wrote you have seen that Charles I was a thoughtful and sophisticated individual who did not run around claiming that he ruled by divine right and could therefore act as he pleased.

When dealing with the Marxist narrative it is important to distinguish Marxist historiography from Marxist politics. You should not Marxist history and think Communism or even Liberalism. One can subscribe to the Marxist historical narrative and emphasize the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy without believing that the working class is going to rise and overthrow the bourgeoisie and establish Socialism. One can be a Marxist historian and decide that Capitalism is the greatest promoter of freedom and the public welfare ever created and be a dyed in the wool Republican. I recently took a Facebook quiz to find out what kind of historian I am and the answer I got was Marxist. I do not think of myself as a Marxist historian though that is the one aspect of Marxism that I admire. It was Marxists who played a leading role in moving history away from war and politics in helped bring in the lower classes to the historical narrative. Cressy lists Christopher Hill as an example of a Marxist historian. I have already recommended to you Hill’s Antichrist in Seventeenth Century England. So, if being a Marxist means being like Hill, than I will take the label. Hill unlike traditional Marxist historiography is willing to discuss religion in a serious and non polemical fashion.

Most historians have a contrary streak to them. The natural inclination for a historian is to attempt to take a text take it in the opposite direction of the author’s intent. Revisionist historians are the extreme end of this. The Revisionist historian strives to take the popular understanding of history and show that not only is it wrong but that it is really just the opposite. This is usually put into practice by challenging the existence of any sort of narrative. Norman Davies is an example of this sort of revisionism. I specifically chose him for a textbook because he makes the effort to give the “other side of the story” from what most history textbooks give and he offers a very readable non narrative form of history. I believe that it is particularly important to expose students to this form of history precisely because it is the sort of history that they are not likely to encounter otherwise.

History 112: English Civil War (Q&A)

1. What do you think about Nostradamus' predictions? Wasn't Marie de' Medici the slightest bit angry/suspicious when he predicted her husband and son's death? Are these predictions simply vague enough that they could have applied to anything? Also how did he not get put to death for this kind of stuff?

Predicting the death of ruler was a common practice in astrology and prophecy. Many rulers, such as Urban VIII (the Pope who went after Galileo), had laws against predicting his death. This was part of the political culture of the day. If you are interested in the topic I suggest you look at Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic. The idea that astrological predictions are vague can easily be worked into the system of astrology itself. Astrology deals with the motion of the planets so it makes sense that it should only effect things in a very general way and that other factors (such as free will, prayer, or divine intercession) can play a role. A “scientific” astrologer will thus be very “skeptical” of the power of astrology and openly admit its limitations.


2. Having previously read "Leviathan" for a Political Theory class, both times I read the work, I got the sense that Hobbes considers the social contract to be all but completely necessary for human existence. How then is it said that he is an important architect of the social contract? One of the main features of social contract theory is the ability to void the contract by either party, government or people, and live by other means, as I have understood it.

Hobbes does not deny that people are physically capable of breaking the social contract. Hobbes could point to the English Civil as an example of the social contract breaking down. Hobbes would likely tell you that much of the world lives in barbarism without the social contract. While one could live without the social contract a person who chose not to would have to be insane, wicked or unbearably ignorant to do so. Wouldn’t you rather live under a Hobbesian police state than in 1994 Rwanda?

3. In Davies' book, it says that the Welsh had a much easier transition to becoming part of the greater British empire, and it makes no mention of opposition from the Welsh, so why was it so much easier for the nation of Wales to merge with England than it was for Ireland or Scotland to merge with England?

To this day Wales remains culturally very distinct from England. There is a Welsh language (it is part of the Celtic family of languages and is related to Gaelic, which is spoken in Ireland.) that is still in use, particularly in the rural parts of Wales. This culture clash goes all the way back to the early Middle Ages. The ancestors of the present day Welsh were the Britons, the ancient inhabitants of the land. Starting around the sixth century or so, Briton was invaded by a group of Germanic tribes known as the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons chased the Britons out of the eastern parts of the Island. From the Anglo-Saxons we get the name England (Anglo-land) and the Anglo-Saxon language became the ancestor of our English language. For more about Wales see John Davies’ Wales: a History.
Why did Wales not cause the same sort of problems for England that Ireland or even Scotland caused? The main reason for this is that Wales had no history of self government. Unlike Ireland and Scotland, there never was a country called Wales. Also Wales did not have the sort of religious clash with England that Ireland and Scotland had. Scotland was Presbyterian (Calvinist) so they had some difficulties with the Church of England and even fought some wars with it. Ireland is Catholic so they have been fighting the English up until the present day.

4. In sum, what were the major outcomes of the Glorious Revolution? I found Davies answers a little confusing.

The Glorious Revolution brought William and Mary to the throne and removed Mary’s father James II. Parliament did not like James II, mainly because he was Catholic, so they contacted James’ daughter, Mary, and son in law, the very Protestant Duke William of Orange and essentially told them that if they so chose to invade England from the Netherlands they would not object. William and Mary showed up in England with their army. (If you look on a map you will see that the Netherlands are just across the English Channel. You can get there in a row boat in good weather.) Parliament welcomed their Protestant saviors from the Netherlands. James II took a good look at the situation and fled to France where he died in exile. (I imagine that the family did not have too many Christmas get togethers after this.) William and Mary rule as king and queen though parliament has set a danger precedent; they have shown that they can and will remove monarchs as it suits their purpose. So, in essence, the true victor of the Glorious Revolution was Parliament.

5. The booked talked about the Glorious Revolution as being not so glorious and revolutionary. If that is the case then why is it called the Glorious Revolution?

The important question to ask is not whether the Glorious Revolution was glorious and revolutionary or not but who thought it was glorious and revolutionary and who did not. James II certainly did not think that this was glorious; he was betrayed by his own daughter and had his throne usurped from him. Catholics in England did not think that this was glorious; just when it seemed that a new dawn was breaking for them and they would finally be treated equally a new government has violently seized power on the platform of persecuting them. (Imagine how homosexuals in this country would feel if the Republicans were to run in 2010 on a platform of banning sodomy and win.) Of course if you are an English Protestant and a supporter of Parliament this is certainly a very Glorious Revolution. Things have “revolved” back to how they are “supposed” to be. Parliament is in power, there is a pair of Protestants on the throne and Catholics are having to flee back into the closet.
The dominant view that has come down to us has been that of the English Protestants hence we are in the habit of calling it the Glorious Revolution. As historians we have to recognize that the opinions of Catholics have equal validity. So when we talk about the Glorious Revolution we have to recognize that it was a “Glorious Revolution;” glorious for some people. Norman Davies, as a responsible historian, is bending over backwards to make sure that readers get the other side that has been neglected in traditional history.

6. In the Davies book it mentions the 'Whiteboy' gangs, what exactly where the Whiteboy gangs?

They were Irish radical groups in the eighteenth century, who defended rural farmers. The situation in Ireland is not good; the English are openly trying to stick to the Catholic majority and keep them down in every way possible.

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response

In response to an earlier post, a commentator posed the following series of questions which I would like to respond to:

What is the historian’s relationship with philosophy? Is it merely to document which philosopher's were influential and their personal and philosophical effect on contemporary and future society? Should historians comment on the content of a philosopher's works? Does a historians training prepare them to understand philosophy in a manner which could justify any opinions, theories, conclusions they may state? Should historians abstain from analyzing the content of philosopher's work? My questions are focused on getting insight on how a historian conceptualizes his relationship and duties when dealing with philosophy.

The issue of the relationship between history and philosophy is a pertinent one for me since I operate within the grey zone between them as an intellectual historian. For me the line between the history of philosophy and philosophy is that a historian is only interested in the who, what, when, where and why of an issue. A historian when approaching a given philosopher will therefore try to explain what that philosopher actually believed, where did got those beliefs from and who was influenced by this philosopher. What will be noticeably absent from the work a historian of philosophy is any indication whether the historian actually agrees with the philosopher in question. A philosopher on the other hand, when faced with the work of a philosopher from a previous generation is going to have to voice some sort of judgment about the work of said philosopher. For example, as an undergraduate at Yeshiva Univeristy I took an Intro to Philosophy class where we learned all about Anselm, Aquinas and Descartes and their arguments for the existence of God. The byline for the class, though, was “why you are not going to march up to the blackboard and demonstrate that there is a God in under forty-five minutes.” As a side point, the professor who taught this class, Dr. David Johnson, is, surprisingly enough, a deeply religious Christian and this was one of the best classes I took in college.

There is a story told about Thomas Kuhn and his history of science class. It was his custom to assign his students a primary source text in early modern science for analysis. From the responses he was able to tell which of his students were history majors and which were philosophy majors. The history majors would just analyze the text, regardless of whether it made sense or not. The philosophy majors would try to make sense of the text even if the end result they come up with was very different than the actual text.

Some people would take a firmer line than I do in regards to history and philosophy, particularly my advisor, Dr. Matt Goldish. When I first came to Ohio State to start work on my Ph.D. I wanted to do a dissertation either on Isaac Abarbanel’s relationship to Kabbalah or his views on Maimonides. Dr. Goldish insisted that whatever I did it could not simply be an analysis of a text but must work to fit itself into some larger narrative. We went back and forth on this issue but in the end Dr. Goldish prevailed. He is my advisor so his word is law. He is also a far more knowledgeable historian both in terms of the craft itself and also in terms of the politics of the field. Finally he managed to convince me that, no matter what my views on history, in order to get a job, I am going to have to write something that will speak to people outside my narrow field and that means addressing larger narrative issues.

Certainly a major part of what historians of philosophy have to do is to document which philosophers where important in a given era. This is important because not every philosopher who we moderns think is important was prominent during his own lifetime or immediately afterwards. For example it is a matter of some debate as to how widely wide Enlightenment philosophers were doing the Enlightenment. I think historians are capable of analyzing works of philosophy. The fact that historians have a unique ability to deal with the societal context of a given philosopher gives them an important seat at the table when discussing philosophy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

History 112: Rise of Absolutism (Q&A)

1. In the text it mentions something about Louis XIV's second marriage and then bring up his marriage to Maria Teresa, the Spanish woman, so if I am not mistaken that would mean he had three wives. France was a Catholic nation, so how is it that he had three wives if Henry of England had to make England protestant before getting a divorce?

Louis XIV was married twice the first time, in 1660, to Marie Therese of Spain, who was the daughter of Philip IV. This becomes later on because Louis XIV is going to push the claim to the throne of Spain on behalf of his grandson, Philip V, which sets the War of Spanish Succession in motion. This was a marriage of convenience and, judging from the pictures we have of her, Marie was no beauty. Maria died in 1683. Louis XIV then went and married Mme de Maintenon. So there was nothing wrong with this marriage from the perspective of the Catholic Church. During the twenty three years that he was married to Marie, Louis XIV had a slew mistresses; the most famous of them being Louise de la Valliere and Mme de Montespan. This was, for all intents and purposes, viewed as perfectly acceptable. Imagine of Bill Clinton had gone on national television and told the American people: “This is Monica; she is my mistress and I am now going back to the oval office to have sex with this woman. I am the president and there are thousands of women who would gladly sleep with me. I work hard protecting this country so let me enjoy the perks of the office; as Mel Brooks might say: 'it is good to be the president.” Seventieth century France was a far less prudish society than modern America.

2. The text seems to be conflicting to some degree about Louis XIV by placing him as a great king for France on one hand while on the other listing many shortcomings of his reign. It seemed to me as if it is trying to say that he was great, but that he could have done more given better resources and more sincere conviction over the term of his reign (this referencing the fact that the text mentions several points where he initially reacted one way and years later changed his mind and did the opposite). Is this a matter of the three portions of his reign they outline being not well outlined within the text and these changes occurring in distinct stages of his reign, or was this something that was continuous throughout his rule?

In practice, when studying history there are no good or bad people. People do things for different reasons; some of them succeed at some of the things they try and others are not so successful. Louis XIV was tremendously successful at, domestically, forming a strong centralized government and curbing the power of the nobility and, in terms of foreign policy, in making France the supreme power in Europe. That being said, as it should be clear from the reading, Louis XIV was hardly some ubermensch. He had his flaws and was not as successful as he could have been.

3. I can't help but notice some similarities between Louis XIV and Bush's policy. 1. Frequent and petty wars which often have no beneficial outcome for the countries involved 2. An increasing national debt - increased spending by the nation and decreased product. Do you think that these similarities are coincidence or a result of some common political agenda? What would it imply about the future state of the United States? I thought maybe because ppl today are tending to want more unified power through government, that could be the cause of the similarity...What do you think?

Unless one is looking for analogies, one should avoid making comparisons between historical and present day figures. Remember history has no pedagogic value, there are no lessons that can be learned. Personally I suspect that Louis XIV and the people surrounding him were significantly more talented than those in the Bush administration.

4. After reading about Thomas Hobbes' philosophy in which the people "lose their individual authority, but gain stability and authority," I was wondering if any of the people had problems with this? It seems in those times, there was no real sense of individualism. Were there any common people who expressed their uniqueness?

Worrying about one’s individuality is a luxury that few people outside of modern western cultures had the chance to engage in. Most people throughout history had far more pressing concerns like what were they going to eat and how were they not going to get raped and murdered before the day is out. Hobbes is concerned with how do we solve these issues so we can actually be in a position to start concerning ourselves with such ethereal issues such as "individuality." I find Hobbes to be very useful because of how forcefully he puts forth the issue of government coercion. All governments, even our liberal democratic government, are instruments of coercion. The Federal government has the power to force you to pay taxes, they can throw you in jail, they can even hand you a gun and tell you to go die for your country. If you were really so committed to “individuality” you would be an anarchist. The fact that you are not an anarchist shows that you have compromised you “individuality” and made a Hobbesian bargain.
Hobbes actually was quite controversial. Mainly because people, during the time, thought, probably correctly, that Hobbes was an atheist. Hobbes’ very cynical worldview, that you find so distasteful, comes out of his materialism where everyone acts simply based on their material self interest.


5. Most modern philosophy requires a serious body of evidence to be considered for a theory on human nature. Hobbes just speculates and theory-crafts. How did a skeptic critique such an argument when no evidence is presented in the first place?

Hobbes was a materialist, who believed that everything was physical matter. In his defense one could argue that the burden of proof lies with anyone who would wish to argue against his materialism. Hobbes’ politics comes out of this materialist world view. If there is no supernatural than all that remains is selfish material interest. In the Hobbesian world everyone is acting based on crude self interest. The question then becomes how do we fashion a state out of this mass of people who are only interested in their material welfare and would kill their own mothers if it would benefit them. There is no God to punish me nor is there any heaven or hell awaiting me after I die. So what, besides for a Hobbesian police state, is stopping me from breaking into your house raping you and stealing your jewelry before cutting your throat and proceeding to your wife and kids?

6. What was parliament's response to Charles I's defiance? Did the church support the "divine right of kings" since its justification came from scripture? What caused the shift away from the thought that kings possessed God-given power over their kingdoms and when did it occur?

Well Charles I had William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury to support his claims. What is interesting about Charles I and his father, James I, is that even they are not simply arguing for the divine right of kings. For them it is almost a side issue in the face of tradition, natural law and the public self interest.
I would see the essential question of the revolution in sixteenth century political thought as, now that the myth of religious homogeny has been forever destroyed by the Reformation, what is the basis of government authority. Charles I is trying to rule two three countries, England, Scotland and Ireland. In these countries there are Calvinists and Catholics, who oppose the Anglican Church. Even the Anglican Church itself is divided; you have all of these Puritans who oppose how he is running the Anglican Church. So why should people not simply rebel against him and chop his head off? And they did rebel and chop his head off. Much of the Enlightenment is devoted to finding a solution to this very problem that Charles I failed to answer.