The Abstract and the Concrete

by Gene Callahan

Abstraction can be an entertaining and useful activity. But every abstraction falsifies reality simply because it is an abstraction – it is a one-sided emphasis on certain aspects of the real at the expense of neglecting or even denying others. That is not necessarily harmful as long as we remember what we have done. But the abstraction, being simpler and more manageable than the real world, is a seductive fantasy, and the temptation to ignore messy reality and attempt to replace it with a clean and neat dreamworld.

Let me offer a few examples to illustrate what I am on about. For instance, Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, wants to replace the history of the individual with what he seems to think he has founded, namely, “scientific” history. The end result is that he often winds up botching his history. Continue reading

Real History Versus Pop History

by Gene Callahan

My current research involves a lot of digging into Roman and American history. For the most part, along the way, I’ve been reading books by historians aimed at an academic audience. But I recently picked up Cicero by Anthony Everitt, the sort of “pop” history book that is made into a History Channel special. Let me tell you, after some time without reading a book like this, I was shocked by how lax the standards for this sort of work are. Continue reading

Another Flaw in the Diamond

by Gene Callahan

The famed “geographical historian,” Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, is being sued, by two New Guinea tribesmen, for $10 million. It seems a feud he described didn’t occur, and a man he describes as paralyzed in that feud has been found walking about just fine.

Diamond’s failure, I suspect, is not one of honesty, but one of gullibility: he heard this story from someone and failed to check it out. This is something of which he frequently has been guilty in the past. In a paper of mine, which is forthcoming in a volume entitled The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism, I write: Continue reading