Tag: Whig history

History is Always Advocacy

In the comments to the post Gopnik on Galileo people have raised some good points that warrant further reflection.

I want to begin by underscoring my point in that post:

  • Gopnik repeats a number of problematic historical tropes.
  • Historians of science have for years refuted those tropes, revealing how and why they are fallacious.
  • Despite the historians’ efforts, those tropes continue to be so alluring that authors and audiences ignore or dismiss the historical research.
  • There is no reason to hope that more historical research will change this situation.

But I believe the situation needs to be changed.

So maybe the way forward is to ask a different set of questions, to figure out why Gopnik et al. continue to value these tropes, to understand what work these tropes are doing for readers today.

Spoiler alert: Accuracy be damned, those tropes are unrecognized ways to advocate for a particular position that today’s authors and readers hold dear.

Michael Weiss asked me to be more precise about my objections. I don’t want to be more precise because that way leads to madness, or at least frustration (witness Thomas Mayer’s plight). As Becky pointed out, it is too easy to be read as nitpicking, pedantic, annoyingly fixated on the details and context that Gopnik dismisses as “much loved by contemporary historians.” Becky also suggests that we articulate why it matters that the details are right. We would do well to justify our concern. And historical accuracy is not, and never will be, sufficient.

Peter Canellos from the Boston Globe recently took Academy Award nominated movies, each “based on true story,” to task for historical inaccuracies: “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” In an interview with Robin Young on “Hear & Now,” Canellos nicely summarized the errors in these movies (See Thony’s excellent “A Play is not a History Book” for an analysis of Brecht’s Galileo, a play that has been characterized on an academic webpage as “probably the most famous conflict between the search for truth in science and religious authority.”).

According to Canellos, in “Argo”, the CIA is given the lion’s share of the credit for formulating the escape plan and members of the British Embassy are portrayed as being unwilling to help. In fact, the Canadians devised and executed the plan, not the U.S. CIA. And members of the British Embassy secreted the U.S. staff around Tehran and to the Canadian Embassy. In “Lincoln”, the congressional debate about the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery two of Connecticut’s four representatives vote against the amendment. In fact, as Representative Joe Courtney has pointed out to Steven Spielberg, all four voted for the amendment. Finally, in “Zero Dark Thirty”, torture made possible U.S. efforts to find and kill Osama Bin Laden. But, as various senators have pointed out, the portrayal is “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

Canellos also articulates why it matters, at least for “Lincoln” and for “Zero Dark Thirty”. Spielberg has expressed interest in having his movie “Lincoln” used as a teaching tool. He apparently wants it to find a place in the classroom. Suddenly, inaccuracies begin to take on new meaning when knowingly inserted into educational contexts. In the case of “Zero Dark Thirty”, it makes a strong claim about the value of torture, a very real and live debate in the U.S. In “Argo”, the images of both the Canadians and the British are tarnished.

That seems to be the reason it matters. Portrayals of the past are always used in the present. The past exists only insofar as people today call it into existence for their own purposes. History is never value neutral, to move on to Michael’s other questions. Peter Dear argues this point in a recent essay.1 Rejecting the hope of being neutral, Dear seems to be saying that neutrality, even if it were possible, would deprive history of science and history more generally of its purpose:

Thoroughgoing historicism (in its usual contemporary sense) suggests that differences in basic categories of understanding and action render people living in past worlds, such as that of last week, wholly other than ourselves and not to be explicated in our necessarily anachronistic terms. They must be understood, we say, in their own terms, as early modern courtiers or natural philosophers, or Victorian “men of science,” rather than as modern scientists. All this is well and good, and a standard presupposition in the history of science. But fears of anachronism, or of loosely defined whiggishness, while they have been crucial to creating sensitive and insightful historical studies, cannot adequately define what historians of science do and, in particular, what they are good for in the enterprise of science studies. There remains the issue of what kinds of questions, originating from what foundations, and subject to what social or material constraints, drive historical inquiries (p. 51)

Dear draws on two excellent articles by Wilson and Ashplant where they argue that all questions, all research projects, all motivations to study the past, to pick out particular relics from that past, and to elevate those relics to the status of evidence are inextricably linked to our present. We can mitigate the distorting effects of our present, but we can never eliminate them.2 Later, more succinctly, Dear says: “Anachronism is a form of advocacy, and usually a suspect form, but advocacy is an integral part of what all historians do, whether deliberately or not.”

That seems to get at the heart of the problem and why the details matter. History is always advocacy. And advocacy is always serving somebody’s interest usually at the expense of somebody else’s. I would suggest there is still a deeper problem. Because most people do not see (or cannot see) their own advocacy, they do not have to take responsibility for it. They do not have to admit to themselves or their readers and viewers that they have an ax to grind. They never have to examine their own prejudices and biases.

Mark Attorri rightly noted that historians can’t do much about “simple human prejudice (and there’s obviously plenty of that when it comes to Galileo and the Church).” He also points to one way forward: give up the point-by-point refutation because “that just comes off as defensive,” and history has shown it doesn’t work. Instead, tell our own story “as if the other guy isn’t even in the room.” Sure, the motivations for telling the story, the relics elevated to the level of evidence, and the conclusions are all based on our worry about the “other guy.” Sure, we are advocating for a position. But that’s the nature of the historical project.

1 Peter Dear, “Science is Dead; Long Live Science,” Osiris 27 (2012): 37–55 (behind a paywall).
2 See, Adrian Wilson and T. G. Ashplant, “Whig History and Present-Centered HistoryThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 1–16; T. G. Ashplant and Adrian Wilson, “Present-Centered History and the Problem of Historical KnowledgeThe Historical Journal 31 (1988): 253–74 (behind a paywall).

Against Whiggish History

Finally, whiggish narratives, strewn with heroes, only hinder understanding of how the world works. As Athene Donald has written, heroes and geniuses are unrealistic and unhelpful for those who might enter scientific careers in the future. They are equally so for those who are not and have no interest in becoming a scientist, but nevertheless live in a world in which understanding the real rather than ideal relationship between science, technology, people, power and politics is hugely important.

Rebekah Higgitt on “Why whiggish won’t do.”

On Whigs and Whig History

Whig history, whiggish history, whigs, and even Whigs seem to be enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. Thony over at The Renaissance Mathematicus had a go at Whig history of science, Michal Meyer at PACHS offered something of a defense of whig history, and William Cronon offered a nice analysis of Herbert Butterfield’s own use of the terms in his Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History.

As Cronon pointed out, the terms Whig, whig, and whig history can be confusing even to historians, largely because Butterfield used the terms broadly. Butterfield offered something of a definition in his preface. Whig histories, he tells us, typically “praise revolutions provided they have been successful, emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” It might be helpful to think about how whig history is different from triumphalism or how triumphalism is a particular subset of whiggish history. In “We Have Never Been Whiggish About Phlogiston” Hasok Chang argued that the two are distinct forms of bad history. Triumphalism in particular, he claims, bedevils historians of science and, as both Thony and Michal pointed out, especially scientists who try their hand at history.

Consequently, it is not terribly surprising to see Razib Kahn misuse the term “Whig” in his recent post on Neil Armstrong and to misunderstand (or to have only glanced at) the wikipedia page on whig history. While admitting that he does not think we live in an era of decline, he considers highpoint of space exploration Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The moon landing was, Kahn suggests, was “high point in the spirit of the West.” Our failure to return to the moon somehow signals the end of the “whig conceit.”

Ignoring the controversial nature his claim, I don’t see how the “whig conceit” is related to the moon landing. Moreover, I don’t understand why he invoked the “whig conceit” (or his analogy to Hellenistic Greece). His preference for a space program that, presumably, includes sending humans to moons and planets is not helped by his historical and historiographic claims. A paraphrase of Sokal’s comment might apply here: sloppy history and historiography, like sloppy science, is useless, or even counter productive.