Category Archives: History

A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

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Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.

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Barbarian Virtues: An Incomplete Critique of American Imperialism

barbarian-virtuesIn Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917, Mathew Frye Jacobson explored the American perception of ourselves and the foreign peoples we came into contact with at the turn of the last century, as empire building and immigration expanded our interaction with the outside world. The title comes from a quotation by Theodore Roosevelt calling on Americans to not abandon their hearty roots in the quest for civilization, and to “keep the barbarian virtues” in order to escape from decadence.

Anxiety over civilization and barbarity characterized American culture at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Jacobson, political culture during this period was “characterized by a paradoxical combination of supreme confidence in U.S. superiority and righteousness, with an anxiety driven by fierce parochialism.” The paradox stemmed from the United States’ economic dependence on an influx of labor from peoples that were considered to be inferior. Popular media characterized these people as barbarian others in need of the fatherly hand of the civilized United States. The labor and resources of the “barbarians” were invaluable in propelling this country to a position of power.

It is not the uniqueness of this relationship that Jacobson finds interesting. As he points out, these attitudes have long roots in American culture. The scale of these endeavors is what sets this period off from the past. Industrial production, mass population movements, expanding and active government, and a developing mass media characterized this time of explosive growth and involvement in the world. But in order to facilitate such involvement, the old attitude Americans had taken toward American Indians and, to a lesser extent, Mexicans, needed to be refashioned for use overseas. The people of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Panama all had to be seen as “pawns in a vast geopolitical game.” This shift in perspective took a conscious cultural effort to accomplish.

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Man and the Natural World: A Meticulous History

man-and-the-natural-worldIn Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, historian Keith Thomas argued that English sentiments regarding the natural world progressed from exploitation in the sixteenth century to conservation in the nineteenth. Before 1500, the prevailing worldview in England had been that wilderness was something to be subdued and civilized. After 1800, the prevailing belief was that wilderness needed to be saved from misuse by humanity.

The English view of nature prior to 1500 was theologically-based. According to scripture, God created each animal and plant to serve man and subordinate to his wishes and needs. Animals were considered to be automaton without souls, and previously wild animals had to be broken in order to use them as labor and food. Many classical scholars also taught that human beings were unique and separate from the animal kingdom. According to Aristotle, only mankind possessed reason.

The common man used religion and morality to distinguish himself from animals. Evil spirits almost always took the form of an animal, and the devil appeared as a goat. Likewise, mankind’s bodily impulses were negatively equated with animals and considered things to be subdued. Englishmen also labeled outsiders as bestial. Anyone who wasn’t Christian was considered worse than a beast and in need of civilizing. The aristocracy also put the poor into this category. However, Thomas was careful to point out that this “uncompromisingly aggressive view of man’s place in the natural world… was by no means representative of all opinion in early modern England.”

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German Women for Empire: Imperial Feminism

german-women-for-empireIn German Women for Empire, 1884-1945, Lora Wildenthal paints a compelling picture of contributions made by German women in the pursuit of imperial ambitions. In Germany’s African and Pacific colonies, women from diverse backgrounds played a conscious and often enthusiastic role, carving out a place for themselves as guardians of “Germanness” and racial purity. In Imperial Germany, feminism took on a distinctly chauvinistic tone, demonstrating that history is full of nuance.

Germany was late to the colonial game, seizing territory in Africa and Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. This included modern day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Togoland, Cameroon, and parts of Botswana and Nigeria. Its Pacific possessions included parts of present day New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. German women participated in the establishment of these colonies through nursing and missionary work. For women who wanted to experience the most independence, nursing was their chosen field. The German-National Women’s League, founded by Martha von Pfeil and Frieda von Bülow, was one of the first and most influential nursing organizations in the colonies.

Wildenthal portrays von Bülow as a striking figure and an adventurous woman who sheltered the German-National Women’s League from male oversight. She evangelized the colonies in several novels, portraying them as an ideal place for women to work alongside men to promote radical German nationalism. Von Bülow, conservatively dressed and menacingly pointing a revolver, graces the cover of German Women for Empire.

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