U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do Historians Have No Such Boxes (Guest Post by Anthony Chaney)

Editor's Note

This is the fifth of six guest posts from Anthony Chaney that are appearing on the Blog every other Saturday. The earlier posts in this series can be found hereherehere, and here. — Ben Alpers.

Throughout the 1960s the anthropologist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson carried on an irregular correspondence with the historian William Coleman of Johns Hopkins. The topic was Bateson’s father, William Bateson, called W.B. (1861-1926).

William Bateson was a significant figure. By introducing the ideas of Gregor Mendel to British biology at the turn of the century and then pioneering a field of research he called “genetics,” W.B. made way for “the modern synthesis” of Darwin and Mendel in the theory of evolution. During that period, he was well-established among the Darwinist camp predominant in Britain. In his final days after the Great War, however, W.B. returned to research questions that had interested him as a young scientist, prior to his success with Mendel, and he struck a stance that put him out of favor with the Darwinists.

The historian Coleman was interested in this odd career trajectory and had been working on a journal article for some time. He’d approached the son, Gregory, for help with his research.

As Coleman honed in on his thesis and began to share pages, Gregory realized that Coleman’s take on his father would not be sympathetic. W.B.’s attention to morphology, his lack of an abiding interest in physics and chemistry, and his taste in art and literature all suggested he was unable to accept the strong materialism that the theory of evolution required. Rather, like the clerics and the romantics, he clung to the mystical. This exemplified, Coleman argued, “conservatism in science.”

Gregory Bateson didn’t agree with this assessment, but it didn’t surprise him. It only made him groan a little in fatigue. Bateson didn’t object to his father being called a romantic, as far as that went. He objected to the assumption that W.B.’s characteristic concerns somehow de-legitimized his inquiries as a scientist. As Gregory saw it, this was all part of an ancient binary, deep in the Western mindset, composed on one side of Democritus’s particles and on one other of Hericlitus’s flux. The post-World War II theories of information and communication had rendered this binary obsolete. By trying to operate outside it, W.B. had been ahead of his time. Coleman, in contrast, was stuck in yet another performance of the age-old conflict between atomism and holism. Such performances had stock moves and gestures. One was to posit some authorized science that was purely objective, against which any other science was a kind of fraud.

“I suppose whatever scientific figure one looks at,” Bateson wrote Coleman in a December 1966 letter, “one would find that the history of science is only superficially guided by scientific research and disciplined thinking. Behind this superficial façade there is always a heaving mass of inchoate mysticism which the scientific figures themselves never put into words. One thinks of the big wooden box, locked, in Isaac Newton’s rooms in Trinity College. In this box he kept alchemistic manuscripts, deistic tracts and other occult materials.”

Bateson closed his letter with this question: “Do historians have no such boxes?”

This passage is not unlike many others found in Bateson’s correspondence: lively, articulate, pointed. He had a light touch, and even his criticisms, his pushings back were delivered amicably and with charm. Bateson’s letters are often as rich in expression and enjoyable to read as any of his published work. Strictly speaking, he had few peers. How many other trained anthropologists were coding systems theory onto the life sciences in the nineteen-fifties and sixties? He never established a place for himself within an institution, so only in relatively short, intense periods did he have other thinkers of his caliber around him with whom to develop and exchange ideas. For these reasons, he was often most successful communicating with a lay audience. Here his gifts of expression were especially handy. To illustrate abstract ideas, he commonly drew from literature, from history, from philosophy and myth. These references carried weight but were not obscure or threatening, not to someone with a decent undergraduate education (back when having a decent undergraduate education meant a grounding in the humanities—see L.D. Burnett for thoughts on this transformation).

But I didn’t tell this story merely to praise Bateson’s style. The substance of the story interests me, too, this idea about historians and boxes.

The immediate question to ask is whether I have such a box, and if so, what’s inside it. In Newton’s case the contents were religious in character; did they have to be? According to Bateson the contents are things the scientists “never put into words” because to do so would be to put one’s status as a scientist and critical thinker in question. As a friend and fellow scholar stated recently on the S-USIH FB page, sometimes a historian in a circle of historians cannot be their whole self. At the same time, the suggestion is that the contents of the box speak deeply to the historian’s very motivation.

Of course, Bateson isn’t just talking about historians; he’s speaking generally about critical thinkers in the modern mode. This is a question of method, is it not? We begin with doubt and pretty much stick with it. When a piece of data rings so true it is experienced emotionally, that’s a signal to be wary. Critical thinkers keep the heart data out of it, because that data enrolls some stake we have in the way of things that obstructs our ability to reason. Heart data is to be set aside, tucked away perhaps in a secret box so that it won’t influence our direction one way or another.

In short, there are good reasons to be wary of the heart data, and reasons to keep what inspires it out of sight. I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what may be in my box, if I have one. I’m not sure I want to examine it too closely. I like Bateson’s phrase “a heaving mass of inchoate mysticism.” Mysticism is usually given a religious connotation, but I’m not sure that’s necessary here. It might refer simply to all that we can’t know, not only because we aren’t smart enough, but because we don’t and can’t have receptors to transmit to consciousness even a fraction of everything that’s going on and of which we are a part. In Bateson’s construction, the contents of the box “which the scientific figures themselves never put into words” is continuous somehow with the “heaving mass of mysticism.” The contents perhaps speak to our relations with this heaving mass. From this perspective, how strange to be required to hide the box and its contents, to isolate the heart data, as they were irrelevant factors.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything novel in these observations. Hard work on the part of humanists on emotion and affect—including a call for a merger of history and brain science—goes back at least a couple of decades. Having only dipped my toe into this literature, I’m merely a little more secure in speaking openly about matters I hadn’t known how to speak about before. So far—and I hope to make progress on this thinking—the turn to affect that Ruth Leys and many others have written about strikes me as part of broad response across the humanities to recover, in a sense, from the shattering discoveries about complexity and interdependence that have been classed under numerous labels over the past fifty, sixty years.

In his biography of Gregory Bateson, David Lipset offers a vivid account of the day Gregory’s father, W.B., was on a train in 1900 reading a paper sent to him by a Dutch colleague It was a recently rediscovered 35-year-old article by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. W. B. saw in a moment what these findings would mean to evolutionary theory, what a huge piece of the puzzle they supplied. W.B. would look back on that train ride, Lipset writes, as one of the most “intensively emotional experiences of his life.” Later Gregory would describe how his father came to regret all the time spent with Mendel. There is little in the parts of this story that assure any generalization about the usefulness of heart data in critical inquiry, except perhaps that it’s useless to pretend it’s not there.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Anthony, I admire this essay greatly. When I shared a link to this essay as well as today’s guest essay from Paul Croce (“Historians, the Columbos of our Cultural Life”), I suggested that the paired essays raised the question, “Historians: Pandora or Columbo?” But of course that’s the wrong question, given the metaphor that Bateson chose. In pairing your essays, the question that emerges is rather this: “Historians: Epimetheus or Columbo?” Yet without Pandora, there would be no history at all, and no need for historians. Perhaps that’s the secret historians have tried so desperately to lock away. Hope roams free in the world; it’s Pandora the discipline would keep contained.

    Sorry, fellas.

    • Thank you L.D. for this comment. I like very much the way you frame a Epimetheus-Colombo disciplinary binary, related the binary Bateson referred to, and then explode it by introducing a third character. She opens the box and sets the house on fire. Now the point of the story changes for me. It was never about the contents. It was the act of containment, all along.

  2. “It was never about the contents. It was the act of containment, all along.”

    Yes, I think so, mostly. But I think some historians pay a high price for that locked chest in the corner. It may empower their work or imperil it. Something of life, something of living, has been locked away, out of the way, so they can write. But one forgetful glance over at that locked chest in the corner, and they remember, and then they can’t write at all.

    It’s a fraught business, this work.

  3. I think people in most disciplines, perhaps even in all, have some kind of locked box. In several cases, history and literary studies in particular, it might be a certain doubt about provability — Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Arcadia’ has a couple of contemporary academic reseachers meeting in a country house that was once the home of a famous poet of the Romantic era, juxtaposed with a storyline, really about the history of science, set at the time he was living there. The thoughtful, serious, and often imaginative ideas of the academics fail to get at the real dynamics of the lives that were being lived in 1809-12. There’s a certain point beyond which it’s speculation, and perhaps there’s a reluctance to admit that.

  4. Anthony, I liked this essay. Thanks. This struck me “One was to posit some authorized science that was purely objective, against which any other science was a kind of fraud.” It reminded my of the scientist Barbara McClintock who studied genetics and was given a Nobel prize for her contribution rather late in life. Her approach to the genetics of corn made little sense to mostly men scientists of her day. The author of Evelyn Fox Keller, feminist historian of science, unpacks McClintock approach to corn plants (of all things) as having deeply sympathetic feelings toward the changes in the plants she observed year after year. Keller reflects some of the feminist critique of modern science that does not want to account for affect in scientific observations. Thus the title of the book “Feeling for the Organism.” Besides the natural world studied by scientists, there is whole notion of “feeling ideas” and how to account for and reckon with the unavoidable affect leakage in our research and writing. In other words, knowledge is plural.


    • Geneticists must groan when they hear comments about McClintock like “Her approach to the genetics of corn made little sense to mostly men scientists of her day”. McClintock was made a member of the National Academy at the tender age of 42, and she was elected president of the Genetics Society of America in 1945, the first woman president. That is, she was at the top of her profession and highly respected by her peers 4 decades before she won the Nobel prize.

      The biological world is very diverse. It’s a big collection of exceptions. Geneticists have been finding odd kinds of behavior in various species for over a century. Most of this knowledge is not widely useful or important. For a long time, McClintock’s discovery of jumping genes in corn was just another fascinating idiosyncrasy– until the biotech revolution got started.

  5. Thanks for the essay and comments. You don’t have to be a mystic to recognize that we have limits to what we can know and understand. Sure enough, as you point out, Anthony, we grasp only “a fraction of everything that’s going on.” James talked about our theories as carved out portions of the robustness of experience, that “everything.” Humility about what we can grasp could be a helpful message in anyone’s box. And that’s an important message for people who put their trust in heart data or head data. Be careful about what’s in your box, but also be careful about what you choose to carve out of experience.

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