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:
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?"
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