Monday, April 28, 2008

New angles on French history

In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing Robert Darnton's numerous reviews of books on the period of the French Revolution in the New York Review of Books. (Darnton's own book, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, was also a great addition to the seminar -- but that's another posting.)

Written over roughly a twenty-year period, Darnton's smart reviews provide a great perspective on how the historiography of the French Revolution has changed. From the structural, class-centered approach of Albert Soboul, through Richard Cobb's insistence on mentalit├ęs, or Simon Schama's person-centered telling of the story, it is possible to see a shifting scene of historians' judgments about causes, structures, ideas, movements, and scale. All by itself this is an important insight into historical understanding. And it illustrates an important fact about historical knowledge: no event is ever known with finality. (This parallels the point made in my recent posting on China's Cultural Revolution.)

But in our discussions we also found that it is possible to look at Darnton's reviews themselves as an extended and implicit historiographical essay. In his commentary on the writings of others Darnton also reveals many of his own historical intuitions. And of course Darnton's own ethnographic turn in The Great Cat Massacre -- evidently worked out while Darnton was teaching an interdisciplinary seminar with Clifford Geertz -- is itself an important step on the historiography of French social change. And so the project of trying to discover whether there is a coherent and innovative philosophy of history nested within these reviews proved to be a fruitful one -- there is. And this provides an interesting new avenue of approach to the problem of formulating a philosophy of history, a different wrinkle on the insight that we can learn a lot from observing the practice of great historians.

Several points come out of this set of reviews quite vividly: for example, the deep contingency of historical change, the importance of the particular, the importance of experience and mentalit├ęs, the dialectic of events and agents, and the difficulty of framing a large historical event.

(If you have a subscription to the New York Review of Books, all the reviews are available electronically in the archive.)

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