November 29, 2005

A Clarification About Academic Authority for the Anglosphere Model

A few quick points in response to Jim's post.

There is a problem with doing all this on an amateur basis on a blog. Because you must be brief, you must encapsulate large ideas in a brief compass, and use short-hand. This leaves one open to the reasonable response that you are being simplistic. So, from time to time it is necessary to elaborate.

One key example is the frequent invocation of Alan Macfarlane, who is something of a demi-god amongst us. But, taking nothing away from his excellent books, this repeted use of his name is about more than Macfarlane-all-by-himself. Referring to him in this setting is also a marker for an entire body of scholarship which he is helping to revive, about how to look at English legal, political, economic and cultural history. If he were a solo act, I agree this would be flimsy-looking. He is not. He is to a large degree a revivalist, as he says himself, who is restoring to us a body of thinking that is associated with F.W.Maitland, A.V. Dicey, Hallam, Stubbs, Charles McIlwain, Helen Cam, even Hayek (see e.g. Capitalism and the Historians) and many others. Campbell's Anglo-Saxon State is a collection of essays which is taking a similar stance and re-raising ideas about English exceptionalism which went out of style but were never disproved, and which are in fact correct -- so I say.

I'll also add that the arguments of the sort that David Hackett Fischer makes are perhaps controversial in academia. The idea of strongly continuous cultures lasting for centuries and having all kinds of practical implications could never be a P.C. position. However, in the non-academic world where people who fail to show results get fired, his type of analysis is not controversial at all. People who do political consulting know perfectly that the kinds of factors which Fischer talks about are reasonably strong predictors of various behaviors, including voting behavior. People who do product marketing look at similar things. Culture is real, and to some degree, usable and measurable.

Finally, the notion that the Anglo-Saxon world is a sub-civilization within the West should not be that hard to accept. The French, our closest neighbors and oldest enemies, have always believed this. Also, look at Rene David's classic book on comparative law. He is a Frenchman, and he sees the world divided into two models -- Common Law and Roman Law. He nods toward the then-existing Communist bloc, and has a few pages each on Islam and China, but he mainly divides the world up into two European-derived blocs. He correctly sees that the fundamental nature of the regimes established under these two legal systems are very different and, in a feedback loop, shape and are shaped by very different underlying cultures.

It is not really a matter of making an icon out of Prof. Macfarlane or Prof. Fischer and asking people to worship them. It is a matter of assembling and taking a fresh look at a very large body of material which is already out there, some of it very much out of fashion, and seeing how well it explains the world compared to other models which are more current and popular.

Finally, while the history is interesting in itself, the point of it all for this discussion is to better understand the present and to equip ourselves better for the future, not mere antiquarianism.

Posted by Lexington Green at November 29, 2005 10:51 AM

Lexington Green,

The reservation I meant to express was not so much about the content of Macfarlane or the breadth of scholarship that supports Anglosphere thinking. It was that academic historians (at least traditionally) do not see their work as serving a political purpose. It is true that the facts of English-speaking exceptionalism stand apart from whatever political use is made of them. When the same people argue both it is difficult to endorse them in one respect without the implication of endorsing the other. To be honest I don't know how my adviser would answer your question about what he would think of the Anglosphere as a factual concept and it is above my position to answer on his behalf. But the way I would engage his interest would be to stimulate scholarship closer to his area of research and teaching that builds on the scholarly work you have already found. I would be interested to do this myself.

However, I do want to apologize to you and everyone else here for raising my concern as an observation rather than as a question. I should have asked whether the impression I had was in fact true or fair. I'll try to be more careful in the future.

You might read J.W. Burrow, A Liberal Descent, for a retrospective on the 19th century historians you cite. Whether they were unfairly abandoned by 20th century British scholars is a very good question. I think what happened in the United States was somewhat different: after 1917 historians (with the best of intentions) embraced a Western Civ framework that tried to fit the English-speaking world into a broader European civilization. This has now come under attack. Now may be an opportunity to inject a new perspective.

Posted by: David Billington at November 29, 2005 07:31 PM

David, thanks. I don't want to get too hung up on what Prof. Louis would think or do, and of course you cannot speak for him. It was more a rhetorical question, anyway. Being an academic, and a good one -- I have read enough of his stuff to know that much -- he would probably balk at anything so un-nuanced and global. As well he should. The historian has to get into the archives, he works with a spade or a trowel, and a magnifying glass. The 20,000 foot overview is always suspect. Still, one can do such an overview better or worse, or in a way that seems to encompass most of the facts, or be totally wrong.

No need to apologize about anything. We are all thinking out loud here. You are a refreshing voice since you have not already entirely drunk the Kool Aid on all this stuff -- but you are good on the history. This helps keep us all honest around here and not get into groupthink.

Yes, agreed, that traditionally academic historians do not usually want to get too mixed up in current political controversies. Of course, the facts of the past do and ought to have an impact on current deliberations. And, of course, some academics either covertly or openly try to influence those deliberations by means of their academic work, either (honestly) by researching in areas that might have current relevance and taking their lumps and reporting their findings, or (dishonestly) doing what Prof. Bellisles did, fabricating and slanting findings to favor a contemporary policy argument to his liking. This latter course is an alluring one since it can lead to fame and whatever passes for "fortune" among professors.

I will add the Burrow book to my immense list of books I want to read. Thanks for the tip. As to whether these older thinkers were abandoned unfairly, that is indeed an open question. Macfarlane makes a pretty compelling case, as does Campbell, and as does Helen Cam in her essays about Stubbs and Maitland. I have the advantage of not having any professional skin in this game. I just read a lot of stuff and I try to figure out what seems most convincing. What I have found in the last few years is that I am continually struck by how many stray bits of evidence all point to the basic truth of English and then Anglospheric exceptionalism along the same general axes, over many centuries.

I was just thinking for a minute whether it is fair to say that I "like" reaching this conclusion, whether it was consistent with what I was predisposed to find. I have to say no. If I had my preferences, I'd rather that the Turnerian frontier thesis were more convincing. I'd rather be an American than an Anglosphere exceptionalist, and say to Hell with the rest of the world. I am a Jacksonian-minded American, and not particularly Anglophilic. But, the facts don't support it.

Posted by: Lex at November 29, 2005 07:57 PM

Rereading my above post, I should add that what historians define as a field of study may not be possible to separate from all political meaning; Western Civ came about in part to justify US involvement in World War I and was not just a recognition that America was part of a larger whole all along. But there was still the idea that standards of scholarship were to some extent independent of political advocacy. This continues to be the view of historians who have not taken up ideas that question the reality of this independence.

Posted by: David Billington at November 29, 2005 07:59 PM


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