12 February, 2009

High Table

And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
Thanks to the internet, we can prove Socrates wrong. Yesterday Hayden White broke a ten-month silence on his own blog, and added the same text as a comment to my last post, taking me to task for taking him to task for his presentation to the Courtauld Institute last week. Naturally I am honoured—and I'm not being ironical—by his presence. And here is my reply:


Many thanks for taking the time to comment on my post; if I had known you would turn up in the audience, I would have minded my manners more. But I didn't, and must live with my own rudeness. Now, it would be disingenuous for me to take back what I have written, and so I will not; but I should observe at least that, in the heat of making a particular argument, one's overall perspective may be obscured. Indeed, a friend of sorts, who enjoys patronising me, has already commented, in light of this very confrontation, that 'Conrad is young and enjoys slashing attacks without much in the way of nuance'.

It is not true that my opinion of your work (or you) is 'totally hostile'. I was critical of your 'speech'—I would not call it a speech, which I think of as a more formal oration—because I thought it lacked substance. It was certainly entertaining, which immediately set it above the vast majority of lectures or papers one hears. I have no problem with garrulity or with America or Americanity, as my wife's response above should make clear. Nor did I expect you to be more, nor would I want you to be more, still less would I want every academic to be, 'donnish' or 'quietly authoritative'. Donnish and adventurous, quiet and aggressive—both have their place, as I myself more mutedly suggested in my comment above, that "there is [a] place for Whites as well as Murrays." And I did like Metahistory: I appreciated its grandeur, and moreover, opined here that 'much of it is convincing'. Suffice to say, it would not be hard to find a less sympathetic, more hostile opinion of your work than mine. If I had found your views uninteresting, I would not have come to hear you at the Courtauld.

I have no idea if the audience liked your speech; it is always difficult to get a measure of these things. One or two people I spoke to, certainly, seemed awed by your breadth of reference. I was also embarrassed—on your behalf—by the vacuous questions you were asked after you'd finished. But such, perhaps, are the inevitable dangers of these events. At any rate, whether the audience liked you or not makes no difference to the quality of your argument.

As for Momigliano, I have no doubt that you are infinitely more familiar with his work than am I; and that he was a perfect gentleman both in person and on the page. What I wrote, however, was that he penned not a 'devastating attack' on you, but a 'rather damning review' of your work, which is surely compatible with a politesse of tone, and even with intellectual respect; furthermore, my expression, unlike yours, does not commit me to agreeing with him. The subject of Momigliano's fascism, while interesting, is not remotely germane to the discussion at hand, nor to your speech. But when you write,
It is true that he believed that "Dov'e la rettorica, non c'e la storia," but if he really believed that he would also have had to deny that the whole of historiography written prior to the 19th century (from Herodotus to Gibbon) was real historiography!
you are merely contradicting yourself. Either he did not believe it, in which case it is not true that he did, or he did believe it, in which case, either he did deny that pre-Rankean historiography was genuine—and I don't believe he did—or he would have rejected your reasoning. Is it not possible to argue that, for a Gibbon—in whom, let us assume, there is both rettorica and storia—the extent to which a particular passage is rettorica is the extent to which it is not storia? In other words, although rhetoric and history may be mixed together in a work, even indistinguishably, like hydrogen and oxygen in water, might they at least be conceptually distinct? Why must we deal in absolutes?
My lecture at the Courtauld was in defense of returning historical research from its pretensions to the status of a "science" back to its service as branch of moral philosophy. . . on the grounds that a purely scientific or objective account of any set of facts can never be of any service to the "present."
This is a laudable intention, and one that Momigliano could only have sympathised with: his own project was described in exactly these terms by Murray and others last week. Murray himself, moreover, defended your philosophy of history as having moral value. But I am surprised that you allow even the possibility of a 'purely scientific or objective account of any set of facts'; and I am not convinced that your own defense adds much to what we have already, for instance from the myriad authorities you yourself quoted, from Nietzsche to Oakeshott. The statement that a set of facts 'can never be of any service to the present' seems little more than a historiographical reiteration of the age-old is-ought problem.

Furthermore, it is pointless to argue that 'The idea of the "practical past" would turn historical inquiry to the service of reformist movements in historical thinking', since it is these very species of historiography—the feminist, post-colonial, and so on—that have dominated academia for the past two decades or more. Who needs a defense of the status quo?

The real problem with the claims you made at the Courtauld is that they were not supported by any serious examination of actual cases. Which is not to say that they could not be so supported: it was a lazy speech because you expected your audience to take your word for it, ballasting your claims not with examples and evidence, but with references to previous philosophers who have said much the same, and devised terminology for the purpose. This is why the following assertion rings hollow:
I am all in favor of leaving professional historians to do their work of excavating facts about specific parts of the past, and giving out information about this past that can never imply anything about how this information might relate to the efforts of present individuals and groups to derive some "knowledge" about human self-making.
The impossibility that you describe is precisely what Murray achieved in his paper on Momigliano. Murray excavated facts about the eighteenth century, and in doing so could produce specific evidence of the flaws in his subject's efforts to comprehend man. Momigliano, he argued, misunderstood the process of history because he denied the intimate connections between 'fiction' and 'history'. Made baldly, this is is an uninteresting, or at least an unpersuasive statement. But made with reference to 'specific parts of the past', it begins to have authority and conviction. For a philosopher so fascinated with rhetoric, you must appreciate the value of winning the assent of your more critical listeners, and this requires not just names but facts, or if you would prefer, fact-like things.

I hope the discussion will not end here.

[Update: Discussion seems to have ended here.]


Hayden White said...

Dear Conrad H Roth: I am delighted by your response to my response to your response. Not least because it gives me a chance to apologize for what must seem like my bad humour over what you said about my performance at the Courtauld. I was put out less by what you said than by the fact (yes, fact) that it was you who had said it. I confess it: I am a fan of your blog and it hurt to have given offense to one whose work and style I admire so much. For the same reason, I have taken your criticism to heart and now think of it every time I prepare a lecture, speech, or paper. I am sure that I understand you and even forgive you for characterizing me as a kind of drunk, charming and erudite or otherwise. I, too, hope that the conversation continues. Hayden White

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hayden, many thanks for your gracious response to my response to your response to my response; I too am delighted that our disagreement can end in mutual respect rather than bad feelings. I very much look forward to your future papers and books.