Conversation with the past acquires an ironical twist

Economy, Polity and Society - History, Religion and Culture
July 13, 2001

Is it the job of professional historians to simplify or to complicate our understanding of the past? Niall Ferguson's recently published The Cash Nexus sets out to reduce the fiendishly complex history of states, parliaments and bond markets to a series of answers to what he calls "examination-style questions", some of which - "Are democratic powers vulnerable to military understretch?"-invite, and get, the answer yes or no (in this case, "yes"). It is history in the spirit of A. J. P. Taylor, where spuriously complex but inherently simplistic theories such as Marxism are rebutted in yes-or-no terms, and straight questions - "What caused the first world war?" - are given straight answers: "railway timetables".

By contrast, Sheldon Rothblatt speaks for many of the authors collected in these two volumes of essays when he writes: "The historian's function is often that of restoring complexity to a past reality which some bold and excessively binary conceptual scheme has made too simple." Among the things that are taken to need complicating in these essays are: the reputation of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations ("Part of my purpose here," Richard F. Teichgraber III writes, "is simply to deepen and complicate our understanding"); the notion of historical distance (an "enlarged and more complicated" idea than we are used to); Gibbon's religious beliefs ("a complicated adherence"); the growth of religious intolerance in British India ("a complex process"); and the relations between orthodoxy, dissent and unbelief in the 18th century ("many-sided and complex"). As Jane Garnett writes in her essay on Victorian attitudes to the domestic economy of ancient Greece, considerations of gender can "apparently simplify the interconnections", but where gender is more than an excessively binary conceptual scheme, it can also suggest "important complications".

The main thrust is clear. What these essays have in common is a sense that there is no yes-or-no question or answer to which their history can provide the answer. In almost every case, the answer would be: it is more complicated than that. If a celebration of the complexity of the past is what unites these essays, it does not explain why they are being published alongside each other. These two volumes are, in fact, designed to celebrate the work of Donald Winch and John Burrow and the school - invariably known as the "Sussex school" of intellectual history - that has grown up around it. As Stefan Collini makes clear in his introduction, this is not a title its members have sought for themselves, seeing it as too assertive a label for nothing more than "like-mindedness". What this consists of is an openness to the attractions and advantages of a "thickly textured" sense of the intellectual past, in which the full range of ideas, idioms and audiences that goes into making a piece of writing and its reputation are given proper consideration.

These advantages include what Collini calls "fair-mindedness", which means allowing authors and their works their own voice, rather than seeking to use them "to legitimate a variety of political or academic enterprises in the present". They also include "anti-specialism" (the intellectual past cannot be expected to conform to the disciplinary requirements of the intellectual present) and an acceptance that ideas interact with more than just other ideas. Finally, this like-mindedness is a matter of tone that Collini variously describes as "conversational", "ironic" and "alert to questions of style and register, to the nuances of individual voice". As Winch once put it, "Past authors should be treated as one would wish one's own writings or beliefs to be treated, should the positions, by some amazing twist of fate, be reversed."

The attractions of this way of doing history are self-evident, but they are also, in a sense, relative. Even though the Sussex historians are anxious not to be identified as a school, they are also anxious not to be identified with another school to whom much of this like-mindedness could be said to extend. The "Cambridge school" in the history of political thought shares many of the broadly contextual and complicating aspirations that Collini identifies, as well as a certain reluctance among its leading members (Quentin Skinner, John Pocock, John Dunn) to be thought of as a school at all, but Collini also identifies important differences. "Intellectual history" is not the same as "the history of political thought" for the simple reason that it is about more than politics, and when it is about politics, it does not see politics as a self-contained or self-defining activity.

Moreover, some Cambridge historians have betrayed an anxiety about the antiquarian implications of what they are doing and have come to see a contextual understanding of past political ideas as an important way of giving us a sense of the limits of our political intuitions. Collini rejects this, and he repudiates the anxiety: "The historianI need never be afraid of the glib charge of antiquarianism; the past can have no capacity to surprise us if we visit it to provide material for our debates and preoccupations."

The Cambridge school has often been associated with the methodological precept that identifying a past author's intentions is the key to understanding it. In contrast, the Sussex school lacks any equivalent precept, and it recognises that the historical understanding of a text can involve more than just understanding what the author was doing in writing it: others, including successive readers, many of whom will have misunderstood the author's intentions, also play a part in making a text what it is. Perhaps the clearest point of divergence is in how these two reluctant schools treat the problem of irony. For Skinner and others, the detection of irony in a text is evidence of a certain intention that needs to be brought to the surface and laid bare. The problem with this approach is that announcing that something is intended as a joke is the surest way to kill the joke dead. For Winch, Burrow and Collini, irony is best met with irony because it is fairer to the spirit of the past to respond, where possible, in kind. Hence the importance of a "conversational" tone and what Collini calls a "calculated offhandness" on the part of the historian, so that the past can speak for itself.

It is evidence of the fair-mindedness and eclecticism of the Sussex school that the Cambridge school is represented in these volumes, in John Pocock's essay on "Gibbon and the primitive church". Pocock emphasises the complexity of Gibbon's religious beliefs and the importance of understanding the responses of contemporary readers, but what really interests him are intentions: Gibbon's in giving the impression of atheism, his readers' in taking it. Other authors in these volumes are less interested in what individuals may have meant by taking the positions they did, and more interested in seeing how those positions play out over time, as ideas, people and places collide.

Many of these collisions are fascinating, such as that, described by Blair Worden, between the reputation of Oliver Cromwell and the historical sensibilities and social aspirations of the Victorian age, which raised him to the status of national hero.

A number of essays consider the complicated question of reputations, how and when they are acquired and whether they are deserved. Among those who emerge more complete, if more complex figures from this process are Smith, Gibbon and Bentham, the subject of an excellent essay by David Lieberman. Much of the pleasure in these accounts is in the incidental detail. Bentham is revealed as a shrewd appreciator of the power of the press. As he wrote in the 1770s: "For an English Minister to neglect the Newspapers is for a Roman Consul to neglect the Forum." So determined was he to advance the benefits of a robust fourth estate that he wrote to the Islamic state of Tripoli in 1822 advising on the best way to get a newspaper off the ground, suggesting just that judicious mix of "reliability" and "variety" on which Lord Rothermere was later to build his fortune. The ironies are delightful, even if they are unintended.

These volumes also highlight some of the disadvantages of this approach to the study of intellectual history. There is no identifiable consistency of tone, which would not matter if so much were not made of it at the outset. Moreover, for a collection of ostensibly "anti-specialist" writing, the cumulative effect of these essays is exhausting, as each makes specific and often arcane demands on the knowledge and interest of the reader. Too often, the conversation seems to be a personal one between the historian and their subject, from which it is possible to feel excluded. There is also the lingering problem of whether Winch is right, and that the best thing for historians to do is to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. Apart from the bathos of some of the images this conjures up, it rather begs the question of whether the values of this group of professional historians - fair-mindedness, perseverance, tolerance - are all that universal. The best essays here are the ones that seek to rescue people or ideas from acquired reputations that are unmerited without presuming to suppose that this is for their sakes rather than for ours.

Ironically, one of the most compelling of these is by Winch. In "Mr Gradgrind and Jerusalem", he suggests that "regard for complexity does not have to be associated with personal sympathies"; rather, it is a weapon against the easy comfort of too compartmentalised a view of the past, in this case one that sets up the artists against the calculating machines, or, from the other perspective, what Bagehot called "Aesthetic Twaddle versus Economic Science". Those who need rescuing include Dickens and John Stuart Mill, but those who needed rescuing from themselves were the compartmentalisers such as F. R. Leavis, E. P Thompson and Raymond Williams, if only because too simple a view of the past is bad politics since it ignores "how devilish cunning the enemy can be". Most important, we have "to confront the intellectual history we have rather than the one we think we ought to have had". It is a question of fairness, not to the past, but to ourselves.

David Runciman is lecturer in political theory, University of Cambridge.

Economy, Polity and Society: British Intellectual History, 1750-1950

Editor - Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young
ISBN - 0 521 63018 5 and 63978 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £42.50 and £15.95
Pages - 283

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments