Month: March 2012

R. G. Collingwood on Historical Practice

In my efforts to articulate what makes history distinct from other disciplines I have started reading some older literature on the philosophy of history. Although this literature is no longer in vogue, it might still be relevant in distinguishing history from non-history. I am focusing on historical methods and practices because I think these will prove the most useful in identifying what is unique about history.

I think it is clear that unlike some disciplines, history has no unique content. Numerous disciplines turn to the past, or more properly, the artifacts thought to have been created in that past and use those artifacts today. The content cannot uniquely demarcate the boundaries of history. But there does seem to be a set of practices or a method that separates history from other efforts to use the past.

Doesn’t everybody have a copy of Collingwood’s The Idea of History handy?

R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History offers some points that merit further reflection, particularly on the importance of asking questions in order to recover the problem some historical actor was trying to solve. We can only begin to understand what a historical actor was doing if we understand the problem that actor was trying to solve. This seems, to me, a useful starting point. Collingwood has shifted our focus from our present-centered ideas to the historical actor’s understanding and meaning. Historical understanding and meaning are at the heart of his question-and-answer approach, which he most succinctly presents in his An Autobiography. In The Idea of History Collingwood turns his attention to understanding and meaning in a section on historical evidence.

Collingwood is railing against the “scissors and paste” historians. Such historians, he claims, first “decide what we want to know about and then go in search of statements about it, oral or written, purporting to be made by actors in the events concerned,” or made by reliable witnesses (p. 257). “History constructed by excerpting and combining the testimonies of different authorities I call scissors-and-paste history” (p. 251). The problem, as Collingwood sees it, is the historians who practice such history fail to ask why a particular statement was made at the time and take it as self evident that the statement relates to the historians’ own ideas. These historians are also forced, when confronted with conflicting testimonies, to decide which is correct and should be included and which is false and can safely be excluded. Here again such historians are imposing their own categories and standards of correct or incorrect rather than understanding what the historical actors might have meant, that is, what problems the historical actors were trying to solve.

A closely related problem arises because the scissors-and-paste historians always wants more testimony:

So, however much testimony he has, his zeal as an historian makes him want more. But if he has a large amount of testimony, it becomes so difficult to manipulate and work up into a convincing narrative that , speaking as a mere weak mortal, he wishes he had less.
Consciousness of the dilemma has often driven men into scepticism [sic] about the very possibility of historical knowledge. And quite rightly, if knowledge means scientific knowledge and history means scissors-and-paste history. Scissors-and-paste historians who brush the dilemma aside with the blessed word ‘hypercriticism’ are only confessing that in their own professional practice they do not find that it troubles them, because they work to such a low standard of scientific cogency that their consciences become anaesthetized [sic]. Such cases in contemporary life are highly interesting, because in the history of science one often meets with them and wonders how such extraordinary blindness was possible. The answer is that people who exhibit it have committed themselves to an impossible task, in this case the task of scissors-and-paste history, and since for practical reasons they cannot back out of it they have to blind themselves to its impossibility. The scissors-and-paste historian protects himself from seeing the truth about his own methods by carefully choosing subjects which he is able to ‘get away’ with, exactly as the nineteenth-century landscape-painter protected himself from seeing that his theory of landscape was all wrong by choosing what he called paintable subjects. The subjects must be those about which a certain amount of testimony is accessible, not too little and not too much; not so uniform as to give the historian nothing to do, not so divergent as to baffle his endeavours to do it. Practiced on these principles, history was at worst a parlour game, and at best an elegant accomplishment (my emphasis; p. 279).

The problem seems to be that scissors-and-paste historians allow their own ideas and convictions to drive their search for testimony, which when confronted with a surfeit of seemingly relevant testimony they then prune according to their own prejudices. Their search begins and ends with the statements themselves. Scissor-and-paste historians then string these bits of testimony together in a narrative. In the end, such history is merely a “parlour game,” a sort of textual hide-and-seek.

The proper historian, Collingwood argues, uses the existence of the statement as the starting point, as the opportunity to formulate a series of questions about that statement: why the historical actor made it; what the historical actor could have meant by it; what does it reveal about the historical actor’s understanding of the world, of the political situation, of the social context; etc. It is this “questioning activity which is the dominant factor in history” (p. 273). There are two important facets to this questioning activity:

  • Every step in the research process requires asking a new question. These questions are not random nor haphazardly arranged. They must be asked in the right order.
  • These questions must be formulated by the historian who must search for evidence to answer them in the historical record.
  • In looking for evidence to answer these questions, the historian must look beyond testimony and treat everything as possible evidence.

Collingwood is trying to distinguish good from bad history. He was hopeful that scissors-and-paste history had fallen out of fashion by the 1930s, but I am not so sanguine. In fact, it seems that in our world where people have increasing access to the remnants of the past, scissors-and-paste history is once again a problem. Further, I don’t think scissors-and-paste history has ever completely fallen out of fashion in much non-academic history of science. Certainly, all the “father-of-x” or the “making-of-the-modern-y” histories are typically scissors-and-paste histories (for a nice rejection of the “father-of-x” form, see Unsound history and earlier Lisa commits the ‘father of’ sin). The pitfalls of scissors-and-paste history also seems to be at the heart of Helen King’s critique of Don Shelton’s article (see History and the Problem of Historical Expertise).

I agree with Collingwood: good history begins by seeking to understand what the historical actors meant. And to do that, we have to begin by seeing their products—statements, texts, letters, instruments, buildings, etc—as the solutions to problems they were trying to solve. Our problems were not their problems.

More on David Levy’s Delusions

My post yesterday joined a chorus of voices pointing out David Levy’s many delusions and errors. Here are a few of the interesting ones:

These various posts point to the gross flaws in Levy’s understanding about what faculty do, about how we have to spend our time, about how much time it takes to teach and carry our our other tasks. They draw on experience from a range of institutions, from teaching-heavy colleges to R-1 universities.

As these posts indicate, Levy is wrong on every point and for every type of institution.

A concluding observation on tuition increases. Tuition has been climbing because public support of higher education has been plummeting with real consequences for students:
California’s CSU system has lost approximately $1 billion in state funding over the past 4 years. Consequently, the system is going to close admissions for many of its 23 campuses for the Spring 2013 semester, denying admission to nearly 16,000 students, and will wait-list all students applying for the 2013-2014 academic year. If Governor Brown’s proposed budget initiative to increase taxes is defeated, an additional 20,000-25,000 students will be denied admissions.

California might be an extreme example, but it is not unique: Higher Education Vanishing Before Our Eyes.

David Levy is Frighteningly Wrong about Faculty Labor

In his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Post, “Do College Professors Work Hard Enough?” David Levy parrots banal misconceptions about what is required of college faculty and how those faculty spend their time. He reduces a faculty career to teaching and assumes that teaching is nothing more than the hours spent in the classroom and an equivalent number of hours prepping for those in-class performances. He then blames faculty salaries for the rising cost in tuition.

Levy is wrong about faculty requirements, wrong about the time spent teaching, and wrong about faculty salaries causing the rise in tuition.

Typically, faculty are required to apportion their time across three areas: teaching, service, scholarship.

When teaching, faculty requirements include preparing courses, class preparation, actual in-class teaching, office hours, additional meetings with students, grading, freshman advising, major advising, and senior thesis advising.

Under service, faculty requirements include departmental meetings, standing committee meetings, ad-hoc committee meetings, faculty meetings, and the paperwork and administrative work associated with a functioning department and college.

For research, faculty requirements include doing research, writing up that research in the form of conference presentations, going to conferences and giving those presentations, writing up that research in the form of grant applications, writing up that research in the form of articles and books, and reviewing other grant applications, book and article manuscripts, and external personnel cases.

Clearly, faculty are doing more than just teaching. But even in that teaching category Levy is grossly mistaken about what faculty do and how long it takes. Class preparation and in-class teaching are only a small part of the time and effort required of faculty. There is no easy way to quantify the various categories, but some broad estimates would be: for every in-class hour faculty often spend 2+ hours preparing. So, using his estimated time in the classroom, if we are teaching 12-15 hours per week, we spend another 24-30 hours preparing for class. Add to that the mandatory office hours and extraordinary meetings with students, typically 4-5 hours per week. Add to that advising of various sorts, 2-3 hours per week. Add to that grading, which averages out to about 3-5 hours per week. Some weeks require more time, others less. The teaching requirements range from 45 to 58 hours per week.

But faculty will lose their jobs if all they do is teach. They must find time to be participating members of their institutions and must produce scholarship. Service necessarily occurs most during the academic year, when faculty are already working more than full time. The only time left to do research and produce scholarship is during the periods when faculty are not teaching, what Levy glibly labels those “almost 22 weeks for vacation or additional employment.”

As for faculty salaries causing the rise in tuition, Levy is either being deceitful or is woefully ignorant. Increases in tuition owe more to falling public support for higher education over the past decades and to rising administrative costs: administrative salaries have risen considerably as has the size of the typical college administration. There are more people in administration making considerably more money now than ever before. Faculty salaries, by contrast, have risen much more slowly. Despite what he seems to think, faculty salaries are rarely “commensurate with their hard-earned credentials” and certainly haven’t kept pace with the salaries of people whose credentials did not take as long or as much effort to acquire.

What makes Levy’s op-ed so frightening is the fact that as president of the Cambridge Information Group he will appear to have the credentials and expertise to seem reasonable to many people who are looking for scapegoats.

Columbus’s Voyage was a Religious Journey

Despite President Obama’s recent suggestion, Columbus was anything but an unproblematic spokesman for innovative, modern, secular thought. Columbus was, instead, motivated by conservative prophetic and apocalyptic fears. He considered his voyage across the ocean as part of an effort to convert all the races of the world to Christianity before the end of the world. Columbus’s apocalyptic fears were fueled by his reading of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi. D’Ailly was bishop of Cambrai and worked to heal the Great Schism. Through d’Ailly’s text Columbus was influenced by Roger Bacon, the pseudo-Methodius, St. Augustine, among others. D’Ailly’s Imago mundi was particularly important for Columbus’s ideas about both the coming apocalypse and the size of the earth. He owned and annotated the 1483 edition of d’Ailly’s work.

The theologian and bishop Pierre d’Ailly had considerable influence on Columbus.

Quite a number of Columbus’s annotations concentrated on chapter 8, “On the size of the habitable earth.” In this chapter d’Ailly surveyed the various opinions about how much of the earth was covered in water. Ptolemy, Aristotle, Pliny, and sacred texts disagreed, some claiming that as much as one quarter of the earth was covered in water and others claiming as little as one seventh. Columbus decided that scriptural references were correct and that only one seventh of the earth was covered in water.

The second important bit of information Columbus took from d’Ailly was the size of the earth. In chapter ten, “On the longitude and latitude of the climates,” d’Ailly reported the various ideas about the size of the earth. Citing the Arab astrologer Alfraganus, d’Ailly claimed that one degree at the equator equaled 56 2/3 miles “and thus the whole circumference is two thousand and four hundred miles” (from Pierre d’Ailly, Imago mundi (1483), fol. b1).

Columbus found support for his convictions in d’Ailly’s text. Further, Columbus was convinced that he had both experiential and textual evidence of the earth’s small size. In a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella he wrote:

The world is but small; out of seven divisions of it the dry part occupies six, and the seventh is entirely covered with water. Experience has shown it, and I have written it, with quotations from the Holy Scripture, in other letters, where I have treated of the location of the terrestrial paradise, as approved by the Holy Church; and I say that the world is not so large as vulgar opinion makes it, and that one degree from the equinoctial line measures fifty-six miles and two-thirds. That is a fact that one can touch with one’s own fingers.
(quoted in P.M. Watts, “Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Enterprise to the Indies’,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 73–102, quotation from 83)

So the question for Columbus wasn’t whether or not the world was round, but how big around was it. His work was convincing the Ferdinand and Isabella as well as their advisors that he was right, that it was only 2400 miles around.

The picture that emerges here is not one of a free-thinking, proto-modern Columbus struggling against the chains of an oppressive and conservative religion. Despite Andrew White’s fictions to the contrary, Columbus was not a warrior of rationality. He did not wage battle against the Church. And he did not “strengthen the theory of the earth’s sphericity” (A. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1876), 19).

Columbus was, contrary to both White and Obama, deeply religious and motivated apocalyptic fears. His voyage westward seems to have been part of his efforts to bring Christianity to the peoples of the world, to save humans before Christ’s Second Coming and Judgement Day. He believed he could make that voyage because his sources had mislead him.

Why the Flat Earth Myth Bugs Me

President Obama’s recent suggestion that Columbus proved the earth is round continues to bother me for a number of reasons. In this case, when he appears to be speaking without a script, his words reflect his own lack of historical knowledge. That it wasn’t immediately seized upon as a significant mistake suggests that many people don’t realize it’s a myth. Certainly, few if any of the people who heard him and laughed seemed to recognize it as a mistake. Apparently, basic historical ignorance is common in the U.S. (this isn’t really surprising, but it is unfortunate). Perhaps most upsetting, for me, is what President Obama’s mistake reveals about the marginality and insignificance of the history of science in our culture.

Historians of science have long pointed out that few if any educated people since Aristotle have believed the earth was flat. David Lindberg in his excellent introduction to the history of science states unambiguously:

The sphericity of the earth, thus defended by Aristotle, would never be forgotten or seriously questioned. The widespread myth that medieval people believed in a flat earth is of modern origin.
(David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 56)

As he points out in his notes and others have pointed out at much greater length, the source of this myth at least in the North American context is the writer Washington Irving, who made it up in the 1820. For longer treatments of this myth, see J. Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth and C. Garwood, Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea.

Andrew White helped cement in popular culture the flat earth myth.

Yet, if historians of science have been railing against this myth for so long, why do all of my students year in and year out arrive at Haverford College having been taught this myth? And why does President Obama repeat it? One important answer seems to be that historians of science have not been effective at communicating their expertise to a broader audience. We have surrendered this domain of knowledge to writers and people who have a vested interest in using the history of science in their own contests. It is not accidental that the Columbus myth was widely disseminated by John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew D. White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, two books that largely constructed the idea of some inherent conflict between science and religion and did considerable violence to the historical record to demonstrate that conflict.

In the end, President Obama’s mistake reflects as badly on historians of science as it does on the president. Rather than simply bemoan his lack of historical knowledge, we need to push back from our desks, step out of our offices, and retake our domain of expertise in the public sphere. Maybe that means working with high school teachers to design curricula. Maybe that means taking the chance to offer public lectures. Maybe it means spending a couple nights a month teaching a night class for adults. If we don’t begin to think more broadly about our place in society, then we are contributing to our own marginalization.