Some histories are bunk

I’ve been reading some intellectual and cultural history lately, James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and part of Vernon Louis Parrington’s The Beginnings of Critical Realism in America 1860-1920.

I’m an American who knows very little about Russia. That might be one reason I thought the Billington book on Russia was really excellent while the Parrington book on America was fairly useless. I don’t think so though, since there are real differences between the two. In many ways they have a great deal in common. Both authors are intelligent and well-read in the history they portray, and they both have a broad vision that enables them to present a comprehensive thematic overview of their field. Both write clearly, Parrington perhaps more stylishly. The difference is that Billington believes the history and figures he describes are greater than he is and therefore tries to present them fairly and generally sympathetically. Parrington in contrast seems to think all the answers are perfectly clear and so is partisan to the point of crankishness.

I have no objection to pointing out economic influences on thought, but reducing thought to economic interests to the extent Parrington does makes it a bore. Ditto for writing history that emphasizes good guys, bad guys, and stereotyped virtues and vices as much as his does. Repetitive use of terms like “democracy” and “liberal” as general god words, without explaining just what they are, what’s so great about them, and why (apart from corruption and stupidity) some people might prefer something else, suggests a lack of imagination, perspective and analytical ability. Nonetheless, Wikipedia’s article on Parrington says that Main Currents in American Thought, the larger work of which the Critical Realism book is part, “was for many years one of the most influential books for American historians” and “dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s.” Apparently, to be perhaps a bit partisan myself, the rot has been around for quite some time.

4 thoughts on “Some histories are bunk”

  1. If only…
    “I have no objection to pointing out economic influences on thought, but reducing thought to economic interests to the extent Parrington does makes it a bore.”

    Why try to be cool about it? As i think you well know, Mr. Kalb, real thinking, as opposed to self-interested or resentful rhetoric, has little to do with strictly economic motivations. If one is paid to think, it may well be a sign that one will only strategize.

    Man is only knowable through due anthropological consideration to the transcendent domain in which every word we speak and write resides, and with which all serious thinking about the human is concerned. I haven’t read Parrington and I imagine much that he takes as serious thought is not. But I just wanted to remind, re the chronology of rot, what Eric Voegelin, in the 1950s, wrote about Marxism and the materialist interpretation of history that dominated the entire 20th century: it is a great swindle that displays ignorance of the most fundamental facts about the human. Much of academic history is not simply rot, it is an out and out swindle that portrays history as one conspiracy of power after another, and is thus completely unable to explain the real source of our freedom and equality, the imperatives that entail cultural evolution and new forms of transcendence that respond to, without being reducible to, economic conditions and experiences. (Karl Marx’s children were raised in poverty – do leftists only sympathetically recognize sacrifice to transcendent goals when it is in their own “worldly” ranks?)

    • Thanks for the Voegelin quote
      I agree that economic and similar interests aren’t much help understanding real thought, but they’re often very helpful understanding why ideas become dominant in one setting or another. Advanced liberalism, for example, advances the interests of those who get their status from large complicated public institutions, and it seems to me that helps explain why it dominates our public life.

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.

      • Thanks for letting me exorcize my demons
        “Advanced liberalism, for example, advances the interests of those who get their status from large complicated public institutions, and it seems to me that helps explain why it dominates our public life.”

        Obviously there are complex feedback mechanisms at play between institutions and ideas, yet the question remains tautological. Why not say advanced liberalism is realized through advancing the dreams, and only thus the “interests”, of those (among others) who get their status from large complicated public institutions?

        To return to my gripe about the academy: the historian’s task is to explain how cultural things emerge and evolve, and thus to illuminate the chronological relationship between ideas, and social or economic organization. If a governing idea/ethic is caused to emerge and/or propagate by “economic” forces then history (and not only individuals) must be in large part powered by some kind of demonic or conspiratorial force. If, however, economic forces and conflicts are the attempt of competing parties to realize pre-existing ethical ideas (including the gnostic, liberal, variety that can hold a great attraction even as they are unstable because out of touch with an important part of reality) then history will be seen as more the collective exchange, beyond any compact human control, of positions in rivalry and its transcendence.

        If, as the pomo crowd has it, ideas emerge through some devious will to power that advance some interest or another by representing its existence and claims as prior to the representation, then history is a conspiracy justifying materialist or Darwinian interpretations of motive. But if the transcendent representations that direct us emerge unpredictably from events, without being reducible to them, in the mystery by which all great art emerges from experience without being well explained by that experience, then, even when widely propagated, the successful and attractive idea/art is less the reflection of an interest as a horizon towards which we act out of (sometimes competitive) respect for our shared transcendent Being.

        History is not made by starving men but by those who create and renew the terms by which men will refrain from killing each other and work together. The desires and productive/consuming practices promoted by the economic system are in service to this higher political-ethical project. Sometimes it is quite clear that economic self-interest has little role in such projects. Primitive societies were rather stable without having well-differentiated economic interests (except between tribes), having no ways of banking economic surplus and so producing none, or destroying it potlatch style, for thousands of years.

        Liberalism has contributed something to keeping the peace but this does not mean it will keep it forever if it erodes conservative counter-balances. If the current system erodes its productivity by creating people who are more interested, say, in pornography and shopping than in work or family, then liberal ideas are not really in anyone’s long-term interest. We should try to convince liberals of this, rather than claim they have a powerful interest in holding on to the reigning ideology. This will not remove the common sense distinction between short-term personal economic interest and long-term societal or familial interests, but at what point do we rightly declare the “economic” interest to be less economic than demonic?

        • These are quite interesting questions
          I’d agree that economic issues aren’t the most basic issues. What men believe about the good, true and real matters more, in part because what they consider their interests to be depends on what they think about their good and about the proper functioning of the world.

          I’d also agree that it doesn’t make much sense to talk about a “will to power” as such, since you can’t say what power is unless you’ve first said what the good is. Having said that, it also seems to me that whatever men’s goals are their ability to achieve lots of different goals—their wealth and power—is likely to become an important immediate goal that sometimes distracts attention from more ultimate things. That’s especially true in a society that emphasizes this-worldly goals and means/end rationality as much as ours does.

          Maybe part of the answer is that under modern conditions economic motives are believed to be supremely important, and often are, because they relate to a kind of knowledge and power that modern technological ways of thinking emphasize quite single-mindedly. Experts, bureaucrats and people engaged in acquiring tons of money come to think that the things they know about are true knowledge and the things their kind of power can bring about are the true good. Since that’s so they quite naturally believe that the best social order is the one in which their kind of knowledge and power determines all things. That also happens to be the social order in which they run everything.

          Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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