The Return of Grand Narrative in the Human Sciences

by Neville Morley on February 22, 2012

David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style.  It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus.  In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer.  In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism…

Above all, the book’s starting position comes straight from nineteenth-century critical historicism: a sense of the importance of the past in shaping the present.  Graeber’s evocation of Nietzsche and his provocative fantasies about debt and sacrifice in Chapter 4 seem to be a deliberate nod to this tradition.  In Nietzsche’s account of the modern historical sense, humans are understood as being conscious of themselves as beings within time, who tell stories about the past and its relation to the present as a means of making sense of the world.  Such stories, whether primitive myths or modern historiography, are never neutral or value-free descriptions of reality, but are shaped by our desires, and in turn – because we inherit and take for granted most such stories, rather than constructing them ourselves – they shape our conceptions and behaviour.  Above all – and this is a point emphasised also by Marx (who plays a conspicuously minor role in Graeber’s book) – these stories serve to legitimise the present, to present it as a natural and inevitable state of affairs.  They present the values of our society as either universal or as the logical end point of development, or – and this isn’t entirely coherent, but the advantage of stories is that they’re not bound by rules of logical consistency but by the demands of narrative – as both.

In either case, such stories represent the present state of affairs as inevitable and right, or at least as inevitable; as Graeber puts it, they shape our vision of the alternatives, frequently by denying the possibility of any realistic alternatives.  The aim of the critical historical account is to undermine such stories and so disrupt their effects on people’s conceptions, and this is precisely the aim of the first part of his book: to demolish the myth of ‘primitive barter’ and other such economic genealogies that have the effect of presenting markets, exchange and the like as natural objects, objects which serve, in Smith’s words, the ‘propensity in human nature…to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another’.  Graeber argues that a historically specific and contingent form of behaviour and set of values has become embedded in our common sense as a universal principle of human nature, so that the idea that one should pay one’s debts, and the idea of debt itself, are taken entirely for granted, and alternative approaches – whether historical or visionary – seem absurd.  He shows how the myth of primitive barter is founded on the tendency for people to view the past through their own unquestioned values and assumptions, and then to claim the past as proof of the universal nature of those values.  He shows how alternative modes of thought and behaviour make perfect sense not only in their own terms – a standard trope of substantivist economic anthropology – but actually in our terms as well, if we could only focus on our capacity for social relationships rather than our sense of self-interest.

If capitalism is not the telos of human development and is not a perfect reflection of natural human instincts – if earlier societies were capable of living and thinking differently – then the future is also opened up.  Graeber carefully avoids offering concrete suggestions or proposals for what an alternative future might look like; his primary goal is simply to insist that it could be different and almost certainly will be different.  However, his book is much more than just a critique of existing economic narratives and their role in legitimising modern economic thinking; he wishes not only to demolish problematic myths of human development, but then to replace them with a better story, which will show how we actually ended up in our present position, prostrating ourselves before ‘the market’ as if it were a force of nature or a divinity rather than a human creation.  From the origins of money, credit, slavery and the state in the bronze and early iron ages to the emergence of commodity markets in the so-called ‘axial’ civilisations of the classical era, then a second cycle from the birth of capitalism in the later middle ages to the present state of crisis, the chaos and complexity of historical development are shown to have an underlying order, which ties together and makes comprehensible a range of apparently disparate phenomena from the invention of philosophy to the surprising capitulation of the Aztecs.

Academic historians tend to be deeply suspicious of such grand narratives, and generally dismissive of them; they purport to explain too much, erasing complexities and differences, ignoring the detail of the evidence and the hard-won insights of the specialists in favour of broad-brush generalisations and simplistic assertions.  Since I imagine I was invited to contribute to this seminar in the capacity of a historian of the ancient economy, I should record that I did indeed spend much of my time tutting to myself during the sections on Greece and Rome, and muttering things like ‘yes, but it’s rather more complicated than that’ – the historian’s traditional mantra.  Some serious questions could be raised about Graeber’s account of ancient slavery, about his neglect of Sparta and his habit of taking Athens as representative of an entire era, about his assumptions re the high level of literacy in this period and his account of the history of the Roman Republic (very compressed, hence tending to conflate events that were centuries apart).  Actually, though, I was impressed with how well he knows the relevant scholarship (much better on Greece than Rome, admittedly, perhaps because there is more of a tradition in that sub-field of the sort of ‘culturalist’ approach to economic history that’s amenable to his own project); compared with some of the atrocities committed by economists and business historians seeking to reclaim ancient economic history from the ancient historians (something of a trend in recent years – which seems to call for an explanation) this is a credible and sophisticated interpretation of the subject.

More importantly, these occasional mis-steps and arguable interpretations presented as undisputed fact do not necessarily undermine the credibility or usefulness of the overall narrative and interpretative framework – unless, like many historians, you reject the idea of any such over-arching framework on the grounds that they’re too literary and rhetorical and don’t conform to our experience of history as somewhat erratic and contingent (which is of course only another narrative…).  That’s not to say that I’m yet convinced by the account itself, but from a purely parochial perspective it’s important, and ought to be read by all historians of pre-modern economies: it offers a sophisticated alternative to mainstream economics as an interpretative framework for pre-modern economic behaviour, it raises a new set of ideas about how to think about ‘economic thought’ and what texts and institutions should be considered under that heading, and it gives an added impetus to the enterprise by showing how the past might indeed illuminate the present, as the roots of our current condition are located thousands of years ago rather than in the relatively recent birth of ‘modernity’ or ‘capitalism’.

I do wonder, however, how far Graeber may be fully signed up to a Nietzschean project of self-consciously creating a new myth for us to live by.  After all, the problem with establishing that a misconceived view of the world originated in the distant past is that such a view may prove almost as hard to shift as if it were actually a reflection of a universal human nature.  The task of opening people’s eyes to the possibility that things could be different calls then for the whole range of tools, not just rational argument but the power of narrative (the morally satisfying rise and fall of civilisations – albeit without overtly resorting to the organic metaphors beloved of Spengler or Toynbee) and the arts of rhetoric (the association of debt and markets with violence, slavery and state power at every opportunity; the regular use of paradox to startle the reader out of complacent assumptions).  A ‘better’ narrative may, for Nietzsche, be judged superior on moral grounds, in terms of its ends and its effects, rather than on mere factual plausibility, given that different stories could always be told about the same events.  But it may be that Graeber’s account is more Marxian in its intent, demolishing the ideological myths of the economists in order that a true, non-mythological account of human history can be presented.  In which case one might wonder whether he is wholly in control of the narrative forms he has inherited and adopted, or has rather been seduced by the power of the tragic plot structure and the grandeur of ‘decline and fall’…

{ 34 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 02.22.12 at 9:41 pm

I don’t think the gratuitous sneer at Diamond adds value to this post . (Sneer at Ferguson all you like, though.)

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William Timberman 02.22.12 at 10:08 pm

It seems to me that you have to look not only at plausibility, but also at consequences. If we’re so smart, and our conventions are so well supported by such incontrovertible evidence, how come we’re all of a sudden in such a mess? And when some crockery-smasher like Graeber has told his subversive counter-story, does it make anything clearer? (To ask that it make everything clearer strikes me as disingenuous at best, and at worst as a defense of something that’s already in the process of being revealed to be indefensible.)

Having read Graeber’s treatise, I find that it passes muster on that score, just as those of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Sartre, etc. did in earlier times. Ours is one of those moments in history, it seems to me, when the conventions are in dire need of a little transvaluation — if not of all values, at least of those which are so cloaked in professionalism as to be impenetrable to those in distress outside the gates.

P.S. Has CT dumped the comments preview function, or has my browser just gone wonky for the day?

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Adrian Kelleher 02.23.12 at 12:20 am

One defining feature of the world today is the general tendency to break things down to the smallest pieces in imitation of the physical sciences. Though fine in itself, the consequences can be strange unless it’s remembered that definite and insurmountable obstacles limit reductionism in the social sciences. The most obvious are irreducible uncertainty and complexity, both universal features of human affairs.

Suppose it’s to be decided whether a certain amount of added expenditure is best made in the education of young children or in university tuition. Studies can be conducted assessing the returns of different choices, ad hoc reasoning employed in the usual way etc., and if enough work is done then the mind begins to join the dots of data into a coherent picture that has all the appearances of a work of science.

It might be thought that such a process must surely be more scientific than guessing at the answer, but this is incorrect. A little detail on why is in order before examining the implications of actual relevance…

Firstly, it is a scientific non sequitur to assert that one proposition is more scientific than another in instances where each embodies unquantifiable uncertainty. It may seem like the fragments of social scientific data add up to a scientific picture, but this is a pure illusion. Equally, it may seem like trusting the outcome of patient enquiry is more reasonable than taking a stab in the dark, however no scientific basis for such an opinion exists. That’s not to say the view is always incorrect, but it is true that no general method unites any two such questions in the same way that propositions derived from molecular biology may be united with those from cartography or propositions from astrophysics with those from veterinary medicine.

Where ever you look in time or space, people are different and changeable. Ideas can and always will transform societies, and ideas are not observable. Whereas it’s conceivable to ultimately reduce the workings of the liver, say, to the fundamentals of physics and chemistry, the same is not true of optimism, racism, social democracy or Shia Islam. At the present time it is not possible to achieve the former aim whereas no imaginable course to the latter exists. Cultural trends have neither uniform nor definable material existences, yet to dismiss their importance is to become blind to knowledge of indispensible practical importance.

A narrative on events of great importance in recent history is apposite at this point. As inflation started to rise between 2004 and 2008, the central bankers of the developed world began to raise interest rates to cool the economies they manage. Whereas tax rises or even reductions are always contentious, central bankers’ decisions are not and no protests or legal challenges opposed them when they began to take money out of borrowers’ pockets even though they are neither elected nor accountable.

This peculiar arrangement is possible because the central bankers style themselves as representatives of a science and their decisions as expert and objective. This claim was not made idly. They had a powerful piece of evidence to support it: the unanimity of their decisions.

But by 2008 it was already obvious that the economy (whichever one you mention) was in a state of which they’d neither experience nor comprehension. The interest rate mechanism they trusted to control the economy threatened to damage it severely if used and it was certain that disaster would occur if not.

At this point the central bankers’ unanimity collapsed and with it their claims to act as experts. Worse again, consumer behaviour altered abruptly in the wake of the collapse of Lehmann Brothers’ Bank.

Having raised interest rates during the summer, the ECB slashed them in the autumn but as an intuitive response to widespread panic rather than for any scientifically arguable reason. The model of the economy they clung to just months earlier had fallen apart specifically because it was based upon observations of people who are always changeable. In desperation, Keynesian thinking was revived. Yet Keynesian ideas are not scientifically constituted in the same sense as monetarist ones — they do not even postulate definite and unalterable relationships between economic data and human behaviour.

The monetarist conception of the economy proved treacherous in the truest sense in that it betrayed its adherents at the moment of greatest crisis. Today, nobody disputes this idea even though it is a fundamentally unscientific observation. It makes perfect sense to believe that cultural shifts will be clustered around moments of tension but no way is imaginable of reducing this claim to observable material facts.

What is true of central banks in particular is true of modern culture in general. Shards of data are assumed to amount in aggregate to a scientific understanding, an equally treacherous mistake. The vision thing, where it exists at all, is 250 words of a stump speech scripted for impact rather than sincerity, and nothing more. Vision is not a scientific concept either, but it does possess certain practical advantages.

On the personal level, a simple guess is unburdened by prejudice or even rationality; it is a psychologically adroit manoeuvre because it simply lets the brain operate without conscious interference. Analysis, conscious reflection and guesswork can then subsequently be permitted to complement one another. Naturally, a guess is as amenable to rational criticism as any other idea.

On the social level, when a society is governed by people who consciously reject vision it becomes psychologically and culturally crippled. The attempt to remove guesswork from human affairs is a fool’s errand — very little thought is needed prove that guesswork cannot be eliminated from even the simplest or the most crucial decisions. Thus, whereas engineers may analyse a car’s performance to the minutest detail, the driver must use instinct once behind the wheel. If the analogy with politics seems strained, bear in mind that society, as well as being infinitely more complex, has no brakes.

Specifically, questions of culture have judgement at their very core because ideas and their impact on others can only be intuited and never observed. Not only can people not observe others’ ideas, they frequently express one belief while acting in a contrary manner. Moreover, in refusing to exchange the products of personal intuition in deference to some illusory and incompetent interpretation of the scientific method, our political representatives transform into a social malaise the simple psychological mistake of pretending their judgements are really scientific facts.

Everybody possesses at every waking moment intuition constituting a narrative that is in a sense universal, even if flawed, unreliable and subjective. Most of us are not so delusional as to believe that if only it were broken down to a sufficient degree it would be transformed into a scientific appraisal. Strangely, many elements of civic society operate as if all that is required to transform fragments of contingent and fleeting social-scientific data into a scientific understanding is that enough data be collected. The conceit is that narratives composed in this way cease to be narratives.

Monetarism, for example, still blunders on as only interpretative framework shared by economic decision makers exactly as if it were a theory of chemistry, a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience. It is in reality a grand narrative, though a flawed one. As insurmountable barriers to reductionism, culture and free will mean such stories can’t be dispensed with. The foolish idea that they can be is one of the defining errors of the world today, a cultural fad like any other.

4

Alex 02.23.12 at 2:38 am

I’m with Steve LaBonne. Diamond made a serious attempt to answer the question: “Why the dominance of Europe?” Not a trivial question, and one which I think was first raised by Joseph Needham in Science and Civilization in China.

5

Substance McGravitas 02.23.12 at 4:09 am

More importantly, these occasional mis-steps and arguable interpretations presented as undisputed fact do not necessarily undermine the credibility or usefulness of the overall narrative and interpretative framework

I was somewhat relieved to read things in the notes like “the story is of course more complicated than I’m representing it” or the like.

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Mario 02.23.12 at 6:30 am

Steve LaBonne @#1 and Alex @#4:

I am actually a geographer, and let me say that Diamond’s work–in my field–is terrible. (At least for Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse; haven’t bothered with others, because: why?) We repudiated those arguments back with Ellen Semple, Ratzel, and all the rest of the environmental determinists. Diamond has at best a poor understanding of social causation, and repeatedly confuses contingency and necessity, most of all in GG+S. He’s actually out-and-out bad at doing social science, which isn’t really a surprise because he’s actually a biogeographer.

Look, here’s the very short version: No matter what a Diamond points to as the cause of human difference (east-west rivers, ocean depth between Australasia and southeast Asia, whatever), something else is equally the cause (that we have eyes and not bat-like echolocation, that we evolved from primates and not prairie dogs, that there was a prehistoric die-off to end the age of the reptiles). To assert a human-environment system is to deny that humans constitute, with other beings and entities, the environment, and to deny that all our actions are and will always be made possible by our environment because we are contingent to the world.

Even more, human society (in any specific place) is contingent on its environment but is not the only possible product of it. To see Ptolemy IV as the only possible pharaoh of Egypt in 217 B.C.E. overlooks in extensive, unending array of not only other possible rulers, but other possible political arrangements. Diamond’s arguments perpetually assert that the actor is geography,but geography is not ontologically a thing that can do things.

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Neville Morley 02.23.12 at 9:19 am

Steve LaBonne @1, Alex @4 and Mario @6: what I meant to say in that throwaway remark about Diamond was that Graeber has, I think, written a different sort of book, despite the fact that on the face of it it’s another in the ‘Total History of the World As Interpreted with My Pet Theory’ genre. Pairing him with Ferguson wasn’t intended to imply anything more than that – though I have to concede that being paired with Ferguson in any sentence can read like a damning indictment. I largely share Mario’s view of Diamond’s methods and conclusions – but would entirely agree that it is a serious and genuine attempt at addressing an important question.

William Timberman @2: whether Graeber’s account makes things clearer I’m not sure; it does reframe the problem, by pointing out the complexity and contingency of things that we’ve hitherto not thought hard enough about. In my more optimistic moments I do think that a bit of demythologisation and demystification must surely increase the chances of us making sense of things.

Adrian Kelleher @3: the popular conception of ‘scientific knowledge’ is that it allows us to have the same knowledge, understanding and control of mysterious and frequently invisible things as we have of our own everyday lives. Actual scientists don’t generally believe that, but it’s the conception of scientific knowledge that the social sciences, esp. economics, have taken as an ideal and often claimed as their own product as well. I’m working on the theory that this can largely be blamed on misreadings of Thucydides, but that’s just a personal obsession.

Substance McGravitas @5: The professional historian part of me does get slightly annoyed by Graeber’s refusal to acknowledge properly the existence of uncertainty and scholarly debate – as a basic principle in writing the book, as noted in the blog that Henry refers to in his piece. This isn’t necessarily a problem for the theory because, at least for the historical material, he’s clearly not deriving his ideas from the details of the past but offering a reading of the past (as found in secondary accounts) on the basis of his general ideas. For some topics, e.g. Greek money, there are scholars who’ve already reached similar or compatible conclusions, so he can simply cite them; for other topics the secondary sources have developed their interpretations according to unGraeberisch paradigms, so to speak, so they don’t fit so neatly. Since this isn’t an inductive approach, there’s no reason in principle why, if the theory is strong enough, it couldn’t accommodate a different account e.g. of the actual operations of ancient slavery – and there is significant scope for reinterpreting the ancient material in the light of the overall theory to produce a different account.

8

maidhc 02.23.12 at 9:40 am

@Mario: I don’t want to sign up as a defender of Diamond, but just out of curiosity I’d really like to hear a bit more than “he’s a jerk”.

I’ve read the articles that indicate that he has totally misinterpreted things that he has been told about legal issues in contemporary New Guinea. So set that aside.

I don’t claim to be an expert on what he says, so I’m just picking off what I get to be his main ideas from a brief exposure. I can see that what he says may be one point among many others, but is he actually wrong?

–When people turned to agriculture, it makes a difference what the main source of starch was in that part of the world. Some were more easy to adapt to large-scale cultivation than others.

–Some parts of the world have more easily adapted resources than others. Access to copper, tin and iron specifically.

In Collapse he discusses a number of topics, but let me take a few examples:

–The Easter Islanders killed all the trees on their previously forested home, and thereafter were unable to make canoes. That didn’t cause them to die out, but it did impact their lifestyle.

–The Greenland Norse tried to maintain a culture based on wheat and cattle in the face of climate change, and they died out. Or possibly some survivors went off with the Inuit.

–The Mayans created an advanced civilization but they exhausted their resources and it collapsed. Some people say because they burned too much lime to decorate their temples. Of course Mayans are still around, but they don’t build pyramids any more.

So I don’t see any of these arguments as being based on how humans didn’t evolve from reptiles. I haven’t heard any arguments demonstrating that what Diamond says is false. If you told me Diamond says X is a big factor, and it’s true, but really Y has much more effect, then I could understand that. But I don’t get the argument “Diamond is a jerk, so everything he says is wrong”.

I’m not particularly a Diamond fan, but I think he raises some interesting questions, so I’d like to hear the answers. He’s an amateur, so he doesn’t get the subtleties that the professionals understand. Fine. What are the real answers?

9

Alex 02.23.12 at 11:12 am

Well, the problem with his argument about the Greenland Norse is, well, I’ll leave it to Kirsten Seaver. Shorter: they didn’t, they were around much later than he thinks, and their eventual departure was something to do with the discovery of the direct route to the Grand Banks fishery and, of course, North America.

Further, the account of Greenland history he was relying on was coloured by a 1930s social-darwinist Danish professor who suppressed his students’ fieldwork when they discovered things that didn’t support his theory.

I mean, Diamond’s argument requires Scandinavian seafarers who don’t eat fish, a few days’ sail from the biggest fish resource on the planet…which we know they visited (Vinland and all that), and where they’d been sending people as deck crew on English fishing vessels.

Go read, it’s full of trade secrets among networks of Bristol and Lisbon merchants and English subversion of the Danish-Norwegian colonial government and the fish trade and the invention of America and Scandinavian fascist academics and, y’know, history!

10

Chris Bertram 02.23.12 at 11:47 am

_Diamond’s argument requires Scandinavian seafarers who don’t eat fish, a few days’ sail from the biggest fish resource on the planet…_

But isn’t it the case that even Icelanders didn’t eat (much) fish for most of their history, because, until steel-hulled vessels became readily available (about 1900) it just wasn’t a great idea to get in and out of harbour for much of the year? Hence the transformation of the Icelandic economy from sheep-farming to fishing really very recently (about 1900ish). I don’t know how this generalizes to Greeenland, but it might, if the fish were there but practically inaccessible for much of the year.

11

Alex 02.23.12 at 11:51 am

Not many steamships on the Grand Banks in the 1400s, I wouldn’t think.

12

Chris Bertram 02.23.12 at 12:01 pm

Indeed not, but that isn’t the point Alex. Some harbours are safely accessible to wooden-hulled vessels all year round, but particularly rocky ones might not be safe except in calm weather. Presumably this made it easier for the English and the Basques to have a pre-1900 fishing industry than it was for the Icelanders. So I’m just raising the question for Greenland (I don’t know the answer).

13

Peter T 02.23.12 at 12:16 pm

Hmm. Keeping alive over winter in Greenland might require not just fish, but salt, wood for barrels, timber for ship-building and so on. I understand that the shortage of suitable timber was a major problem for Icelanders, who were isolated from Denmark for long periods for lack of local vessels.

14

ajay 02.23.12 at 12:22 pm

Plus, the English and the Basques were fishing for trade, not for subsistence – which makes sense; sailing for weeks, catching lots of cod, salting it down and sailing back is a major commercial enterprise. If the Greenlanders did it, what would they do with the cod?

15

Alex 02.23.12 at 12:30 pm

Timber – that’s what they did in North America, sail over and set up a logging camp, until they had a full shipload. Anyway, don’t rely on me, try the link!

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maidhc 02.24.12 at 7:00 am

That Kirsten Seaver book looks interesting enough to read the whole thing, so I think I’ll do that. Thanks.

17

Neville Morley 02.24.12 at 8:09 am

[Memo to self: avoid passing references to anything for fear of thread derailment. Does no one want to talk about Graeber's book? But threads probably get derailed whatever... Should have talked about the underlying 'money and markets founded on violence against women and children' theme instead - has anyone been asked to offer a feminist take on Debt..?]

18

floopmeister 02.24.12 at 12:54 pm

re. shortage of trees on Iceland (circular thread diversion alert) – weren’t most of the trees actually cut down by the Icelandic settlers as per Easter Island? Hence the isolation from Greater Scandinavia.

19

js. 02.24.12 at 6:23 pm

I do wonder, however, how far Graeber may be fully signed up to a Nietzschean project of self-consciously creating a new myth for us to live by.

I did wonder about something like this. Especially in the chapter where Graeber talks about Nietzsche. It’s perhaps also worth noting that he begins with a discussion of “moral confusion”, and the book as a whole is supposed to “clear up” this moral confusion by presenting (as you rightly point out) a unified “grand narrative”. By itself this is neither here nor there, but structurally (at an abstract enough level), it recalls MacIntyre’s After Virtue, e.g. Which, after all, is in one sense all about the necessity of myth-making narratives to making sense of our lives. Still, not sure what if anything this shows.

[Good thing I haven't read anything by Diamond, ever.]

20

john c. halasz 02.24.12 at 9:56 pm

@17:

For what it’s worth, I thought your post was the most interesting and engaging one, in an otherwise disappointing turn-out, even though I have no idea who you are…

21

Neville Morley 02.25.12 at 8:47 am

@19: necessity of myth-making narratives, aka humans are story-telling animals, is one of my various obsessions, not least because as a historian I have a personal stake in the idea that stories about the past matter. Must confess I haven’t read After Virtue, but it sounds like I should.

@20: it does make sense that regular visitors to CT would tend to focus on the contributions of writers they’re already familiar with. I did fill out a load of personal details in my profile when I registered to write the post, but they don’t seem to show up anywhere, and so in retrospect I really ought to have introduced myself properly… I teach ancient history at Bristol (UK), specialising in economic history, historical theory and the modern influence of antiquity in the development of economic and social thought, with a particular focus at the moment on the historian Thucydides.

University webpage
Blog

22

js. 02.25.12 at 10:40 pm

necessity of myth-making narratives, aka humans are story-telling animals, is one of my various obsessions, not least because as a historian I have a personal stake in the idea that stories about the past matter. Must confess I haven’t read After Virtue, but it sounds like I should.

Frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but as I remember it, narrative, the telling of narratives, etc., plays a crucial role in MacIntyre’s positive conception of how we do and must understand ourselves as historically situated individuals. So very much along the lines of what you mention, I think. Before that though, there’s a somewhat idiosyncratic retelling of The Entire History Of Western Moral Philosophy.

23

Peter Erwin 02.28.12 at 9:08 pm

Mario @ 6:
Would you care to unpack that a bit (or else point to other accounts that do so)? As it is, I find your apparent objection to, e.g., Guns, Germs, and Steel a bit incoherent and hard to parse.

… No matter what a Diamond points to as the cause of human difference (east-west rivers, ocean depth between Australasia and southeast Asia, whatever), something else is equally the cause (that we have eyes and not bat-like echolocation, that we evolved from primates and not prairie dogs, that there was a prehistoric die-off to end the age of the reptiles). To assert a human-environment system is to deny that humans constitute, with other beings and entities, the environment, and to deny that all our actions are and will always be made possible by our environment because we are contingent to the world.

I don’t think you’re trying to asset that all things are equally causal for human differences: e.g., the fact that Alpha Centauri is a binary star and not a singleton is probably not “equally the cause” of human regional economic differences. (Well, it could be if you were some kind of really weird astrologer.) So what are you saying?

It sounds disturbingly close to “everything is contingent on everything in some fuzzy holistic way, so you can never say anything about the relative importance of causes”. In which case, science and quite a lot of scholarship is obviously impossible and we should all go home.

Arguing that “our actions are and will always be made possible by our environment because we are contingent to the world” seems to me pretty much exactly what Diamond was doing, ast least in GGS, except that he was trying to be specific about which actions (in certain very general senses, such as economic development) were made more or less possible, based on different aspects of the environment.

Even more, human society (in any specific place) is contingent on its environment but is not the only possible product of it. To see Ptolemy IV as the only possible pharaoh of Egypt in 217 B.C.E. overlooks in extensive, unending array of not only other possible rulers, but other possible political arrangements. Diamond’s arguments perpetually assert that the actor is geography,but geography is not ontologically a thing that can do things.

So are all societies are equally possible, regardless of environment? If you’re not willing to go that far, then I’m not sure why it’s illicit to argue about what sorts of societies — or historical developments — might be more or less likely. I didn’t really get the impression that GGS was asserting perfect determinism, after all. And if you don’t like geography being an “actor”, well, fine — say that it constitutes a “boundary condition” or a “factor”. It still seems perfectly valid to analyze its influence on human history.

24

Barry Freed 02.28.12 at 9:15 pm

On topic, (and, fwiw, thread derailment aside, I like this post) Graeber self-consciously makes much the same point at his post on Savage Minds entitled: Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books? http://savageminds.org/2011/07/31/can-we-still-write-big-question-sorts-of-books/

25

Neville Morley 02.28.12 at 9:30 pm

@Barry Freed #24: yes, I discovered that (courtesy of Henry’s thread) after writing this. Relieved, if nothing else, that his post suggests that a J.G.Frazer comparison won’t be taken as too much of an insult…

26

Barry Freed 02.28.12 at 9:44 pm

Oh, no worries there, for that I’m afraid you’d have to go for the full-on von Daniken ;)

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Peter Erwin 02.28.12 at 9:53 pm

Diamond’s argument requires Scandinavian seafarers who don’t eat fish, a few days’ sail from the biggest fish resource on the planet…

Actually, if I recall correctly, it’s the archaeological evidence which suggests Norse Greenlanders didn’t eat fish (vanishingly small amounts of fish bones in the middens, almost no leftover fishhooks, etc. — though they ate plenty of seals). Diamond presents this as a big mystery, especially given that there are abundant freshwater fish in Greenland, in addition to the saltwater fish nearby. (He hypothesizes that some kind of taboo against fish might have developed, but admits that this is pure guesswork.)

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Henry 02.29.12 at 2:56 am

as another exercise in thread derailment, if, as you suggest here and in another thread, you have a professional interest in appalling misreadings of Thucydides, you will find much to beguile you in my home discipline of international relations …

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Neville Morley 02.29.12 at 7:12 am

Oh, absolutely; it’s one of my major sources of evidence for the power of the idea of Thucydides as all-powerful authority derived almost entirely from a blinkered reading of the Melian dialogue, which is of course the only bit that gets cited in most IR textbooks, almost invariably packaged as ‘the original Realist text’.

Have you come across Tim Ruback (now at Dartmouth), who’s developing some fascinating arguments to the effect that debates about Thucydides serve to constitute IR as a subject (and also of course condition what can and can’t be said within the boundaries of the discipline)?

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Henry 03.01.12 at 3:43 pm

I haven’t – sounds very interesting. I did have a conversation last year with someone working on the classics/political theory intersection who complained about all the horrible, horrible articles by IR scholars doing bad things to the Greek city-state system that he was sent to review. Since the piece that I’d just presented talked a little about Athenian politics (and politely disagreed with him to boot), this made me a bit nervous, but he assured me, whether for reasons of diplomacy or otherwise, that I was not included in the indictment …

31

Neville Morley 03.01.12 at 4:09 pm

There are not insignificant numbers of IR scholars with a decent knowledge of the texts (the whole texts, mind) and some degree of sensitivity to historical context who are saying very some interesting things – my postdoc on the project comes from an IR/political theory background, and that’s been extremely helpful in tracking them down – and there are also people like Josh Ober (Standford) who’ve long had a foot in both camps. And then there are various sorts of hard-line Realists, and Straussians, and neocons who admire Donald Kagan and the like…

It does fascinate me that, unlike many other areas of social science which began with a close engagement with classical antiquity but then tended to focus solely on the contemporary (or at least on ‘modernity’), various branches of political theory continue to insist both on the relevance of (certain) historical examples and on the classical roots of their own endeavours. I’m currently working on a piece that attempts to tie together the ways in which Thucydides is conceived as a particular sort of analyst (essentially a modern political theorist before his time) and conceptions of the relevance of historical material to political theorising.

In what context were you talking about Greek city-states?

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Henry 03.01.12 at 4:14 pm

The paper is here – the Greek city state stuff, which starts on p.21, will likely be carved out into its own paper with better sourcing soon (at the moment, it is little more than a friendly critique of Ober’s thesis, but we want to do some proper comparison for the final product, as well as some simulation work).

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Shenpen 03.02.12 at 10:06 am

“He shows how alternative modes of thought and behaviour make perfect sense not only in their own terms – a standard trope of substantivist economic anthropology – but actually in our terms as well, if we could only focus on our capacity for social relationships rather than our sense of self-interest.

If capitalism is not the telos of human development and is not a perfect reflection of natural human instincts – if earlier societies were capable of living and thinking differently – then the future is also opened up.”

I am sorry but I must completely disagree. What you are ignoring is that those were tightly-knit small communities, often related by blood or at least familiarity. We live in huge cities, amongst strangers unrelated to and generally not caring about.

Socialism simply doesn’t scale up. Every family is socialist and a small kibbutz can be too, but in a city of millions it doesn’t work because we don’t care about each other, so every time we set aside honest self-interest, exact accounting of debts and prices etc. and try to focus on the social good we end up with corruption, graft and abuse. A stranger’s society has no other chance but to barter and truck, plain simply.

Putting it differently, those small communities of old times, on the inside they were very social but outsiders were often considered fair game to kill and rob or enslave. Our truck and barter society is exactly the middle between those two: “I won’t give you stuff for free but I will also not try to take stuff away from you without your consent either.” So those soceties lived in both extremes, ours lives in the middle.

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ajay 03.02.12 at 10:33 am

complained about all the horrible, horrible articles by IR scholars doing bad things to the Greek city-state system that he was sent to review.

“…so I just scoffed at him and said ‘well, I got a State Department fellowship to write that. The funded do what they will and the unfunded endure what they must.’”

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