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MONTHLY BLOG 101, ARE YOU A LUMPER OR SPLITTER? HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR OWN CAST OF MIND?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)
The terminology, derived from Charles Darwin,1 is hardly elegant. Yet it highlights rival polarities in the intellectual cast of mind. ‘Lumpers’ seek to assemble fragments of knowledge into one big picture, while ‘splitters’ see instead complication upon complications. An earlier permutation of that dichotomy was popularised by Isaiah Berlin. In The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), he distinguished between brainy foxes, who know many things, and intellectual hedgehogs, who apparently know one big thing.2

Fox from © Clipart 2019; Hedgehog from © GetDrawings.com (2019)

These animalian embodiments of modes of thought are derived from a fragmentary dictum from the classical Greek poet Archilochus; and they remain more fanciful than convincing. It’s not self-evident that a hedgehog’s mentality is really so overwhelmingly single-minded.3 Nor is it clear that the reverse syndrome applies particularly to foxes, which have a reputation for craft and guile.4 To make his point with reference to human thinkers, Berlin instanced the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy as a classic ‘hedgehog’. Really? The small and prickly hedgehog hardly seems a good proxy for a grandly sweeping thinker like Tolstoy.

Those objections to Berlin’s categories, incidentally, are good examples of hostile ‘splitting’. They quibble and contradict. Sweeping generalisations are rejected. Such objections recall a dictum in a Poul Anderson sci-fi novella, when one character states gravely that: ‘I have yet to see any problem, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated’.5

Arguments between aggregators/generalisers and disaggregators/sceptics, which occur in many subjects, have been particularly high-profile among historians. The lumping/splitting dichotomy was recycled in 1975 by the American J.H. Hexter.6 He accused the Marxist Christopher Hill not only of ‘lumping’ but, even worse, of deploying historical evidence selectively, to bolster a partisan interpretation. Hill replied relatively tersely.7 He rejected the charge that he did not play fair with the sources. But he proudly accepted that, through his research, he sought to find and explain meanings in history. The polarities of lumping/splitting were plain for all to see.

Historical ‘lumpers’ argue that all analysis depends upon some degree of sorting/processing/generalising, applied to disparate information. Merely itemising date after date, or fact after fact ad infinitum, would not tell anyone anything. On those dreadful occasions when lecturers do actually proceed by listing minute details one by one (for example, going through events year by year), the audience’s frustration very quickly becomes apparent.

So ‘lumpers’ like big broad interpretations. And they tend to write big bold studies, with clear long-term trends. Karl Marx’s panoramic brief survey of world history in nine pages in The Communist Manifesto was a classic piece of ‘lumping’.8 In the twentieth century, the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson was another ‘lumper’ who sought the big picture, although he could be a combative ‘splitter’ about the faults of others.9

‘Splitters’ conversely point out that, if there were big broad-brush interpretations that were reliably apparent, they would have been discovered and accepted by now. However, the continual debates between historians in every generation indicate that grand generalisations are continually being attacked. The progression of the subject relies upon a healthy dose of disaggregation alongside aggregation. ‘Splitters’ therefore produce accounts of rich detail, complications, diversities, propounding singular rather than universal meanings, and stressing contingency over grand trends.

Sometimes critics of historical generalisations are too angry and acerbic. They can thus appear too negative and destructive. However, one of the twentieth-century historians’ most impressive splitters was socially a witty and genial man. Intellectually, however, F.J. ‘Jack’ Fisher was widely feared for his razor-sharp and trenchant demolitions of any given historical analysis. Indeed, his super-critical cast of mind had the effect of limiting his own written output to a handful of brilliant interpretative essays rather than a ‘big book’.10 (Fisher was my research supervisor. His most caustic remark to me came after reading a draft chapter: ‘There is nothing wrong with this, other than a female desire to tell all and an Oxbridge desire to tell it chronologically.’ Ouch! Fisher was not anti-woman, although he was critical of Oxbridge where I’d taken my first degree. But he used this formulation to grab my attention – and it certainly did).

Among research historians today, the temperamental/intellectual cast of mind often inclines them to ‘splitting’, partly because there are many simplistic generalisations about history in public circulation which call out for contradiction or complication. Of course, the precise distribution around the norm remains unknown. These days, I would guestimate that the profession would divide into roughly 45% ‘lumpers’, seeking big grand overviews, and 55% ‘splitters’, stressing detail, diversity, contingency. The classification, however, does depend partly on the occasion and type of output, since single-person expositions on TV and radio encourage generalisations, while round-tables and panels thrive on disagreement where splitters can come into their own.

Moreover, there are not only personal variations, depending upon circumstance, but also major oscillations in intellectual fashions within the discipline. In the later twentieth century, for example, there was a growing, though not universal, suspicion of so-called Grand Narratives (big through-time interpretations).11 The high tide of the sceptical trend known as ‘revisionism’ challenged many old generalisations and easy assumptions. Revisionists did not constitute one single school of thought. Many did favour conservative interpretations of history, but, as remains apparent today, there was and is more than one form of conservatism. That said, revisionists were generally agreed in rejecting both left-wing Marxist conflict models of revolutionary change via class struggles and liberal Whiggish linear models of evolving Progress via spreading education, constitutional rights and so forth.12

Yet the alignments were never simple (a splitterish comment from myself). Thus J.H. Hexter was a ‘splitter’ when confronting Marxists like Hill. But he was a ‘lumper’ when propounding his own Whig view of history as a process of evolving Freedom. So Hexter’s later strictures on revisionism were as fierce as was his earlier critique of Hill.13

Ideally, most research historians probably seek to find a judicious balance between ‘lumping’/‘splitting’. There is scope both for generalisations and for qualifications. After all, there is diversity within the human experience and within the cosmos. Yet there are also common themes, deep patterns, and detectable trends.

Ultimately, however, the dichotomous choice between either ‘lumping’ or ‘splitting’ is a completely false option, when pursued to its limits. Human thought, in all the disciplines, depends upon a continuous process of building/qualifying/pulling down/rebuilding/requalifying/ and so on, endlessly. With both detailed qualifications and with generalisations. An analysis built upon And+And+And+And+And would become too airy and generalised to have realistic meaning. Just as a formulation based upon But+But+But+But+But would keep negating its own negations. So, yes. Individually, it’s worth thinking about one’s own cast of mind and intellectual inclinations. (I personally enjoy both lumping and splitting, including criticising various outworn terminologies for historical periodisation).14 Furthermore, self-knowledge allows personal scope to make auto-adjustments, if deemed desirable. And then, better still, to weld the best features of ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ into original thought. And+But+And+Eureka.

ENDNOTES:

1 Charles Darwin in a letter dated August 1857: ‘It is good to have hair-splitters and lumpers’: see Darwin Correspondence Letter 2130 in https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/.

2 I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (1953).

3 For hedgehogs, now an endangered species, see S. Coulthard, The Hedgehog Handbook (2018). If the species were to have one big message for humans today, it would no doubt be: ‘Stop destroying our habitat and support the Hedgehog Preservation Society’.

4 M. Berman, Fox Tales and Folklore (2002).

5 From P. Anderson, Call Me Joe (1957).

6 J.H. Hexter, ‘The Burden of Proof: The Historical Method of Christopher Hill’, Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct. 1975, repr. in J.H. Hexter, On Historians: Reappraisals of Some of the Makers of Modern History (1979), pp. 227-51.

7 For Hill’s rebuttal, see The Times Literary Supplement, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 1333.

8 K. Marx and F. Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Section I: ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’, in D. McLennan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), pp. 222-31.

9 Among many overviews, see e.g. C. Efstathiou, E.P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015); P.J. Corfield, E.P. Thompson, Historian: An Appreciation (1993; 2018), in PJC website http://www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/PDF’s/CorfieldPdf45.

10 See P.J. Corfield, F.J. Fisher (1908-88) and the Dialectic of Economic History (1990; 2018), in PJC website http://www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/PDF’s/CorfieldPdf46.

11 See esp. J-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Paris, 1979; in Eng. transl. 1984), p. 7, which detected ‘an incredulity toward meta-narratives’; and further discussions in G.K. Browning, Lyotard and the End of Grand Narratives (Cardiff, 2000); and A Munslow, Narrative and History (2018). Earlier Lawrence Stone, a classic historian ‘lumper’, had detected a return to narrative styles of exposition: see L. Stone, ‘The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History’, Past & Present, 85 (1979), pp.  3-24. But in this essay Stone was detecting a decline in social-scientific styles of History-writing – not a return to old-style Grand Narratives.

12 Revisionism is sufficiently variegated to have avoided summary within one big study. But different debates are surveyed in L. Labedz (ed.), Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas (1962); J.M. Maddox, Hiroshima in History: The Myths of Revisionism (1974; 2011); L. Brenner, The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir (1984); E. Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1994); and M. Haynes and J. Wolfreys (eds), History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism (2007).

13 J.H. Hexter (1910-96) founded in 1986 the Center for the History of Freedom at Washington University, USA, where he was Professor of the History of Freedom, and launched The Making of Modern Freedom series. For his views on revisionism, see J.H. Hexter, ‘Historiographical Perspectives: The Early Stuarts and Parliaments – Old Hat and the Nouvelle Vague’, Parliamentary History, 1 (1982), pp. 181-215; and analysis in W.H. Dray, ‘J.H. Hexter, Neo-Whiggism and Early Stuart Historiography’, History & Theory, 26 (1987), pp. 133-49.

14 See e.g. P.J. Corfield, ‘Primevalism: Saluting a Renamed Prehistory’, in A. Baysal, E.L. Baysal and S. Souvatzi (eds), Time and History in Prehistory (2019), pp. 265-82; and P.J. Corfield, ‘POST-Medievalism/ Modernity/ Postmodernity?’ Rethinking History, 14 (2010), pp. 379-404; also on http://www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/PDF’s/CorfieldPdf20.

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MONTHLY BLOG 4, ON THE SUBTLE POWER OF GRADUALISM

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Currently, fashionable chatter on the new political Right refers approvingly to the case for ‘chaos’. That view is voiced by Nick Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, author of Which Way’s Up? The Future for Coalition Britain (2010). Out of institutional turmoil, financial cuts, and the end of central planning there will – supposedly – emerge a benign new localised order, freed from the shackles of the contemporary state. The premise is that things should not be as they are. So the uncertainty of chaos is needed to encourage change. But history provides no guarantees that the outcome will be the one desired.

Rather more traditionally, the hard political Left also hopes for ‘revolution’. It’s not the same as ‘chaos’, though it contains the same hope. Out of upheaval will emerge the desired socio-political transformation. In fact, it has proved difficult to achieve such sweeping changes. It takes a total crisis to offer a revolutionary opportunity (as in Russia in 1917). But, even after that, it remains hard to keep a revolutionary regime in power against internal and external enemies, without compromising the original ideals that animated the revolution in the first place. Soviet Russia offers a sad example.

So why the apparent enthusiasm for chaos or revolution? Such attitudes mark an impatience with the strong forces of tradition and vested interests (see my October Discussion-point). And, in certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to drastic action.

But what about the case for the subtle power of gradual change? Perhaps slow transformation seems simply too tardy for today’s politicians. After all, they are constantly beset by demands for instant headlines and instant results. Belief in gradual change has also been tainted by its past association an infallible and unstoppable ‘Progress’. The horrendous experiences of the twentieth century – in terms of world wars, genocides, mass famines, and killer epidemics – have discouraged any easy belief that things are slowly getting better across the board.

On the other hand, there are still some things to be said in favour of gradualism. It marks gentle ‘progression’ rather than inevitable ‘Progress’.

As a political method, it works by trying to convince people. They are to be wooed, not bludgeoned. ‘Slow but sure’ runs the adage. Festina lente – ‘make haste slowly’. ‘More haste, less speed’. Follow the example of the Roman consul Fabius Maximus. Avoid battle or direct confrontation, especially when likely to lose. Play for the long term. But don’t give up either. Fabianism is no excuse for inertia but an invitation to join the ‘long march’.

Historically, there are many examples of how patient advocacy over time can change social attitudes. Once majority opinion in many cultures held that human slavery was permissible and acceptable – even necessary and justifiable – in certain circumstances. The first few campaigners against the practice were condemned for their utter unrealism. Now, however, world-wide opinion holds that slavery is a social evil, even though various forms of personal unfreedom still – shamingly – exist in practice. Official beliefs have changed, collectively and gradually. Even those who covertly disagree find that they have to endorse the new line publicly. And there are reasons to hope that, eventually, the practices of covert slavery will also be stopped, in line with the reversal of world opinion from pro- to anti-slavery.

In fact, cultural attitudes, languages, and ideas are characteristically aspects of human life where transformations occur slowly and gradually. Individuals may often find that they have changed their views imperceptibly over some particular issue – without remembering particularly when and how the change happened. One common, though not invariable, pattern is a shift from youthful radicalism to an older hostility to innovation. Or it could be a move from earlier pacifism to later bellicosity. Of course, sudden and explicit conversions are also known. But gradual adaptations are very characteristic.

Slow evolution, after all, is a regular part of the physical world, of which humans form part. In biology, micro-change is the characteristic form of species adaptation through natural selection over time. That pattern was convincingly demonstrated in the mid-nineteenth century by Alfred Russel Wallace and, most famously, by Charles Darwin. His field observations substantiated the classic dictum: Natura non facit saltumNature does not proceed by sudden leaps and bounds.

The precise mechanisms of change remain debated; and the possibility of natural catastrophes are also canvassed. Nonetheless, the biological centrality of gradual change remains undoubted. And individuals, who find themselves imperceptibly ageing, know the process at first hand. It happened to Charles Darwin (1809-82), as shown in these likenesses of him aged 31 in 1840 (Left); aged 45 in 1854 (Right); and aged 60 in 1869 (Bottom Left).
charlesdickensLastly, for historians, it is also not surprising to find that gradual change is a powerful force in human history. There are many long-term trends that are slow and relatively imperceptible at the time. One example is the world-wide spread of literacy since circa 1700. Certainly there have been oscillations in the trend; but it is unlikely to be reversed, short of global catastrophe.

Another long-term development post-1700 is the process of global urbanisation, with a continuing growth in the proportion of the world’s population living and working in towns. In addition, the numbers living in great cities of 1,000,000+ has also expanded dramatically. Again, this trend has not been linear. But it is highly unlikely to be reversed – again short of catastrophe.

And finally, what about the contemporary state? It has not arrived out of the blue, as an imposition upon its citizens. Instead, it has emerged slowly, along complex routes – from its origins in monarchical society to its officially democratised version today. Sure, there is much more to do by way of making popular participation in politics more systematic and more effective. Sure, too, there are continuing areas for debate as to how much the state can do and should do. But, again, the emergence of orderly government and a collective sustaining of the rule of law is a trend that has long emerged – is still emerging in some lawless parts of the world – and ought to be encouraged.

With collective urbanisation has come the need for effective governance. With the spread of literacy has come the pressures to democratise – with further steps yet required. And with global population growth has come the collective need to manage the planet for the survival of humans and our fellow species.

‘Chaos’ in the full sense means destruction, not salvation. It means running against the grain of historical trends. So let politicians have a sense of modesty about their own roles and aims. Gradual change is more natural, more sustainable, and socially more pleasant. Progress may have been an ideal too far. But steady progression marks how things actually work – and ought to work.

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