I didn’t catch the complaint of some philosophers against a small NEH course-development program called “Enduring Questions” the first time around, but picked up on it via Savage Minds.

The NEH program offers a small amount of financial support for faculty developing “predisciplinary” courses that deal with questions like, “What is the good life?”, “What are good and evil?”, “Is there a human nature” and so on.

The term predisciplinary is evidently the first provocation to philosophers critical of the program, as they (I think accurately) read it to say that courses taught by philosophers in philosophy departments which are part of the standard curriculum of disciplinary philosophy are not really what the grant aims to support. There’s nothing excluding philosophers from participation, but the clear implication is that to qualify for the grant, they’d need to teach the normal substance of their discipline in some kind of extended or extradisciplinary framework. Understandably, this is a puzzling request from their perspective, since they’re quite right that they really do address these questions day-in and day-out in their existing courses.

I’m sympathetic to the initial reaction of irritation. If the NEH set up a course development grant called “Time and the Past” aimed at supporting interdisciplinary courses that examined change over time but framed the grant so that ordinary history courses didn’t qualify, my first impulse would be to object. Why exclude the discipline that makes that question its central concern?

But hold on a moment. What might a grant solicitation written that way incentivize? Maybe attention to how thinking about change over time is a real problem for some disciplines: some forms of economics, for example. Maybe a course (by philosophers, even!) on whether history matters or is knowable, which history departments don’t tend to offer. Maybe a course in a natural science that asks how and when old science matters to contemporary science. The more I think about it, the more I can think of really interesting courses that respond to the prompt and aren’t likely to be taught by most historians. I can think of courses which might respond to the prompt that could be taught by a historian, but they’d be good additions to a curriculum in other departments as well.

The more I think about it, the more I also recognize that historicism or study of the past play roles in other disciplines, sometimes roles that intermingle with the way historians work and sometimes not. What skin off my nose is it if a literary critic is also an intellectual or cultural historian? That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I might have some friendly nudging about methdology to make to a non-historian doing historical work, but no more.

Broadly speaking, I think anyone can study history, and that the methodology and theory of historical study are not highly technical. Academic historians certainly benefit from having studied history, e.g., from knowledge of particular places and time periods, knowledge of historiography, and actual experience of historical research. It does not require a lengthy apprenticeship to begin to think usefully about the past, and scholarly works of history can and should be read and savored and made use of by broad audiences with no special training.

The philosophers who object to the NEH grant largely argue that philosophy is a highly technical discipline with a history of progressively greater and more precise knowledge about its subject which cannot be understood without dedicated training. They also argue that the “enduring questions” the NEH proposes are by nature philosophical in this sense. They perceive no need to incentivize courses in “enduring questions” because they believe such courses already exist and are called “a philosophy major”.

Part of this reaction is just the enduring struggle within and around disciplinary philosophy over Rorty-like complaints that the discipline is too insular and technical. My long-term arguments against fastidious forms of disciplinarity, at least at small colleges, apply just as surely to philosophy as they do to my own discipline and most others. All disciplines, even the natural sciences, need some capacity to translate and disseminate their particular forms of knowledge outside of their discipline, without insisting that an outsider undergo some prior training in that discipline. However, I do think there’s something especially wrong-headed with saying, “Well, we have a pretty precise, well-resolved technical answer to the question, ‘What is the good life?’, but if you’re not trained in philosophy, I can’t explain it to you.” The question “What is the good life?” is really not the same thing as a difficult question in mathematics.

I also wonder, however, if the philosophical critics believe that there is no intellectually useful or legitimate response to many of the “enduring questions” outside of academic philosophy. For example, surely literature or art poses those questions and sometimes struggles to answer them in a manner quite distinctive from philosophy. This is not to say that philosophy, like literary criticism, cannot try to encompass or understand the way in which art or literature ask those questions: philosophers has done wonderful work along those lines. But interpreting how art asks enduring questions is not the same as the first-order posing of those questions by artists within their art.

Similarly, the empirical study of how human beings actually have been in past societies or presently are within contemporary societies tends to intrinsically generate some of those enduring questions. A comparative historian with an interest in political systems may not set out to answer the question, “What’s a good government?” as a political philosopher might, but I’d be surprised if by the end such a historian wouldn’t have some pretty interesting and wholly intellectual answers to that question which come from an accumulation of empirical cases.

If the NEH grant ended up drawing out some of those different ways of coming at big, deeply human questions and forging them into provocative courses, that’s a great outcome. Humanistic inquiry has a pressing obligation to legibility with wider publics, a need to pose its distinctive questions in broadly relevant terms. I can’t see why the federal government (or anyone, really) ought to subsidize humanistic study which is in some enduring or permanent fashion conceived as incommensurable with general intellectual discourse and incommunicable to anyone lacking highly specific training.

Don’t get me wrong: any study of “enduring questions” needs to enshrine philosophy, to acknowledge its central importance, both in its broadest and most specifically disciplinary forms. Anyone aspiring to teach to those questions who recognizes that importance and yet is not a philosopher is well-advised to be seek the counsel of philosophers with some degree of humility. This is where I understand and endorse with reservations some of the irritation expressed by philosophers at this grant program, insofar as it can be taken to endorse the idea that “enduring questions” can be asked wholly innocent of the long history of philosophers asking them.

Humility ought to work both ways, though: contemporary scholarly philosophy doesn’t own a comprehensive patent on those questions.

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9 Responses to Mine!

  1. aprudy says:

    There’s a tremendous amount of stuff here, thanks for laying it out, I particularly think its useful that you are addressing philosophy and history here. My BA in Biology from Swarthmore was earned taking more classes in SocAnth, Philosophy, PoliSci and Lit than in Biology proper and I went on to get a PhD in Sociology. What I learned in the classes where what I learned stuck was always presented historically – both as part of a progression of thought, development or struggle and as a series of phenomena/texts situated in physical and social space. This was especially true in Philosophy and theory courses… I remember tons of stuff, almost thirty years later, from classes by Richie Schuldenfrei and Hugh Lacey but, sadly – because he became my best professorial friend/mentor – not a single thing from Gil Stott’s Ethics class.

    The attraction of Ken Sharpe’s Political Science classes was the integration of theoretical and comparative historical content and the nightmare of What-Was-His-Name?’s Political Theory course was that it was taught as disembodied political philosophy. This could just be an issue of terminology, but it seems to me that purpose of the NEH grants is that they do not want the normal substance of philosophy (or any other discipline) taught. I don’t like the “predisciplinary” term myself but it seems to me that it is hard to defend purely disciplinary work when the intellectual cutting edge of just about every social scientific and humanitarian discipline has, for the last forty years, been at the intersections of those disciplines and others, usually multiple others.

    Outside a comparatively shrinking “normal scientific” core, the most exciting work being done by young scholars – and that which most excites the students I talk with – in sociological, geographic, anthropological, political scientific, historical, literary and philosophical work is increasingly being done by post-empiricist scholars, folks more likely to situate their case studies in comparative historical context and their methods in amodern epistemologies of situated knowledges and actor-networks.

    It seems to me that the beauty of “enduring questions” is that they are fundamentally multivalent and that it is largely disciplinary parochialism peppered with a mixture of pride and insecurity that’s at issue. I would hope that the NEH is funding proposals likely to lead students to follow up with intensive, disciplinary pursuit of the questions examined and that folks writing/wanting grants design their courses to be as likely to send students into philosophy as history, as likely into sociology as literature.

  2. hestal says:

    Good points all. I especially liked:

    “All disciplines, even the natural sciences, need some capacity to translate and disseminate their particular forms of knowledge outside of their discipline, without insisting that an outsider undergo some prior training in that discipline.”

    I find that the natural sciences do an excellent job translating and disseminating their knowledge outside of their discipline. I read books and subscribe to magazines that successfully carry out these tasks regularly. But I find no such translation and dissemination for the discipline of history. Historians often say, in one form or another, that oustiders should know the lessons of history… but they don’t give us the disseminations and translations that we, the outsiders, need.

    There are very few attempts to do this and I have looked for a long time to find them. Will Durant, I think, wrote a book years ago in which he listed a dozen or so such lessons. I know of no others. Today I am struggling through a book called, “Telling the Truth about History,” by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, all three teachers of history at UCLA. It is maddening, virtually nonsensical. It is written for those inside the profession, I think, for it is clearly not written for outsiders. In fact it is so strange that it makes me wonder if I can trust at all the other books written by these historians — the one I am reading also currently is “Inheriting the Revolution,” by Appleby.

    So, the lessons of history are still unknown to humankind, and I don’t know who to thank or who to blame. I think the study of history has become a form of entertainment, not a discipline. Whatever discipline its practitioners may have is a form of stagecraft.

    But philosophy is even worse. It still claims all knowledge as its field, as it has from the start, but over time the good bits have been peeled away from philosophy and become sciences — real disciplines with real meaning — leaving a shell. History may be still part of philosophy, maybe not, but this unclear division may explain why authors Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob write at great length about “objective knowledge, cultural diversity, and political imperatives,” and about “skepticism, relativism, and postmodernism.” The umbilicial cord still connects history and philosophy and will do so until history becomes a discipline producing more than entertainment.

    So I commend you, Herr Burke, for your call to arms, for your call to translation and dissemination. I hope you will be heard.

    To cut to the chase, which is all I ask historians to do, our children need not be steeped in the march of time, they need to be taught the lessons of history, in some context of course, but also in a way that makes the knowledge gained useful in running their lives and in running this country.

    My Uncle Earl was a butcher all of his working life. I would stop by to see him often to deliver his daily paper when I was a newsboy. He talked about many things, and I learned that he would talk about his profession if asked. One of the most interesting to me was his lesson on what to do with sharp knives when they are not currently needed but soon may be. There was much to think about I learned, just as I learned how much there was to think about when one went to the back of the farm to repair fencing.

    I know that butchering and fence repair are practical skills, not great discplines, why they are not really worthy of being called technologies, but they are very, very useful. So if I have to choose between the work of Uncle Earl and the work of Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob the choice is obvious and easy.

  3. hestal says:

    While I was writing, so apparently was aprudy. By reading our comments it is easy to tell which is the outsider.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Telling the Truth About History

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Telling the Truth About History really is written for the discipline, and I should be clear, I think it’s perfectly fine for scholars to write both internally for their discipline and externally for wider audiences. Appleby, Hunt and Jacob are writing about some long-running disciplinary debates over historiography in that book. I think if you read Hunt’s work on the French Revolution or early modern European cultural history you’ll find something that’s much friendlier to a wider public view.

    We’ve talked about “lessons from history” before: I do think you’re being stubborn about insisting that you receive that knowledge in exactly the form you expect to get it, as a neatly arranged list of lessons. I think there’s a tremendous body of historical writing that’s accessible, readable and compelling that offers guidance to us about how to live today, about mistakes and follies as well admirable examples drawn from past lives and societies, and so on. I think most history offers that the way most fiction does: indirectly, through example and detail, not as a message that’s extracted from context and set aside. I get lessons about life from reading fiction, but if I strip away the fiction to just talk about the lessons, it often seems rather threadbare and aphoristic. The same goes for history.

  6. hestal says:

    I am being stubborn. Is that a bad thing? What does history teach us about stubborn people? Are they always bad? Are they always good?

    The lessons taught by fiction are limited to a few plots, and, I suppose, that is what you are saying about the lessons of history. If that is so, then why don’t historians simply tell us outsiders the plots and what we should draw from them.

    But your position overlooks a very important thing and this is the idea of progress, that is, progress that builds on knowledge. If it is necessary for humans to confront the future with tools that are built from the past, then they need to know the useful parts of the past. There is not enough time in the human life span to know all that has gone before. Therefore there is something very important that you omitted in your call to arms. To “disseminations and translations” you should have added “distillations.” I will wager that if I asked 100 historians to list the top 100 history books I should read, the combined list would contain more than 5,000 unique titles. Such a variance in recommendations says that the profession lacks standards and lacks common agreeent about its content.

    So time is of the essence. How many hours of a student’s learning life should be spent on history? What does one get for the time spent? Very little compared to many other important subjects. So how much grant money should be devoted to history rather than other disciplines? Less and less all the time.

    And I think you are being stubborn. You encouraged your profession to do a better job of “disseminating and translating,” and I agreed with you. But, to have someone outside the profession criticize the profession really stings, so you quickly put me in my place. Your reaction may not be a lesson about history, but it is a lesson about historians.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    No, I’m just saying don’t freak out about one book being written to a more insider-ish perspective.

    History doesn’t get much grant money compared to natural science or engineering, which is as it should be, but it’s in line with your expectations. Don’t ask a fork to do a knife’s job. You have your lifetime and no other in which to become wise, as do I. History’s lessons are mostly in my view about wisdom: understanding what people are, what moves them, what the limits and horizons of the possible might be, about the way that time directs our actions but also opens up startling novelty.

    Sharply truncating history to what you consider to be useful for building a deliberate future would be in my view a failure to learn a lesson from history, two of them in fact. The first is that trying to shape the future to some exact end based on observations of the past usually ends up having perverse or unexpected consequences. The second is that throwing away everything that doesn’t teach you exactly what you already know you want to know or exactly conform to what you already judge to be useful is throwing away all of what’s actually human and valuable that history can teach you. If you already know what you need, if you’re already sure about the uses to which you’d put history, don’t bother with history: roll up your sleeves and get to work. The whole point of looking at the past is to see lives and times and situations that surprise you either by mirroring today or by being alien to it, to see slices of the panorama of human existence in all their rich messiness.

  8. G. Weaire says:

    Philosophers are not really in a position to complain as long as they keep the “Philosophy and [whatever would be strategic at the moment]” courses in their back pocket.

  9. hestal says:

    I think you are imputing to me ideas that I don’t have, and thereby your argument fails. But that will have to be taken up later.

    Right now it is my birthday. I am going to play golf to remember my father who took me to play my first round of golf on this day 63 years ago. Then I will read more along the lines we have discussed here to remember my mother who taught me to read and to love reading.

    She read all the books in her school library when she was a student and she encouraged me to do the same. She and I graduated from the same school and when I was a senior I found a volume of poetry I had not read and when I took it to the checkout desk I discovered that the last person to read that book was my mother 21 years before. She and I got a big laugh about that.

    My father and my mother had very definite about history and its uses. Their ideas included ways of improving history’s outputs. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

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