Subscribe via RSS Feed

You’ll learn nothing at all from thems et al.

[ 52 ] August 30, 2010 |

Do you know what happens when you allow “scholars” like Jonah Goldberg to invent historical movements and monsters?  You end up with uncited statements of obvious provenance that mask sheer lunacy behind the rhetorical scrim of conventional wisdom:

[T]he principles that inspired the American founding were always viewed as universal principles, which applied to all of mankind. Curiously, it wasn’t until the introduction of Historicist and Darwinian philosophy (which gave birth to Progressivism) that some Americans began to argue otherwise.

I wrote a dissertation about popular adaptations of evolutionary theory during the Progressive Era and have long styled myself an historicist* and I have absolutely no idea what that second sentence could possibly mean.

Does its author, Joseph Philips, mean to argue that Darwinism—which was neither the only nor even the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the Progressive Era—gave birth to “Progressivism”?

Does he mean to argue that the New History movement—inaugurated in 1912 by James Harvey Robinson’s The New History and abetted by works like Charles Beards’ An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913)—gave birth to “Progressivism” fifteen years after it’d been born?

Or does he mean nothing at all—but learned from the likes of Goldberg et al.—that the best way to prevent people from criticizing the seriousness of an assertion is to pretend its “knowledge” so common as to be above reproach?

Care to place bets as to where I fall on this one?  I didn’t think so.

*Before someone objects: writing “an historicist” is too correct.

Share with Sociable

Comments (52)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. elm says:

    I completely agree that “an historicist” is correct. That said, there is clearly something seriously wrong with this sentence: “I wrote a dissertation about popular adaptations of evolutionary theory during the Progressive Era who has long styled himself an historicist* and I have absolutely no idea what that second sentence could possibly mean.”

    Read it again, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it breaks down at about the word “who.”

  2. [T]he principles that inspired the American founding were always viewed as universal principles, which applied to all of mankind.

    For a given value of “universal” and “mankind.”

    • Rob says:

      Yeah. For such universal principles it was funny the Founders didn’t even attempt to apply them universally. But you know slaves are slaves and the natives are savages and womenfolk are just womenfolk.

      • And just to be clear, I don’t blame a bunch of guys born in the 1700′s for getting this wrong. They did create a system that can, has and does correct for their oversights.

        What does irk me is this constant attempt to pretend things were perfect for everyone at a particular point in America’s past especially when that point is ALWAYS before things started to suck a little less for large numbers of Americans.

        I mean, if they’re just talking about what worked for a certain sub-set of the population, they should say so. But if you want to turn the clock back even 20 years (never mind 50 or 100) please don’t pretend it will be sunshine and sparkle ponies for me.

        Here by the way, is Milloy on Beck’s Rube-a-paloser:

        “We don’t want to transform America,” said Sarah Palin, Beck’s sidekick prophet of the day. “We just want to restore America.”

        Back to when? Before the “progressive movement” began to destroy the country 100 years ago, says Beck. Which would make the restore date somewhere around 1910 — the nadir of the post-Reconstruction era. Don’t forget to bring your lynching rope.

        Um, yeah. Pretty much.

        • witless chum says:

          And forget about prohibitions against child labor and other basic labor laws passed during the Wilson Administration.

        • ajay says:

          And just to be clear, I don’t blame a bunch of guys born in the 1700’s for getting this wrong. They did create a system that can, has and does correct for their oversights.

          Ah, yes, the famous “Don’t Worry, If It Turns Out Not To Work Quite Right You Can Always Have An Incredibly Destructive Four-Year Civil War” clause of the Constitution.

          I believe it was inspired by the renowned “En Cas D’Erreur Monarchicale, Priés De Couper La Tete” provision in force in France around the same time.

        • Brad Potts says:

          It seems to me that Phillips would agree with you completely.

          Phillips main problem is that he is operating with an idealized understanding of conservatism that doesn’t exist.

  3. el donaldo says:

    What might he think he means by “historicist”? It boggles the mind? Is it some form of ur-relativist he thinks he’s found? Is he possibly referring to the Higher Criticism and the historical grounding of biblical texts? If so, he may be embarrassed to realize that the intellectual ferment that produced Higher Criticism was also largely responsible for the (liberal) values of universality that he’s ostensibly promoting here.

  4. Jim in Missoula says:

    I guess I would take issue with the first assertion that ‘the principles… were always viewed as universal…’ Come again? By whom? How long were Rosseau, Locke, etc. in the grave in 1776? (That’s rhetorical – I can Google it myself.) And even among what were to become ‘Americans’ there was no universal agreement on the principles.

    Ugh.

  5. Jeffrey Kramer says:

    Not going to click, but is Phillips trying to bullshit his way past all the slaveholders’ pronouncements that of course, as everybody knows, “all men” refers to white men and white men only?

    [Language note: on first reading, I thought "is too correct" meant "represents an excessive pursuit of 'correctness' at the cost of defying ordinary usage." Then I realized that if that was what Scott meant, he would have written "is too correct." So if anybody is doing a dissertation on the power of precision italics....

    And as long as I'm linguisticizing, it should be "to pretend it's 'knowledge' so common as to be above reproach."]

    • SeanH says:

      Actually, he genuinely offers no argument. It’s a really weird article – he says his black friend can’t get super excited about the super freedom-y Founding Principles Of America because of the whole slavery thing, and then he says he black friend is wrong, the end.

      • Jeffrey Kramer says:

        I broke down and read it, and Phillips quotes Lincoln in a speech from the 1858 Senate campaign saying all Americans have the right to include ourselves among the “all men” of the Declaration. And as we all know, Lincoln was elected unanimously on that platform because nobody would have dreamed of denying that before Origin of Species came along.

        • Hogan says:

          Silly Lincoln, thinking that the Declaration is a “living document” instead of a hermetically sealed embodiment of whatever its signers thought it meant at the time. Just another Historicist Darwinist Progressive progressive.

          • I believe you mean “a hermetically sealed embodiment of whatever a bunch of twits who’ve never read the thing say its signers thought it meant at the time, provided that interpretation limits the freedoms of particular groups of people while expanding those of corporations.”

            See also, The Bible.

    • SEK says:

      I thought “is too correct” meant “represents an excessive pursuit of ‘correctness’ at the cost of defying ordinary usage.” Then I realized that if that was what Scott meant, he would have written “is too correct.” So if anybody is doing a dissertation on the power of precision italics…

      That was aimed more at anyone who’s ever shared a backseat with a sibling:

      He’s over the line!

      Is not!

      Is too!

      Apparently, Mr. Kramer, you were never yourself nor related to an insufferable brat. Consider yourself lucky.

      [I]t should be “to pretend it’s ‘knowledge’ so common as to be above reproach.

      Read that sentence aloud with the contraction and you’ll see I used the possessive to keep the “common knowledge” idiom in play. (The “its” refers back to “assertion.”)

      • Jeffrey Kramer says:

        Apparently, Mr. Kramer, you were never yourself nor related to an insufferable brat. Consider yourself lucky.

        Actually I was so insufferable I used to say “Yea, verily!” instead of “is too!” But I did get the allusion on second reading.

  6. map106 says:

    So, you pronounce it “istoricist”?

    • Emma says:

      Apparently, he does. Those of us who speak different Englishes pronounce that ‘h’, and can be found laughing helplessly when American cooking programs mention ‘herbs’. Among other things.

      • Matthew B. says:

        It’s not as simple as whether the h is pronounced or not. Even if it is, it’ll likely be weakly aspirated. Try this thought experiment: When you say the historicist in your own accent, do you pronounce the first word “thuh,” as you usually would before a consonant, or “thee,” as you would before a vowel?

    • SEK says:

      Depends. It’s a transitional glottal fricative, so whether or not I aspirate that initial “h” depends on what’s going on my mouth in the word before it, e.g. that initial “h” is far more prevalent when “historicist” is preceded by “the” than “an” because “th” puts my tongue in a position where it has to move to aspirate the “h,” whereas with “an” the “a” leaves my tongue in the middle of my mouth and “n” is just a nasalization, so I’m already halfway done making the “h” sound before I even start in the rest of the word.

      • map106 says:

        Well yes, I am impressed with your “ate” years of speech therapy, but spare me your speech therapy argot.

        My wife and I say “jeet” for “did you eat” probably because we’re talking too fast and our tongues are confused or not properly positioned, but “jeet” is not how I would write it, unless I were stressing local dialect.

        And since we’re playing pedantic and whose dick is bigger, let me just add that your linked to explanation of why “an historicist” is correct is a mishmash. The first sentence, as written, makes no sense.

        It is:

        “It’s not that we’re British, it’s the first syllable of “historian” is unstressed, whereas the first syllable of “history” is.”

        The first syllable of “history” is…what?

        You’ll reply that the implied adjective is “stressed”, but it is not. There’s no reason to think that it is. The sentence would have been clearer and better written as:

        “…the first syllable of “historian” is unstressed, whereas the first syllable of “history” is stressed.”

        or

        “the first syllable of “historian” is not stressed, whereas the first syllable of “history” is.”

        However, the entire first sentence is a throw-off. It’s useless. You cite no rule that when the first syllable is unstressed one uses “an” instead of “a”.

        You then state that because the “unstressed” h is inaudible, it falls under the general known rule. Inaudible to whom?

        I’ll use your trick. Say the words out loud, without any preparatory words.

        “Historian” “History”

        I hear both hs. If you don’t, then you pronounce the two words as “istorian” and “history” respectively.

        I don’t know where you’re from, but you’re not from any American place I’m familiar with (and you’re the one who brought up “British”.

        • SEK says:

          I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a phonetics troll before. But it takes all kinds …

          The sentence would have been clearer and better written as …

          I concede that my comment on my personal blog could’ve been written more clearly, but given that you actually understood my meaning, I say the communicative hurdle I’d hoped to jump was accomplished successfully.

          You cite no rule that when the first syllable is unstressed one uses “an” instead of “a”.

          For one, I assume my readers give me the benefit of the doubt; for another, I was only talking about “h” as an initial consonant, and with a few notable exceptions (“herb,” er, “erb” foremost among them) that rule holds. I can whip out my old phonetics textbook if you’d like.

          Say the words out loud, without any preparatory words.

          I bolded that bit because, in the comment you’re directly replying to, I discuss the importance of what immediately precedes the “h.” You’re taking a prescriptivist tact and arguing for a universal, even though I’ve indicated I’m a fan of particulars and will use whatever most accurately reflects my voice when I’m writing to establish, you know, my voice.

          I don’t know where you’re from, but you’re not from any American place I’m familiar with (and you’re the one who brought up “British”.)

          I’m from the Isle of Deaf, so I had to learn how to make all these sounds by arduous trial and endless error … which is also why I won the highest mark in my phonetics class, as I consciously knew how to produce the sounds everyone else had to figure out on the fly.

  7. Superking says:

    In this context, Phillips is just using “historicism” to sound educated. What he means is “Marxist” or “Hegelian”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicism

  8. John says:

    Okay, agree with your general point, but your point about alternative evolutionary paradigms to Darwinism is a cheap shot. “Darwinism” is obviously a short-hand for “evolutionary theory” and was used as such at the time.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Because words have no meaning, apart from what Humpty Dumpty assigns them.

    • ajay says:

      “Darwinism” is obviously a short-hand for “evolutionary theory” and was used as such at the time.

      It is now. It wasn’t then.

    • Left_Wing_Fox says:

      It’s a pretty good idea that the author has no idea what he’s talking about then. Anyone using “Darwinism” to encompass Lamarck’s views is stone ignorant of basic high school biology.

      I’d be willing to be that this guy would also blame Darwin for Hitler and Stalin, despite the fact that the former’s eugenics program was based on the pre-Darwinian practice of selective breeding, and the latter favoured state-mandated Lamarckism via Lysenko.

    • SEK says:

      “Darwinism” is obviously a short-hand for “evolutionary theory” and was used as such at the time.

      And anyone who employs such short-hand is an idiot who doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about, which was my point here (not to mention my dissertation, which wasn’t about “Non-Darwinian evolutionary theory” for shits and giggles).

      • John says:

        Hofstadter is an idiot, I imagine? Obviously “social darwinism” doesn’t have much to do with the ideas of Darwin, but there it is.

        Phillips is obviously a moron, and he should have said “social darwinist” rather than “darwinian”, and even then he wouldn’t have had a real point, but even if “social darwinist” is a misnomer, it’s still a standard term with a fairly well-understood meaning, and it’s fairly clear that this is what Phillips is, in his garbled, incredibly ignorant way, referring to.

        The fact that you wrote a dissertation about nineteenth century evolutionary theory doesn’t mean that anyone unaware of the nuances of the subject who instead uses long-standing shorthand you don’t agree with is an idiot. Phillips, of course, is an idiot, but mostly because his argument doesn’t make any sense and seems to have no basis, not particularly because he’s misusing terms.

        • SEK says:

          The fact that you wrote a dissertation about nineteenth century evolutionary theory doesn’t mean that anyone unaware of the nuances of the subject who instead uses long-standing shorthand you don’t agree with is an idiot.

          Normally I’d agree with you, it’s just the magnitude of the wrongness that bothers me. Yes, absolutely, I’m a bit sensitive because it’s my dissertation … but given the fact that anyone who does a modicum of source-text research on the period knows the game is up makes me look a little down on those who insist that standard usage should prevail over, you know, what I require from my undergrads in terms of research.

  9. greg says:

    Yeah, “an historicist” is too correct.

  10. CJColucci says:

    I have always recommended “an historicist” or “an historical” to avoid confusion with “ahistorical.”

  11. tamnot@hotmail.com says:

    I think you should look at it as a sort of simplified Straussianism. To Straussians, the history of philosophy can be divided into two movements. There are wise scholars like Plato and Strauss who are obviously not bigoted and not contemptuous of democracy, and who are obviously superior in their pursuit and knowledge of the truth. Then there are those starting with Machiavelli and Hobbes, and leading to Nietzsche and Heidegger, who believe in trying to appeal to the vulgar mob by actually trying to solve their problems. They open the way to relativism, demagoguery and totalitarianism. For reasons that are not immediately obvious the Founding Fathers fit into the first category, every other republican and democrat of the 18th and 19th century falls into the second category, and Lincoln also falls into the first category. Calhoun must be a relativist and a historicist, since how can you condemn modern people for decadent relativism if Aristotle is wrong about slavery? Ergo, Plato and Aristotle must have opposed slavery, and only decadent modernism could explain Calhoun’s support for it. And since progressives were often historicist, relativist and racist, we can therefore assume that the supporters of Lochner were anti-racist. At least that’s what Paul Rahe argues in his book “Soft Despotism: Democracy’s Discontent.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.