On shucking the “neutral stance” of scholarship: towards “professional pluralism”

Eric Miller, professor of history at Geneva College, reflects on an “intellectual history” conference he attended:

In his widely debated 1988 book That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick had surveyed the landscape and declared that not only was “objectivity in crisis” but that (as he titled his last chapter) “there was no king in Israel.” The (truly) quixotic Victorian attempt to turn history into science, Novick was burdened to contend, had, after one hundred years of effort, led to sophisticated scholarship but little evidence of a past rendered with the clarity and (collective) confidence science should have made possible, according to the profession’s overwhelming epistemological consensus—”the idea and ideal of objectivity” being, as Novick put it, “the rock on which the venture was constituted, its continuing raison d’être.”

Still, despite the serious, compelling, and fundamental critique of Novick and others, the canons and traditions of scientistic history have retained their force, as Novick, in fact, predicted they would, postmodern contentions about the limits of reason proving no match for the institutional and ideological force of the profession itself. History in the modern American vein has its own history, and it tends to rough up those who mess with it.

[. . .]

A scholarly, neutral notion of civil religion—or equality, or democracy, or morality—exists, think such scholars. But it does not.

Mary Kupiec Cayton, of Miami University, was one who dared, in a remarkable paper, to charge that something may be fundamentally compromised about this modern conception of not just historical method but rationality itself. Turning to the theoretical work of José Casanova, Talal Asad, and Charles Taylor, she suggested that the secular conception of history was actually rooted in a “faulty epistemology,” one that has blinded historians to the centrality of religion in the formation of the American nation. She quickly clarified that she was offering this argument in the name not of religious conviction but of what she called a “civil ethic,” concerned that the failure to understand secularity as itself something of a “colonial imposition” was leading American historians—of all people—to be “politically incorrect” in their treatment of not just religion but religious believers, past and present.

It happened that her respondent was the profession’s keenest critic, Christopher Shannon of Christendom College, who applauded her searching attention to the “deep structures” of the profession’s dominant historical narratives. In view of the incoherency, not to say illiberality, of the profession’s epistemological tradition, Shannon, in an award-winning 2011 essay published in Historically Speaking, urges it to openly embrace diverging traditions at their deepest points of difference rather than forcing all to play by the (alleged) neutral rules of liberal modernity. His solution to the crisis of knowledge: a proposal for a new “professional pluralism” that “would distinguish itself from its liberal predecessor by an explicit commitment to the pursuit of Truth—that is a truth beyond that which is empirically verifiable,” thus making possible not a “monologue” about modernity but a “dialogue”—one premised on the notion that much is, truly, at stake.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse, if anything upped the stakes in her published response to Shannon’s proposal. “Let us not forget,” she warned, that “all traditions are not equal. Welcoming all comers at the start of a conversation is different from ending with the same status for all. Given our current unraveling,” she concluded, “we need a cultivation of judgment.” At this conference she sounded this same theme. Before a packed room she expressed her own hopes for this fledgling organization, premised on her sense that its founding is one manifestation of what she takes to be, much to her surprised delight, a broader renewal of interest in ideas. If so, she urged, it may be that “intellectual communion” will be possible here—the enticing possibility that comes with shucking the “neutral stance” and believing that irony is not the end, that “discovery”—shared discovery—is indeed possible.

— “In Quest of Intellectual Community” (Books & Culture)


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