At the Historical Society's Biennial Conference at George Washington University last summer, intellectual historian Christopher Shannon questioned the epistemological assumptions and practices of academic history and appropriated Alasdair MacIntyre's concept of tradition to suggest an alternative approach to the study of the past. A version of Shannon's paper is published below, along with responses from Mark Weiner, Daniel Wickberg, and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Shannon's rejoinder concludes the forum.
The last forty years have witnessed a tremendous expansion of the range of historical topics deemed fit subject matter for professional academic historians in America. Beginning in the late 1960s, social historians concerned to recover the experience of common people led a revolt against the perceived elitism of the then-dominant fields of political, diplomatic, and intellectual history. The pioneers of social history, particularly those rooted in the field of labor history, soon came under attack for focusing on white male historical actors. This critique gave birth to the flourishing of studies of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and most recently, sexual minorities. Even those sympathetic and supportive of these developments at times wonder if any principle of unity or synthesis remains in the wake of so much diversity, or if those seeking to make sense of the past must give up on History and rest content with the proliferation of histories.
This diversity of subject matter masks a fundamental uniformity of method. For all its openness to new subjects for inquiry, the historical profession in America has refused to accept any fundamental questioning of its basic assumptions about how we gain meaningful knowledge of the past. Despite various philosophical challenges over the past century, most historians remain committed to a common-sense empiricism rooted in the philosophical assumptions of the physical sciences that dominated the intellectual landscape of the West at the birth of the historical profession in the late 19th century. This consensus is, moreover, at once epistemological and political: common-sense empiricism must be defended because it is the epistemology most appropriate to liberal modernity. The epistemological alternatives are historicism and relativism; the political alternatives are fascism and totalitarian communism.
The starting point for all debates over the historical profession remains Peter Novick's magisterial 1988 work, That Noble Dream. Novick shows how the founders of the American Historical Association modeled their professional practice on that of the physical sciences. Historians were to study the past in the way that natural scientists study nature. The "facts" of history were thought to be available in a fairly uncomplicated way, provided one was committed to rigorous empirical research in primary sources (the moral equivalent of nature). These facts, in turn, revealed certain patterns of causality modeled on the physical, mechanical sciences—though historians tended to stop short of claiming timeless universal laws of motion to history. Novick, to his credit, also shows how this common-sense empiricism was deeply problematic right from the start; indeed, something like our postmodern relativism was present at the creation of the historical profession.
Isaac Newton. From J. Edelston, ed., Correspondence of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Cotes, Including Letters of Other Eminent Men (London, 1850).
Through the first half of the 20th century a general faith in science and persistent linking of history to the scientific ideal covered a multitude of intellectual sins. By the mid-20th century, however, theoretical scientists were beginning to question their own 19th-century assumptions. With the publication of Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the physical sciences themselves seemed in danger of falling victim to historicism. Kuhn argued that the great scientific discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton reflected not simply a linear advance over earlier science, but a fundamental shift in structures of perception and categories of thought. Readers quickly interpreted Kuhn as a radical relativist; Kuhn just as quickly denied relativism.
Some ten years later the controversy was live enough to merit a high-profile response in the American Historical Review. In his influential 1973 essay on Kuhn, David Hollinger reaffirmed the profession's general concerns about relativism yet ultimately praised Kuhn for his identification of a new subject for historical inquiry: the community of scholars. This...