Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lepore's Dilemma

In a book review in the New Yorker magazine (10/29/07), the Harvard historian Jill Lepore assesses Daniel Walker Howe’s new history, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” This review is an illustration of the theme of this blog: the nettlesome and unexamined issues of philosophy and autobiography, of objectivity and subjectivity. Lepore contrasts Howe’s progressive history with Charles Sellers’s earlier and well-known critical history of the U.S., “The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846.” From the tone of her review the reader can tell that Lepore favors Howe’s “rare and refreshing” progressive rendition of American history, but she is responsible enough to quote Sellers asserting that

“Where Howe’s assumptions suggest that I undervalue capitalism’s benefits and attractions,” Sellers continued, “my assumptions suggest that he underestimates its costs and coercions.”… Sellers attributed these “warring assumptions” not to different evidence, methods, theories, or strategies of analysis but to the two historians’ different values.

Although, after quoting Sellers’s relativizing assertions, she noncommitally says “fair enough” and leaves it at that. Lepore, despite being more aware than most, is caught in the middle of the two perspectives, still unable to bring to full consciousness the dilemma that the two major studies present. The differing histories and Lepore’s preference for Howe’s raises the issue of how we determine which history to favor. Is one more accurate than the other and so superior for that reason? Or, is the value judgment that’s placed on something as large as the course of American (or any country’s) history separate from the facts and not something that can be said to be accurate or inaccurate? What do we do with Sellers’s assertion that the cast of the two histories is caused by “the two historians’ different values”? On what basis has Lepore chosen to prefer Howe’s?

What this blog and my paper “Arguments Beyond Reason” is suggesting is that once one has gone through the process of determining which facts are validated best by the differing criteria of accuracy that discussion participants adhere to and employ, there is also the process of determining the reasons we decide to adopt one valuation scheme over another. We can examine our ideal of how we should live which informs the arrangement of the historical story – its moral – and the psychological reasons that each of us comes to adopt that vision of how humans are and how they should be. This latter process is a psychological-spiritual intellectual practice of the self in the tradition of the ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of philosophy, but reworked using contemporary therapeutic methods.

In “Arguments Beyond Reason” and in the more fully developed “A Different Path” I explain how this type of analysis is not just a curious self-interpretive practice but a way to affect truth and knowledge by altering our adherence and relationship to our rational intuitions.

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