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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 95, ‘WHAT IS THE GREATEST SIN IN THE WORLD?’ CHRISTOPHER HILL AND THE SPIRIT OF EQUALITY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Text of short talk given by PJC to introduce the First Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture, (given by Prof. Justin Champion) at Newark National Civil War Centre, on Saturday 3 November 2018.

Christopher Hill was not only a remarkable historian – he was also a remarkable person.1 All his life, he believed, simply and staunchly, in human equality. But he didn’t parade his beliefs on his sleeve. At first meeting, you would have found him a very reserved, very solid citizen. And that’s because he was very reserved – and he was solid in the best sense of that term. He was of medium height, so did not tower over the crowd. But he held himself very erect; had a notably sturdy, broad-shouldered Yorkshire frame; and was very fit, cycling and walking everywhere. And in particular, Christopher Hill had a noble head, with a high forehead, quizzical eyebrows, and dark hair which rose almost vertically – giving him, especially in his later years, the look of a wise owl.
Christopher-Hill-1-&-2

Christopher Hill (L) in his thirties and (R) in his seventies

By the way, he was not a flashy dresser. The Hill family motto was ‘No fuss’. And, if you compare the two portraits of him in his 30s and his 70s, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was wearing the same grey twill jacket in both. (He wasn’t; but he certainly stuck to the same style all his life).

Yet even while Christopher Hill was reserved and dignified, he was also a benign figure. He had no side. He did not pull rank. He did not demand star treatment. He was courteous to all – and always interested in what others had to say. That was a key point. As Master of Balliol, Hill gave famous parties, at which dons and students mingled; and he was often at the centre of a witty crowd. But just as much, he might be found in a corner of the room discussing the problems of the world with a shy unknown.

As I’ve already said. Christopher Hill believed absolutely in the spirit of equality. But he did know that it was a hard thing to achieve – and that was why he loved the radicals in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. They were outsiders who sought new ways of organising politics and religion. Indeed, they struggled not only to define equality – but to live it. And, although there was sometimes a comic side to their actions, he admired their efforts.

When I refer to unintentionally comic aspects, I am thinking of those Ranters, from the radical and distinctly inchoate religious group, who jumped up in church and threw off their clothes as a sign. The sign was that they were all God’s children, equal in a state of nature. Not surprisingly, such behaviour attracted a lot of criticism – and satirists had good fun at their expense.

Well, Christopher Hill was far too dignified to go around throwing off his clothes. But he grew up believing a radical form of Methodism, which stressed that ‘we are all one in the eyes of the Lord’. As I’ve said, his egalitarianism came from within. But he was clearly influenced by his Methodist upbringing. His parents were kindly people, who lived simply and modestly (neither too richly nor too poorly). They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear and didn’t make whoopee. Twice and sometimes even three times on Sundays, they rode their bikes for several miles to and from York’s Central Methodist Chapel; and then discussed the sermon over lunch.

In his mid-teens, Hill was particularly inspired by a radical Methodist preacher. He was named T.S. Gregory and he urged a passionate spiritual egalitarianism. Years later, Hill reproduced for me Gregory’s dramatic pulpit style. He almost threw himself across the lectern and spoke with great emphasis: ‘Go out into the streets – and look into the eyes of every fellow sinner, even the poorest beggar or the most abandoned prostitute; [today he would add look under the hoods of the druggies and youth gangs]; look into these outcast faces and in every individual you will see elements of the divine. The York Methodists, from respectable middle class backgrounds, were nonplussed. But Hill was deeply stirred. For him, Gregory voiced a true Protestantism – which Hill defined as wine in contrast with what he saw as the vinegar and negativism of later Puritanism.

The influence of Gregory was, however, not enough to prevent Hill in his late teens from losing his religious faith. My mother, Christopher’s younger sister, was very pleased at this news as she welcomed his reinforcement. She herself had never believed in God, even though she too went regularly to chapel. But their parents were sincerely grieved. On one occasion, there was a dreadful family scene, when Christopher, on vacation from Oxford University, took his younger sister to the York theatre. Neither he nor my mother could later remember the show. But they both vividly recalled their parent’s horror: going to the theatre – abode of the devil! Not that the senior Hills shouted or rowed. That was not their way. But they conveyed their consternation in total silence … which was difficult for them all to overcome.

As he lost his faith, Hill converted to a secular philosophy, which had some elements of a religion to it. That was Marxism. Accordingly, he joined the British Communist Party. And he never wavered in his commitment to a broad-based humanist Marxism, even when he resigned from the CP in 1956. Hill was not at all interested in the ceremonies and ritual of religion. The attraction of Marxism for him was its overall philosophy. He was convinced that the revolutionary unfolding of history would eventually remove injustices in this world and usher in true equality. Hill sought what we would call a ‘holistic vision’. But the mover of change was now History rather than God.

On those grounds, Hill for many years supported Russian communism as the lead force in the unfolding of History. In 1956, however, the Soviet invasion of Hungary heightened a fierce internal debate within the British Communist Party. Hill and a number of his fellow Marxist historians, struggled to democratise the CP. But they lost and most of them thereupon resigned.

This outcome was a major blow to Hill. Twice he had committed to a unifying faith and twice he found its worldly embodiment unworthy. Soviet Communism had turned from intellectual inspiration into a system based upon gulags, torture and terror. Hill never regretted his support for Soviet Russia during the Second World War; but he did later admit that, afterwards, he had supported Stalinism for too long. The mid-1950s was an unhappy time for him both politically and personally. But, publicly, he did not wail or beat his breast. Again, that was not the Hill way.

He did not move across the political spectrum, as some former communists did, to espouse right-wing causes. Nor did he become disillusioned or bitter. Nor indeed, did he drop everything to go and join a commune. Instead, Hill concentrated even more upon his teaching and writing. He did actually join the Labour Party. Yet, as you can imagine, his heart was not really in it.

It was through his historical writings, therefore, that Hill ultimately explored the dilemmas of how humans could live together in a spirit of equality. The seventeenth-century conflicts were for him seminal. Hill did not seek to warp history to fit his views. He could not make the radicals win, when they didn’t. But he celebrated their struggles. For Hill, the seventeenth-century religious arguments were not arid but were evidence of the sincere quest to read God’s message. He had once tried to do that himself. And the seventeenth-century political contests were equally vivid for him, as he too had been part of an organised movement which had struggled to embody the momentum of history.

As I say, twice his confidence in the worldly formulations of his cause failed. Yet his belief in egalitarianism did not. Personally, he became happy in his second marriage; and he immersed himself in his work as a historian. From being a scholar who wrote little, he became super-productive. Books and essays poured from his pen. Among those he studied was the one seventeenth-century radical who appealed to him above all others: Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, who founded an agrarian commune in the Surrey hills. And the passage in Winstanley’s Law of Freedom (1652) that Hill loved best was dramatic in the best T.S. Gregory style. What is the greatest sin in the world? demanded Winstanley. And he answered emphatically that it is for rich people to hoard gold and silver, while poor people suffer from hunger and want.          

          What Hill would say today, at the ever widening inequalities across the world, is not hard to guess. But he would also say: don’t lose faith in the spirit of equality. It is a basic tenet of human life. And all who believe in fair does for all, as part of true freedom, should strive to find our own best way, individually and/or collectively, to do our best for our fellow humans and to advance Hill’s Good Old Cause.

1 For documentation, see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are all One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27. Now posted on PJC personal website as Pdf5; and further web-posted essays PJC Pdf47-50, all on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk

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MONTHLY BLOG 43, MIS-SPEAKING …AND HOW TO RESPOND

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

When we talk for a living and don’t do it to a written script, there’s always a chance of getting the words wrong. Mostly it doesn’t matter. Phrases can be rephrased, self-corrections swiftly made. The sentences flow on and listeners hardly notice. Yet sometimes a sudden silence tells the speaker that a blunder or infelicity has been noted. Funnily enough, I remember a few times when I’ve felt that sudden frigidity in the atmosphere, but can hardly remember exactly what I said wrong. So my attempt at a confessional is somewhat thwarted by the human capacity for benign forgetting.

For many years now, I have adopted the policy of giving all my lectures and talks from notes. They are sometimes written and detailed, sometimes just in my head. There’s always a structure, often threefold. I began that policy when one of my old friends protested that he was disappointed when I lectured from a fully written script. (Strangely, when I next heard him lecture, he too had a written text). But there’s no doubt that such a practice is much more boring than free-speech. So I threw away my scripts and launched into freedom. It was nerve-wracking at first but then became really good fun. I now positively enjoy lecturing, because free-speaking requires a great mix of relaxation and concentration, which really keeps one mentally on one’s toes. Talk about living in the here-and-now. But, as already admitted, there’s always a chance of mis-speaking.

The quickest response to a blunder is a quick admission, ‘No, that came out wrongly’ or ‘No, forget that: let me put the point a better way’. Another option is a self-deprecating joke. That’s generally the best way, thawing the atmosphere and making room for a revised statement. Alas, however, the appropriate quips don’t always come to mind immediately. How often does one wake in the middle of the night with the perfect riposte, which had proved elusive during the daylight hours?

(The answer to that rhetorical question is actually: not that much, since I generally sleep soundly. But sometimes …)

In fact, I often mull over conversations after the event, thinking of what was said or unsaid. It’s one way of understanding my partner in life, who is a keep-his-cards-close-to-his-chest sort of person. I appreciate that, since I have the same trait, under an outward show of chattiness.

Anyway, in the course of mulling over my contributions to asking questions in academic seminars, I am aware that there’s a fine line between jokes and jibes that work, and those that don’t. My aim is to make some genial general observation, which is intended to open up the wider implications of the question in hand, before honing in on a specific query. Doesn’t always work, but that’s my aim. It’s not a tactic that I recommend to beginners in academic life; but something that I require of myself as a comparative senior.

On one occasion, I made a sharp remark about the panel of speakers, who were enthusing over historic riots. My aim was to tease them about the contrast between their academic respectability and their admiration for lawlessness (if in a good cause). It was the precursor to my question, not the major point. But anyway, it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Made me seem to be avoiding engagement with the issues at stake – just the reverse of my intention.

These particular panellists reminded me somewhat of my late uncle, Christopher Hill, the eminent Marxist historian.He loved historic outlaws, pirates, highwaymen, and vagrants, as well as earnest seventeenth-century Puritans, who challenged the unquestioning authority of traditional religious teaching in an era when it was difficult to do so. In fact, Hill wrote a book about them, entitled Liberty against the Law (1996) which aptly expressed his appreciation.2  The fact that the worthy Puritans of whom he wrote approvingly would have hated the irreligious and a-religious outlaws with whom they were yoked did not trouble him. From his virtuous life of laborious and enjoyable study, Hill enjoyed the raffish life of the outlaws vicariously. And why not? Many of us have mixtures of Puritanism and libertinage within us. I was too hard on him, in my thoughts; and needlessly sardonic with my colleagues.

Unlikely fellows in the cause of ‘Liberty’: (T) an ascetic Puritan divine, in this case the American theologian/evangelist Jonathan Edwards, from an engraving by R. Babson and J. Andrews; and (B) the highwayman Dick Turpin on his famous steed Black Bess (in a Victorian image).So what should I have done? Worded my point in a more felicitous way, which I would have done, if writing. Or deleted my little joke at their expense? Probably the latter. I was playing the footballers and not the ball. Breaking my own rules for seminar questions. (The point might not be amiss in a review where viewpoints can be explained more fully.) So the occasion – and the disapproving silence from the audience – has taught me something useful for the future.

Lastly, a chance to record a fine response to another example of mis-speaking, this time not by me. The occasion was the book launch of F.M.L. (Michael) Thompson’s urban history of Hampstead (1974). The Mayor of Camden had been asked by the publisher to make a suitable speech. That he did, before ending, ungraciously: ‘But I shan’t read this book’. Probably he didn’t mean to be so rude. Perhaps he really meant something like: ‘But I fear that this volume may be a bit too learned for me …’. Either way, his remark did not meet the moment. It seemed to express a traditional and unhelpful strand of anti-intellectualism in the working-class Labour movement. (Not the entire story, of course, since there is another strand that values engagement with learning and adult education).

Be that as it may, I still remember Mike Thompson’s lungeing riposte, at the end of his gracious speech in reply. Having thanked his wife, publisher and friends, he then thanked the Mayor in his civic capacity: ‘But I shan’t vote for you’.

Well done, Mike. I hope not to mis-speak again. Yet, if it happens accidentally, I hope that I get as neat a riposte.

For more on Christopher Hill (1912-2003) see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27; and within PJC website as Pdf/5.

2  C. Hill, Liberty against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Penguin: London, 1996).

F.M.L. Thompson, Hampstead: Building a Borough, 1650-1964 (Routledge: London, 1974).

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MONTHLY BLOG 28, ANSWERING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/ LECTURES

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If post-seminar questions are less memorable that the papers or lectures which precede them, then the answers tend to be even less anecdotable. I can think of only a handful, among thousands of intellectual encounters, which remain in my memory.

Nevertheless, answers in an academic setting (as in a political one) need to meet certain criteria. They can enhance a good presentation. And wrongly handled, answers can backfire and, at worst, they can ruin an apparently successful paper or lecture by failing to rebut a fundamental criticism.

Hence the overwhelming rule is to reply rather than to evade the question. Nothing is more annoying to an audience when it detects that the presenter is intellectually absconding. If the speaker can’t immediately answer (it happens to us all), the best reply is: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off-hand; but I will check it out and get back to you’.

On rare occasions, it is acceptable to prevaricate. Queen Elizabeth I was once in a political quandary. In response to the strong advice of a parliamentary deputation in 1586 that she execute her close relative and fellow monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth equivocated by giving them what she herself honestly termed as an ‘answer, answerless’.

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In other words, she would not say.2 Yet very few scholars find themselves walking the same sort of political highwire upon which Elizabeth I walked coolly for years. Academic waffle is thus best avoided. I have done it myself but always felt suitably remorseful afterwards.

The academic cut-and-thrust is instead predicated upon an open exchange of views and, if need be, a frank confession of an inability to answer immediately, rather than a fudge-and-mudge.

But, while too much evasive verbiage can be disappointing, too much brevity can prove equally annoying. One terse response that I can remember came from Balliol’s Christopher Hill. It was in a series of interviews with senior historians,3 in which some staple questions had been supplied by the organisers. As the interviewer, I was allowed to improvise but also requested to cover the basics. Accordingly I asked politely: ‘Would you like to explain your methodology?’ It was a relevant question, since Hill had been sternly criticised in 1975 by his fellow historian J.H. Hexter for the alleged sin of being a ‘lumper’. Even more damagingly, Hexter accused Hill being seriously unprofessional by quoting selectively from the sources, to support his big argument.4 ‘Lumpers’, by the way, lump everything together to form one big picture, while ‘splitters’ (of whom Hexter was a pre-eminent example) demur and say: ‘No, hang on – things are really much more complicated than that’.

Nonetheless, when invited to comment, Christopher Hill replied, gruffly: ‘No’. Like many of his generation, he bristled at the very word ‘methodology’. I laughed and continued to the next question, which was a mistake on my part. I should have changed the wording and tried again. In the event, the unsatisfactory exchange was cut from the final version of the interview. Not that there was any doubt that Christopher Hill was a ‘lumper’. Many (though probably not most) historians are. Yet Hill did not accept that he distorted or read sources selectively. In my view, it would have been best for him to restate a firm rebuttal of Hexter. But Hill would probably have responded, not ‘who cares?’ (he did), but ‘read my books and judge for yourselves’.

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Single-word replies, of the ilk of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, should thus be avoided as a general rule. They generate an initial laugh, especially when following an over-long and tedious question. Yet single-word replies are not playing fair with the questioner or the audience. They appear to give but don’t really. It is ok to start with a single brisk word, on the other hand, provided that the speaker then justifies that verdict.

So … not too short but also … not too lengthy. In my experience (and it’s a fault that I share) most answers are too long. It’s tempting to give a reprise of the paper or lecture. But that’s a mistake. A crisp reply: to the point, and nothing more, is best. Also gives time for more questions.

Three specific tips for respondents. When first listening to a question, it can be difficult to grasp the real point and simultaneously to formulate a good answer. The best way to cope is to start with a ‘holding’ reply: such as ‘That’s an interesting question’ or ‘I’m glad that you raised that point’. During the brief postponement, it’s amazing how often a reply formulates itself in one’s mind. But it’s best to use many variants of such ‘holding’ replies. It sounds too saccharine if every question is welcomed with the same apparent rapture. Incidentally, the reverse also sounds false. A former MP of Battersea was prone to start every reply with ‘I welcome your criticism’ even if none was offered. It eventually became something of a joke, which was counter-productive.

A second tip is to have a sheet of paper discreetly to hand and always to jot down a short note, summarising the topic that’s been raised. Having that reminder is especially useful in the event of two-pronged questions. When answering one half of a query, it’s too easy to forget about the other half. A short note concentrates the mind. In the long run, too, awareness of the points raised is personally invaluable. A free consultation with experts. Soon after every public presentation, I turn the list into a personal debriefing, noting all points that need clearer explication next time; and especially noting all criticisms of my main argument, so that I can decide how to refute them next time (or, sometimes, to amend my own case).

Which brings me to the third and most important piece of advice. It’s fine to give way graciously to challenges on all sorts of points, especially if one is in the wrong. Yet if the critique is focused upon the absolute core of one’s argument, it is essential to stand fast. I once heard the historian Lawrence Stone, another well-known ‘lumper’, confront a fundamental criticism of his latest publication.5 He began frankly: ‘Oh, dear, I think I’ve been holed below the water-line’. Then, with a cheerful laugh (shared with the audience), he rallied, with words to the effect that: ‘Your evidence/argument, although important, does not invalidate my central case’. Stone then, on the hoof, thought through his response to the fundamental (and valid) criticism, without rancour or any sign of being flustered. It was a sparkling moment.

Sometimes, there is not one single ‘right’ answer; but a there is a right process of debate. That’s the aim. And it’s nice to win the argument as well. Which means keeping on one’s toes intellectually. Having given the presentation, don’t relax too soon. Keep replies crisp and pertinent. And, basically, enjoy the dialectic. Out of reasoned argument comes … knowledge.

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1 From Icon Archive, at www.icongal.com: downloaded 22 February 2013.

2 Elizabeth I’s non-reply was nonetheless gracefully worded: ‘[I] pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless.’

3 ‘Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield’ (1986), in series DVD Video Interviews with Historians, available from London University’s online store: www.store.london.ac.uk.

4 J.H. Hexter, ‘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; with riposte by C. Hill, ‘The Burden of Proof’, in Times Literary Supplement, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 1333.

5 See Lawrence Stone (1919-1999) and J.C.F. Stone, An Open Elite? England, 1540-1880 (1984); and alternative view in S.E. Whyman, ‘Land and Trade Revisited: The Case of John Verney, London Merchant and Baronet, 1660-1720’, London Journal, 22 (1997), pp. 16-32.

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