The Uses of History
To the Editor:
George Kateb has thoughtfully reviewed Theodore Roszak’s The Dissenting Academy [May], inspiring—as I imagine all good reviews do—a desire to continue the conversation. I want to address myself particularly to his remarks about my essay on history.
Kateb’s fundamental premise is that action and the search for truth lay contradictory demands upon the mind. Thus he writes:
There is no use in denying that just as there is perpetual strife between thinkers and authority, so there is perpetual strife between thinkers and the most humane citizenship. Citizenship means action; action means partiality and some degree of fanaticism. How can a commitment to truth survive very much active citizenship?
Hence Kateb concludes that while it is allowable, indeed commendable, for the truth-seeker to “refuse to place himself at the service of the status quo,” he cannot place himself at the service of a vision of man’s well-being without jeopardizing his commitment to truth. Kateb especially objects to the conception that the teacher-scholar should “act as a citizen in the real world.” He also questions the conception that the teacher-scholar “should devote himself to thinking about the personal and social needs of men in contemporary society,” at least if such contemporary relevance is demanded of all teacher-scholars.
Lynd’s position cannot be universalized without a lapse into barbarism. Let him and like-minded scholars stay in the present; but also let others continue the effort of communication with what has gone before.
I disagree with the premise. It is just not the case that action necessarily tends to distort the effort to understand reality. Consider a surgeon: is his probe of an infected area “propaganda” because he intends to use his knowledge to heal the wound? The example suggests that he who knows that his results will be made the basis for action may be more persistent and demanding in his search for wie es eigentlich gewesen than the teacher-scholar described by Mr. Kateb in his article as “ideally an idler,” “a player.”
Of course, propaganda is possible. Anyone who has tried to tell the truth about the present is aware of the temptation to simplify, to present as final what can only be tentative, to blur together fact and feeling about fact, and so on. What needs to be demolished is the assumption that concern for living human beings is inherently in conflict with concern to know the truth.
Mr. Kateb writes:
Staughton Lynd’s letter raises two questions. First, What is the role of the historian in the world of scholarship? Second, what is the contribution of scholarship to social reform? On the first, I continue to believe that it is the duty of most historians to be historians—that is, to keep the past present, to maintain continuity with our predecessor generations. That is their function, by definition. It takes a strong imagination to believe that the dead were once as alive as we now are. I assume that when a man decides to become a historian, he is moved to that choice partly because there is a bit of old Roman piety in his makeup. The fact that there are such men is a matter for celebration. Those in other disciplines in the social studies need not have such piety, nor be bound in their work by it. I expect—I want—political scientists, sociologists, economists to be concerned, for the most part, but not exclusively, with the present. That is their function, by definition. There must be some kind of division of labor among scholars though it sounds fussy to say so.
On the second question, I continue to believe that careful analysis is the most radical gesture that an intellectual can make. Circumstances are usually appalling. To say just how and why they are appalling, and to project or imply a vision of how they can and why they must be made better, seems easy, but isn’t. It is inordinately hard to reason about madness. But yet I feel that the effort must be made.
As much as Lynd does, I hate the pretense at objectivity that many social scientists think they must make. They almost never succeed; but by trying, they do succeed in producing work that is trivial or lifeless. There is no substitute for moral commitment as a source of both intellectual energy and clarity of perception. Only, fairness and a promiscuous compassion must accompany that commitment. Too much action kills fairness and compassion. The scholar must therefore keep his distance. I must once more fussily insist on a division of labor. Others are ready to act; sometimes too ready. In any case, for action to be morally tolerable, leaders must be instructed. Intellectuals should be there to teach them. But intellectuals can’t teach and lead at the same time, or for that matter teach and follow.