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Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Anti-Post-Modernism

J. Bradford DeLong
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/
delong@econ.berkeley.edu

 


Introduction
============

This morning, after dropping the kids off at school, I discovered that I did not feel like finishing my paper for the UCLA Marshall Plan conference next weekend, so I stopped by Cody's. I picked up and read Keith Windschuttle's _The Killing of History_ , finishing it just before it was time to go and watch the 4 year old and the 7 year old in the Halloween Parade.

As I read the book, I found myself changing sides. By the time I was 100 pages into it I felt like Tonto in the joke:

 

The Joke
========

Lone Ranger: "Indians behind us, indians in front of us, indians to the right of us, indians to the left of us. I guess we're surrounded, old buddy."

Tonto: "What do you mean 'we', white man?"

 

Embarrassment
=============

Some of it is that Windschuttle's argument has all the precision of an exploding medieval bombard: his list of "enemies of history" extends from Perry Anderson (who from beneath his Marxist blinders has always tried as hard as he can to tell the history as it really happened) and Terry Eagleton (who hates post-modernists with a passion) to David Hume (!) and Juergen Habermas (?) to Thomas Kuhn (huh?) and Quentin Skinner to Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (OK., he has a point there) to Francis Fukuyama (whose claim that history has "ended" is intelligible only to a card-carrying Hegelian idealist; for the rest of us what *we* knew as history goes on in spite of the "end of history") and Simon Schama.

Some of it is that much of Windschuttle's book made me embarrassed for Windschuttle. I couldn't help but wince when I read Windschuttle denounce the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as a "relativist" who believes that "Einstein['s theory of general relativity] isn't better than Newton['s theory of gravity], only different." I wince because even I know that that is not what Kuhn means when he claims that the successive scientific paradigms before and after a scientific revolution are "incommensurable."

For example, suppose you asked Sir Isaac Newton why an apple falls to the ground. Newton would say that there is a force--gravitation exerted on the apple by the earth, that the force is proportional to the product of the masses of the earth and the apple and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, and that why the force is this strong and how it "acts at a distance" are unresolved mysteries for further research. But suppose you ask a modern, post-Newtonian physicist about the mysterious fall of the apple. Here is the answer you get (from Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation, page 13: "Mystery about fall? What else should the [apple] do except fall? To fall is normal. The abnormality is an object standing in the way.... If one wishes to pursue a 'mystery'... look instead at the impact [with the ground], and ask what was the force that pushed the [apple] away from its natural 'world line' (i.e., its natural track through space-time)."

Einstein's theory *is* better. But things that are at the foundations of Newton's theory (for example, the force law) are reached only at the end of a long chain of analysis in Einstein's, and things that are at the foundations of Einstein's theory are reached only at the end of a long chain of analysis, or are left as remarkable and unexplained coincidences in Newton's (for example, why is inertial mass always and everywhere exactly equal to gravitational mass?). They are "incommensurable". This struck Kuhn as interesting--along with the fact that in each of the scientific revolutions he studied a lot of productive and skilled scientists failed to ever make the leap from the old paradigm to the new.

I felt similarly embarrassed for Windschuttle while reading his dismissal of Juergen Habermas as a "relativist". You cannot argue that Habermas would "...overthrow...the idea that the truth is something that cannot be altered by subsequent human influence." You can argue that Habermas's concept of the "ideal speech situation" is false, or flawed, or inadequate. Habermas's identification of "truth" with consensus that rational and reasonable beings in an "ideal speech situation" would reach is an attempt to avoid surrender to relativism. You cannot argue that is an embrace of relativism.

 

Culture and War
===============

And then there was the passage in which Windschuttle beat up on Inga Clendinnen's approach to the history of Mexico because she dared to argue that one of the factors behind the Spanish conquest of Mexico was that Aztec culture expected a different *kind* of war than Spanish culture did. And as mountain of argument was piled on top of mountain, I found myself getting cranky.

"Isn't it a commonplace in history," I thought, "to argue that one side lost a war because their culture led them to expect a different *kind* of war?" I thought of the battle of Crecy, where the French expected knights to clash and take a few prisoners and did not expect the Welsh longbow; I thought of the decisive crusader defeat at the Horns of Hattin; I thought of Alexander the Great and the shock of the phalanx, of Roman legionary superiority, and of the fall of France in 1940. I do not think that the "expecting a different *kind* of war" argument is always right--I think it is often wrong. But to make it is not to "kill" history.

 

History as Something We Make
============================

I came to Windschuttle's attack on Greg Dening for writing that: "I have always put it to [my students] that history is something we make rather than something we learn... I want to persuade them that any history they make will be fiction--not fantasy, fiction, something sculpted to its expressive purpose." I thought of Ronald Syme's excellent, excellent book _The Roman Revolution_, and how it could only have been written in the 1920s--for the central thrust of the book is the Emperor Augustus seen as Mussolini, and until we had seen Mussolini it was not possible to use the example of Mussolini's rise to and exercise of power to fill in the wide, wide gaps that our sources leave in our knowledge of the creation of the Roman Empire. I also thought of Simon Schama's book _Citizens_, with Robespierre's Terror seen as a small-scale, earlier example of Stalin's Great Terror; once again, a book that neither Jules Michelet nor Thomas Carlyle could ever have written--but that one of us can write.

Thus I nodded my head in agreement with Greg Dening.

And when I came to the passage where Windschuttle says that "...someone with Dening's view of history cannot talk about what 'actually' happened, nor can he discuss the fate of 'real' characters.... To be able to write about who actually commanded the Pandora, or how Christian really died... one has to accept that history is not merely something that successive generations invent for their own purposes," I shut the book and went away for a while. For it was plain to me that Windschuttle had not even *tried* to *listen* to what Dening was saying--and that Windschuttle had bleeped completely over Dening's claim that his history was "not fantasy, fiction."

 

Concessions and Conclusions
===========================

Now there is a bunch of stuff in the book that is good. Marshall Sahlins comes off as a real idiot who has little insight into Hawai'i in the time of Captain Cook. It certainly sounds as though it would be a better world if Paul Carter's _The Road to Botany Bay_ and Tzvetan Todorov's _Conquest of America_ had never been written. Anyone who wants to heap abuse on Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault will have my enthusiastic applause, because they are both in the see-how-smart-I-am business rather than in the look-isn't-this-interesting business (and to argue that their failure to distinguish between levels of unfreedom makes them implicit (or in Paul de Man's case explicit) allies of totalitarian butchery is, I think, a fair move in the play of argument).

But of those he attacks I regard Perry Anderson, Inga Clendinnen, Greg Dening, Anthony Giddens, Juergen Habermas, David Hume, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Simon Schama, and Quentin Skinner as well worth reading. If I'm supposed to line up on *their* side or on that of Keith Windschuttle, it is no decision at all.

Brad De Long


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
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