The Sciences

Liberalism and Enlightenment History

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 24, 2011 11:41 AM

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In preparing for my recent Point of Inquiry podcast with Rick Perlstein, I knew my guest would debunk right wing historical narratives of the sort that we've recently heard so much of, and do so with gusto. I screen guests at least that well. But I didn't know he was going to offer a thesis so in line with the one that I've been pushing myself lately--that when it comes to history, liberals are wedded to an Enlightenment tradition that creates its own biases and myopias. Here's Perlstein:

Liberalism is rooted in this notion of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can use our reason, and we can use empiricism, and we can sort out facts, and using something like the scientific method—although history is not like nuclear physics—to arrive at consensus views of the truth that have a much more solid standing, epistemologically, than what the right wing view of the truth is: which is much more mythic, which is much more based on tribal identification, which is much more based on intuition and tradition. And there’s always been history writing in that mode too. But within the academy, and within the canons of expertise, and within the canons of professionalism, that kind of history has been superseded by a much more empirical, Enlightenment-based history.

As I'm no historian, I'm not exactly sure what the key turning points were--I mean, you could argue that mythic and triumphalist history goes all the way back to Homer. I'm sure much has been written on this, and I bet there's a canonical work of historiography on this very topic. In any case, as Perlstein goes on to argue, Enlightenment history has the virtue of being rigorous and accurate--like science does--but all the rigor, and all the details, can get in the way of telling an inspiring and motivating story. Therefore, you sort of have to grudgingly admire the effectiveness of conservative history--at least conservatives know that part of history is about telling a good story, mythic or otherwise. For more on Perlstein's thoughts, listen here.

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