I write to you from the 46thAnnual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. This is a wonderful conference, and I’m delighted to be here along with USIH President Sarah Gardner to represent our organization and our discipline at this meeting. We have been warmly welcomed and have thoroughly enjoyed the scholarship and the fellowship of this gathering. Still, we’re both a bit nervous about our panel, which will be taking place in less than two hours. I worry that my paper isn’t philosophical enough. But, as the kids say, “It is what it is,” and I know I can trust this hospitable group of scholars to help us find fruitful connections between our work and theirs.
In the meantime, today is my regular posting day, and I want to redeem the time by returning to a concept that I championed in my most recent post, a polemical defense of historians’ public engagement, particularly public engagement that foregrounded facticity as the sine qua non of any legitimate historical account of the past.
The concept I turned to in that post and that I keep returning to in my own work is the idea that history is an empiricist discipline. I am aware that at least one person – perhaps even a few people – misread that statement as tantamount to claiming that history is a science.
“Empricist” is not, in any usage you have ever or will ever read from my pen, a synonym for “scientific” as that term is generally (or even specially!) used, and to say that a discipline is empiricist or that a narrative is empirically grounded is not to claim any sort of scientific certainty. I suppose some people may conflate “empiricist inquiry” with “scientific inquiry,” but those people are leading you astray and you should take their condemnations of empiricism with several grains of iodized salt.
History is not a science as either the term “history” or the term “science” is customarily used in the English language, and I shall cast a baleful eye upon anyone who suggests otherwise.
But if “empiricist” doesn’t mean “scientific,” whatever can it mean?
Well, as I’ve mentioned at the blog before, when I teach about the Early Modern period in European and Transatlantic thought, I usually juxtapose the “discovery” of the Americas and the flurry of speculative work following that alongside the Protestant reformation, noting that both of these phenomena reflect a broad “empiricist turn” in Western thought: that is, a turn away from an epistemology grounded in received authority, toward an epistemology grounded in experience and observation.
In this framing (which is not particularly controversial, I would like to think!), Scottish Common Sense philosophy is an expression of the empiricist turn – but so is, I would argue, the Second Great Awakening, where wondering where one was being sent for eternity based on the inscrutable mystery of predestination gave some ground to knowing that one had become a child of God because one had experiencedan inner transformation (sometimes accompanied, to be sure, with fainting fits, cries of anguish, and the occasional rolling in aisles.) However it manifested, that conversion experience allowed one to claim, from the authority of his or her own interior observation, “I know I am a child of God.” Let’s set aside the inside baseball of whether one could fall out of grace, lose one’s salvation, etc. – the important thing here is that the interiority of people’s lives, the sense (and “sense” is really important in the idea of common sense philosophy) that they had been transformed by an encounter with the divine, a change they could observe in their own hearts, could serve as the basis for that claim. This is epistemology rooted in observation and experience, not in syllogistic logic and received authority.
This is a big deal, especially in teaching the U.S. history survey (and it is, as I’ve said before, one of the reasons that Jill Lepore’s These Truthsis such a useful survey text for me). I spend a lot of time unpacking the implications of the continuing democratization of the construction of knowledge has meant – what it has meant for religion, for politics, for economics, for culture, for education, for scholarly inquiry.
And, at this conference of philosophers, as I prepare to present a paper on the mutually constitutive relationship between texts and communities – the chicken-and-egg problem of interpretive communities and their canons – I am pleased to be reminded, and to remind you all, that Pragmatism is an empiricist mode of engagement with the world, a multi-perspectival movement toward a more reliable and more workable and more complete understanding of both the situation in which we collectively find ourselves and how that situation might be changed.
Syllogisms don’t obtain, systematic theologies don’t obtain, formulaic articulations of what will be true in every case don’t obtain – Pragmatism is the philosophy of experiment. That doesn’t mean it’s “scientific” in the sense of being a nomothetic mode of thought. Quite the opposite. “Truth happens to an idea…”
Not sure truth is going to happen to the ideas in my paper, which I am delivering in less than an hour. But, barring some unforeseen disaster, the paper itself will happen, as will my colleague’s paper, and the two of us will do our best to work toward a clearer or better understanding of our themes, drawing from the observations and perspectives of our interlocutors and hopefully refining our work accordingly, so that we can tell a better and more deeply meaningful story about the pasts we have called into view, if not called into being.
That’s empiricist work. That’s historical work. That’s the collaborative enterprise in which all of us are engaged – even those of us who wish to foolishly insist that to call history an empiricist enterprise is to claim nomothetic authority for historical narrative.