by Gene Callahan
I had posted about something that Thomas Sowell wrote on the history of economic thought over at my other blog, and received a comment to the effect that, “You can’t trust Sowell on history: he thinks that England conquered Scotland!” (Rather than the two nations having joined together in a union.)
This comment both illustrates an important misconception as well as highlights an important distinction. The misconception is that someone is a good historian if they know lots of “facts” about history, and rarely get anything wrong. This, of course, rests on the previously discussed misconception that historians are mere “butterfly collectors” of facts they find littered around, waiting to be scooped up. The historian creates the facts of history; no, I am not espousing some post-modernist doctrine that history is all an arbitrary narrative, because the historian creates those facts under the stern guidance of the existing evidence. Now, this may still seem like nonsense: “No,” you insist, “there simply is a fact about whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon, regardless of whatever evidence we have and whatever historians think.” But granting that point does not alter the circumstances of the historian at all: there very well may be such a “plain fact,” but there is just no way for us to go back and have a look-see. All we, 2000 years later, can do is to look at the evidence we have and state as best we can just what that evidence leads us to believe took place.
And that brings us to the distinction I mentioned above: Historians are likely to be extremely reliable in their capacities as historians. But they are only in that capacity when they are doing their original, historical research. They are no longer acting as an historian when they are, for instance, lecturing us on the lessons we ought to have learned from some episode in the past. Nor are they acting as an historian, but rather as a reader of history books, when they include offhand comments on some historical subject outside the scope of their research. And thus back to Dr. Sowell: I am currently reading his Marxism, an excellent work, but I came across a total howler when he writes that the “central premise of philosophic idealism… [is that] we can know our perceptions of a thing but not the thing itself.” That accurately describes Kant’s epistemology, I believe. But I can’t think of a single other major Idealist philosopher — not Berkeley, not Hegel, not Fichte, not Schelling, not Bradley, not Green, not Bosanquet, not Collingwood, not Oakeshott — who would endorse what Sowell deems the “central premise” of their philosophy. How could a good historian of thought like Sowell make such a blunder? Well, Idealist thought wasn’t what he was researching, which was Marxism. He picked up his notion of Idealist philosophy second-hand, perhaps from Marx and Engels, perhaps from some colleague down the hall, I don’t know. And when it comes to this sort of second-hand knowledge, the historian is no more an authority than is any other intelligent reader of history books.