Monday, March 18, 2019


I have been listening to the podcasts on history by Patrick Wyman - no relation - called "The Tides of History."  I have liked them quite a bit.  He is a good summariser. He was a 3rd-year graduate student in history at USC, decided that the remaining 3 years to have an outside chance at an academic position were not a good use of his time, and decided to be a history populariser instead. He is also an MMA fan and writes about that, which is likely unique among historians.  Andy Warhol liked Big Time Wrestling because he felt it was a distilled mythology of not only American culture but humanity in general, but the Arts and Humanities crowd usually looks down their nose as such things. Wyman has an article somewhere how writing about MMA has made him a better historian, but I haven't read it.  I just like the idea of it, even though I am not an MMA fan myself. He is at least willing to think for himself. No doubt he will say something to irritate me soon enough, but for now I like him.

While he does seem to have greater objectivity than most historians, he has twice mentioned an overall assumption that needs correction.  He asserts that historians have a technical language and a superior knowledge because of years of study, whatever their limitations are in terms of not understanding the general public and its needs. That is almost true, but it neglects the overall biases that they cannot even see, because they are so thoroughly shared. It is similar to CS Lewis observation in the introduction to Athanasius, that every age is blind to its own shared assumptions, which can only be corrected by stepping outside those assumptions to another era. Historians are deeply aware of their disagreements and variety on many subjects, and conclude from that that they are a diverse group with wide opinions.  This is quite simply, not so. They are unaware of their similarities.

I have seen this among psychologists, and psychiatrists, and social workers, who see themselves as belonging to various schools and styles, and being refreshingly different. Their variety is real, yet only along a fairly narrow range.

As for a technical language in history, that is also only a partial truth.  All fields have terms which they either invent, or assign a specific meaning to in a professional context.  The general public uses the words depression, or anxiety, with a loose meaning which only partially overlaps with my use.  And don't even get me started on schizophrenic, bipolar, or ADHD, which have made it into the general vocabulary. Physicist have been especially clever in their naming, with left- and right-handedness for particles, and such terms as "cute," or "quarks." Yet they have the same problem as other fields at the outset of studies. Force means something like it's everyday meaning, and mass is even closer.  But acceleration differs more sharply, and the difference matters. Philosophy is awash in unique specialised terms, while anthropology and theology use some of both, new terms invented for a purpose, and everyday terms refined to narrow uses. History has those.  Yet lately, under the influence of Theory (the use of which is an excellent example of what I am talking about) history has added a great deal of jargon that has less-precise meaning.

Everyone wants to be physics, with its great jargon that you have to work at to understand, so some fields develop a jargon in imitation, so they can look like a real science.  It is cargo cult stuff.  If we have a jargon, we must be a real academic field. Yet it is laughably opaque, a mere code to keep others out and the insiders in charge of the pantry. Humorous examples of academic nonsense are published on popular sites all the time. The hard truth is while many fields regard the outsiders as stupid people who don't know their terms, the outside world is full of folks who are just as smart but chose to go into something else.

Maybe smarter.

Eddie Izzard captures this if you substitute "jargon," for "flag," and Monty Python - as usual, illustrates this nicely about banter. 


james said...

Jargon growth is dramatic in math, where scholars frequently discover new things for which there is as yet no name. Unfortunately we wind up with some overlap in names, and workers in the same field who are working independently may devise different names for the same concept.

Texan99 said...

I can't get a word out of discussions about economic development, and often have been tempted to say "Sorry, old man, don't understand your banter." It's hard to have a discussion in which you constantly want to ask, "What do you actually mean by that word?" Synergizing the eschaton and so forth.