- Liberal History and Historical Style After Virtue
Christopher Shannon's stimulating essay contributes new terms to an old debate. The debate concerns how historians can gain "meaningful knowledge" of the past, mere information being meaningless without a framework through which it is gathered and understood. Should historians conduct their work from the perspective of the natural sciences of the 19th century and so conceive of their discipline as a relatively straightforward form of empirical research dedicated to revealing patterns of causality? Or should the fact that historians approach the past only within language and by using categories from their own historical time influence in a fundamental way what and how they write? The latter position, as Shannon notes, was present at the birth of the historical profession, and it has returned with great force and sophistication in recent decades as a result of developments in the modern philosophy of science and textual criticism influenced by poststructuralist theories of language. (As a philosophical matter, the position finds grand expression in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and his examination of the historically situated nature of the interpretive process.) Because this debate implicates the existence of an entire way of life and, as Shannon suggests, a psychology as well, one wonders whether it can actually be settled by reasoned argument. Old monks rarely forsake their vows—there would be too many practical consequences if they did. That said, by providing a framework for the writing of epistemologically radical history Shannon points to a compelling new avenue by which to attempt a resolution and highlights an important reason to make the effort.
I find Shannon's work compelling; yet I do so from an unlikely perspective. Specifically, I support the social and political principles as well as the professional values of liberal modernity that Shannon critiques. I am a liberal American constitutionalist, unabashedly so, and I teach the subject to my students in an utterly traditional manner. But I believe that historians who support liberal political principles dismiss the underlying challenge of Shannon's essay only at the peril of liberal modernity and constitutionalism itself. I therefore believe important players in the intellectual structure that as important players in the intellectual structure of liberal society, historians ought to tack into the wind of Shannon's legitimate criticism. As I'll explain, we can do so by acknowledging the validity of the postmodern critique of common-sense empiricism; by turning to premodern, religious frameworks of meaning to remedy the deficiencies [End Page 15] of modern liberal thought; and by collectively promoting Shannon's pluralistic approach to the field. Moreover, we can encourage the revival of old and the development of new modes of literary form and style in which historians write about the past—a point I will develop briefly, in conclusion, as a friendly amendment to Shannon's work but on behalf of a larger politics with which he disagrees.
Shannon's contribution to the debate on historical method is two-fold. First, he offers a framework for the creation of historical work founded on the radical criticism of mainstream historical epistemology. That framework is Alisdair MacIntyre's concept of tradition. Second, he implicitly situates the debate within a context that underscores its pressing importance, namely the need for American intellectuals to engage in a dialogue with "non-liberal traditions, particularly those from the non-Western world." One way to appreciate these contributions and their significance is to read Shannon's essay in conversation with Pope Benedict's remarks at the University of Regensburg in 2006, an address that garnered worldwide attention, though generally for the wrong reasons.1 The speech has been widely mischaracterized mainly as a rebuke to Islam, but in fact it is more properly seen as a criticism of certain intellectual trends within Christian Europe. At the core of Benedict's remarks lies the argument that scholars who seek to place questions of ultimate value beyond the bounds of reasoned inquiry, and who in turn reject the idea that those values should serve as a framework for the application of reason, threaten to diminish the very concept of reason itself. Benedict argues that ultimate values of...