Scholarship and the Future of Society

Historians like to say that correlation is not the same as causation. But evidence of correlation is often the starting point for an inquiry into causation. Here is one such inquiry: How might the loss of humanistic thinking generally, and historical thinking specifically, be connected to the current dysfunction of American politics and to the erosion of America’s position in the world? In asking this question, I do not mean to suggest that the loss of humanistic and historical thinking is the only cause, or even most important one; clearly there are many causes. Some very important ones relate to form or structure, such as closed primaries and gerrymandering. But a quasi-mechanistic diagnosis of what ails the United States is inadequate. Something even more fundamental has gone wrong — a sickness of the soul, not just a sickness of the body. A sickness of the body calls for the sciences. A sickness of the soul calls for the humanities. The difficulty is that the humanities, as currently constituted, are in no position to provide a remedy, having themselves contributed to the illness in the first place. Properly understood, the scholarly humanities have both substantive and procedural commitments, which feed each other. The substantive commitment is that human beings are worth trying to understand in all their diversity and complexity. The procedural commitment is that there are certain rules, particularly concerning the use of evidence, that one must follow in attempting to understand human beings. These two commitments secure each other: we have rules to ensure that we are trying to understand people on their own terms, because it is so tempting to narcissistically impose our own humanity on others; and we see people in all their complexity because our rules encourage us to do so. The importance of rules is

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