- From History to Theory by Kerwin Lee Klein
Kerwin Lee Klein’s excellent book of essays, From History to Theory, presents a collection of histories of key words and clusters of terms as they were used in the American historical world in the past century. Klein’s individual chapters stand alone as use-based semantic histories, exploring “habits and traditions” (p. 11), yet the whole here is much more than the sum of its parts. Each of the individual essays contributes to a broader understanding of the “poetics, rhetoric, and logic of academic discourse on history in the twentieth century” (p. 3), and the organization of the essays presents a coherent narrative that leads the reader from a discussion of the way we think about issues surrounding the philosophy of history, history and theory, theory and praxis, and so forth to a consideration of the ways in which uncritical use of language can be damaging not only to academic discourse but to society as a whole. From History to Theory is a book that problematizes the standard story of the development of twentieth-century historiography, particularly the standard narrative of the so-called linguistic turn.
Chapter 1 looks at “The Rise and Fall of Historiography,” noting [End Page 947] both the ambiguities of the term and the strengths and weaknesses that enabled its rise and precipitated its fall. Klein notes that “historiography” was initially an expansive term, coming to mean both the practice of historical writing and theoretical reflection. Historiography’s fall began in the 1960s, precipitated by a lack of satisfaction with this marriage and a growing sense that these were two separate endeavors. Klein characterizes this as “a story of the inability of scholarly discourse to develop a third term that mediates theory and praxis” (p. 33). Klein argues that the waning of historiography was particularly “untimely,” noting that it occurred during the “upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, post-colonialism, and multiculturalism—[that] hit campus just as departments of history eliminated the one place in the curriculum that seemed especially adaptable to engagement with such a variety of topics” (p. 31).
The second chapter, “From Philosophy to Theory” focuses on the development of philosophy of history between the Second World War and 1960 and the changing perceptions of its ability to function as a proper philosophical discipline in light of midcentury developments in Anglo-American philosophy that gave philosophy aspirations of becoming a rigorous science and led to philosophy of history’s decline. The chapter also weaves in the rise of history and theory as a substitute that lacked the connotations with older-style universal history and had a greater degree of consonance with a scientistic outlook.
Chapter 3, “Going Native: History, Language, and Culture” corrects the standard interpretation of the birth of the New Cultural History and the Linguistic Turn. Klein points to the early influence of anthropology and analytic philosophy on the humanities in America that set the stage for the importation of French thought, which found a receptive audience that had already taken a “linguistic turn.” Klein shows his readers that American academia had already begun to focus on language and culture long before these terms became associated with a new, imported discourse.
Chapter 4, “Postmodernism and the People without History,” will be of most interest to readers of this journal. In Klein’s own words, “chapter 4 unpacks the claims of certain strains of postmodern or post-structural discourse to engage global history without falling back into the sort of universal history that had been practiced by Hegel or Marx” (p. 15). Klein clearly shows the ways in which new attempts to deal with the histories of marginalized peoples drifted into polarized “either-or” narratives that ended up replaying Hegel’s description of people with and without history in different words. Klein looks at the employment of concepts of local and master narratives, particularly [End Page 948] by Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty, and James Clifford, and likewise finds these well-meaning...