History as pundit-resistance

by CarlD

Evan Goer really nailed it in a comment on the last post, in which he concludes:

If you haven’t spent the last few years marinating yourself in [a] field, you still don’t understand the context. You don’t know what’s important and what you can skim or ignore.

Anyway, my point is that if you can give your students even a little bit of this context, you’re doing something extremely valuable. If you were teaching physics, you’d be making them crackpot-resistant. Since you’re teaching them history, you’re making them pundit-resistant, which is even more important.

This cartoon from my office door shares the thought:


Incidentally, in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read Pierre Bayard starts with a discussion of the importance of being oriented to a field of knowledge: precisely this sense of context that lets you know what you can skim and what you can ignore. He cites the librarian in Musil’s Man Without Qualities who knows what’s in every book because he never reads any of them – to do so would be to get lost in detail and lose the big picture. If raw ignorance makes us most vulnerable to pundits, doesn’t narrow expertise come next?


17 Comments to “History as pundit-resistance”

  1. Often having learned “a little bit of context” in a field, is simply having learned the technique of sounding like you know what you are talking about.

  2. Yes. We share this suspicion of technique, and glib dilettantism is clearly not the goal – that’s punditry, after all.

    The question is how to orient quality intellectual work, as we’ve discussed before. In another earlier post I looked at a book on Hitler’s reading habits and intellectual tendencies that showed him to be an encyclopedic autodidact who dazzled the room with his mastery of random facts and superficial comparative analyses by juxtaposition. In the short term we want to build people who won’t be dazzled by that. In the longer term, people who can do better thinking themselves, perhaps via the kind of marination Evan talks about.

  3. Some years ago, on Anthro-L I suggested the following framework for thinking about scholarship. Scholars, it seems to me, fall into three broad categories:

    1. Imperialists: These are the theorists who propose big ideas intended to explain everything. They rarely do, but if the ideas are, in fact, big ideas they survive the process described by Clifford Geertz, citing Suzanne Langer. Following a period of enthusiasm, in which they seem universally applicable, critics work out where they work and where they won’t, and the become part of the intellectual toolkit. Examples include the second law of thermodynamics, class conflict, and subconscious motivation.

    2. Peasants: These are the folks who find a small field to which they devote a lifetime. They know more than anyone else could possibly know about, say, Tang Dynasty law or subspecies of spiders.

    3. Merchants: These are people who travel widely in search of ideas that, found in one place, may turn out to be useful in another. HIstorically, they haven’t been given much credit, being written off by both imperialists and peasants as superficial types with nothing new or worthwhile to say. I suggest, however, that this may be an area where serious scholarship is possible. The successful merchant in the marketplace of ideas will not be the jack-of-all-trades but someone with a serious interest in two or three distinct but overlapping fields, whose is able to point both imperialists and peasants to things that they, with their high-above-it-all or nose-to-the-grindstone perspectives, miss in what is going on around them.

  4. Carl: “In the short term we want to build people who won’t be dazzled by that. In the longer term, people who can do better thinking themselves, perhaps via the kind of marination Evan talks about.”

    Kvond: I see nothing wrong with being dazzled by that, in that, it can be very impressive. In my mind “field” talk is incredibly self-referential, and filled with self-gernative jargon or at least language use. The biggest problem with fields is that the language within them tend to work towards the perpetuation of the field itself, as a context. As I have mentioned before, what is needed is teaching that exemplifies what learning is.

  5. The biggest problem with fields is that the language within them tend to work towards the perpetuation of the field itself, as a context.


    As I have mentioned before, what is needed is teaching that exemplifies what learning is.

    But, how should such teaching be structured? The danger here is that exemplified by schools of “management,” in which management is separated from any particular business. The results, as exemplified by our current economic debacle, are not pretty.

  6. John, I love the scholarship categorization. I wonder if the imperialists might be called mandarins instead. Then the disdain for merchants would make both metaphorical and historical sense.

    I guess knowing a lot of stuff can be impressive, but mostly it just wins me junk in bar trivia contests. As for teaching and field jargon, probably my most common comment in student evaluations is some version of “It wasn’t a history class – I’m not sure what it was actually – but I learned a lot.” There is almost certainly a place for teaching history, but it’s not (only) what I do.

  7. What I mean is, sometimes what you need to know to get at a question of interest is history, and sometimes history is part of a larger field of interest; but only in highly artificial situations of deliberately narrow relevance is history the only thing anyone needs to know.

  8. “Mandarin” sounds good to me; “Mandarins, merchants, peasants” has a pleasing rhythm to it. Only flaw is that, historically speaking, mandarins were mostly not promoters of new big ideas but guardians of tradition.

  9. JM: ““Mandarins, merchants, peasants” has a pleasing rhythm to it.”

    Kvond: Then perhaps, Monarchs. I see the title of a best seller in the making.

  10. Then perhaps, Monarchs. I see the title of a best seller in the making.

    Somebody steal the idea and write it, please. I’m up to my neck in earning a living, my current project—social network analysis driven ethnography of the world of award-winning ad creatives in Tokyo, rooting for Obama, chatting on blogs like this one, and wondering where my daughter will decide to go to graduate school (MPP=Masters in Public Policy); she’s in at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Columbia and Georgetown, really wants to go to Harvard, but husband, kids and finances all have to be considered. Life is complicated.

    But, back on topic, “Monarchs” to me suffers from the same flaws as “Mandarins.” It suggests someone whose ideas are already widely accepted as opposed to someone trying to take over a world. How about “Great Pretenders”?

  11. JM: ““Monarchs” to me suffers from the same flaws as “Mandarins.” It suggests someone whose ideas are already widely accepted as opposed to someone trying to take over a world.

    Kvond: Hmmm. The monarchs that I am familiar with had pretty strong “take over the world” tendency or at least their corner of it, and only want for means. In fact, historically Monarchs rely quite heavily upon Merchants, needing them to fund their endless wars. (I am of course thinking of the monarchs of the past, and not the current Queen of England, or the King of Thailand).

    Also there is nothing “pretending” about the effect of these persons on history (though monarchies do have a pretending nature). Marx is a huge influence, a veritable Henry the VIII. And so many try to stuff themselves into his royal court. As to whether Monarchs are like Mandarins, I see very little stuffy tradition protection in Monarchs. They certainly use traditions to bolster their position, but violate them as they need be, drawing on every resource to dominate an otherwise fragmented political situation.

    But if you like, “Great Pretenders, Peasants and Merchants” it is.

  12. Not so fast, there. We have reached one of those points at which my advertising and writing experience both tell me that it’s time to chill and let things sit for a while, then come back and look at them again with fresh eyes. There are three not-bad ideas on the table:



    Great Pretenders….

    It will be interesting to see which looks best, say, three days from now. Or if something better comes along.

  13. The biggest problem with fields is that the language within them tend to work towards the perpetuation of the field itself, as a context.

    Stop. Don’t. Please. If I got re-interested in this (and also what was said here about education), I’d soon embark on re-reading all of Alvin Gouldner. Worse, I’d probably understand him more a second time around — maybe enough to take his view on almost everything. And it’s hard to imagine being more Merchant (in JM’s taxonomy) than changing subjects in otherwise-normal converstaions with “That reminds me of a remark by this guy Gouldner, who had some interesting (albeit Marxist) perspectives on the sociolinguistics of what he called The Culture of Critical Discourse . . .” *Brr*. I can’t be a Merchant! I’m despised enough already!

    John, I’d like to respect your process, but I can’t help myself, I have to assert my stinking viewpoint right now: you were on the right track with “Imperialists”, even if the term’s leftist-cant resonances disqualify it on the most unfortunate grounds.

    Imperialism is a process, not a state. “Emperors” (and “Monarchs”, etc.) can be status quo guardians, as others here have pointed out.

    Maybe “Conqueror” is a little closer.

  14. John, that threefold schema is so spot-on I can’t even believe it.

  15. Two of my favorite bits of philosophical writing. Just posted them on Edge of the American West, but since I’ve got them handy

    Pragmatism is uncomfortable away from facts. Rationalism is comfortable only in the presence of abstractions. This pragmatist talk about truths in the plural, about their utility and satisfactoriness, about the success with which they ‘work,’ etc., suggests to the typical intellectualist mind a sort of coarse lame second-rate makeshift article of truth. Such truths are not real truth. Such tests are merely subjective. As against this, objective truth must be something non-utilitarian, haughty, refined, remote, august, exalted. It must be an absolute correspondence of our thoughts with an equally absolute reality….

    See the exquisite contrast of the types of mind! The pragmatist clings to facts and concreteness, observes truth at its work in particular cases, and generalizes. Truth, for him, becomes a class-name for all sorts of definite working-values in experience. For the rationalist it remains a pure abstraction to the bare name of which we must defer.

    From William James, Lectures on Pragmatism

    Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

    From Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 3

    Both embody to me substantial chunks of wisdom that I would like to see incorporated in every liberal education.

  16. John, these are great quotes. Thanks. I’m really enjoying the work you and Michael are doing over at Edge of the West.

    I’m trying to remember which of the founding fathers of pragmatism said that a good starting point is to not pretend to doubt things we don’t actually doubt. I think it’s useful in any educated person’s life once to try to think outside of the biggest box you can think of. For most people that’s enough, and since philosophers keep bumping up against the inside of their own skulls when they do it, once is probably enough for them too.

    And since I’ve mentioned mandarins I’m reminded of the old saw about Chinese being Confucian at work and Daoist at home. Perhaps rationalism and pragmatism work the same way? When there’s a drain to unclog a little pragmatism is an unqualified good.

    Michael, thanks so much for the Gouldner reminder. It’s been years since I read him too, back when I was in college, and as I recall I wasn’t impressed at that time because he was too sensible and not grandiose enough. He also had an argument about the “two Marxisms,” one scientific/scientistic and the other critical/humanist, both transcendentalist, ultimately dependent on each other, that crosscuts some of our discussion here and at EotW.

    In most of the marxist tradition pragmatism looks like a kind of functionalism or conservatism (‘bourgeois science’) because of its insistence on planting its feet in “facts and concreteness,” but Marx himself can be seen as a pragmatist since the 11th thesis is an injunction to do just that.

  17. Michael, my dad is working on some of the same issues, in relation to translating environment and environment science into languages that enable broader understanding and effective action (e.g. about global warming), and offers a couple of references for you:

    Peter Muhlhausler, Language of Environment, Environment of Language

    Peter Gardenfors, Conceptual Spaces

    Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species

    Although he gets his paycheck from a philosophy department, he recommends getting as far away from philosophers as possible if what you’d like is actionable understanding of how anything works.

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