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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 40, HISTORICAL REPUTATIONS THROUGH TIME

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

What does it take to get a long-surviving reputation? The answer, rather obviously, is somehow to get access to a means of endurance through time. To hitch a lift with history.

People in sports and the performing arts, before the advent of electronic storage/ replay media, have an intrinsic problem. Their prowess is known at the time but is notoriously difficult to recapture later. The French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), playing Hamlet on stage when she was well into her 70s and sporting an artificial limb after a leg amputation, remains an inspiration for all public performers, whatever their field.1  Yet performance glamour, even in legend, still fades fast.

Bernhardt in the 1880s as a romantic HamletWhat helps to keep a reputation well burnished is an organisation that outlasts an individual. A memorable preacher like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, impressed many different audiences, as he spoke at open-air and private meetings across eighteenth-century Britain. Admirers said that his gaze seemed to pick out each person individually. Having heard Wesley in 1739, one John Nelson, who later became a fellow Methodist preacher, recorded that effect: ‘I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me’.2

Yet there were plenty of celebrated preachers in Georgian Britain. What made Wesley’s reputation survive was not only his assiduous self-chronicling, via his journals and letters, but also the new religious organisation that he founded. Of course, the Methodist church was dedicated to spreading his ideas and methods for saving Christian souls, not to the enshrining of the founder’s own reputation. It did, however, forward Wesley’s legacy into successive generations, albeit with various changes over time. Indeed, for true longevity, a religious movement (or a political cause, come to that) has to have permanent values that outlast its own era but equally a capacity for adaptation.

There are some interesting examples of small, often millenarian, cults which survive clandestinely for centuries. England’s Muggletonians, named after the London tailor Lodovicke Muggleton, were a case in point. Originating during the mid-seventeenth-century civil wars, the small Protestant sect never recruited publicly and never grew to any size.  But the sect lasted in secrecy from 1652 to 1979 – a staggering trajectory. It seems that the clue was a shared excitement of cultish secrecy and a sense of special salvation, in the expectation of the imminent end of the world. Muggleton himself was unimportant. And finally the movement’s secret magic failed to remain transmissible.3

In fact, the longer that causes survive, the greater the scope for the imprint of very many different personalities, different social demands, different institutional roles, and diverse, often conflicting, interpretations of the core theology. Throughout these processes, the original founders tend quickly to become ideal-types of mythic status, rather than actual individuals. It is their beliefs and symbolism, rather than their personalities, that live.

As well as beliefs and organisation, another reputation-preserver is the achievement of impressive deeds, whether for good or ill. Notorious and famous people alike often become national or communal myths, adapted by later generations to fit later circumstances. Picking through controversies about the roles of such outstanding figures is part of the work of historians, seeking to offer not anodyne but judicious verdicts on those ‘world-historical individuals’ (to use Hegel’s phrase) whose actions crystallise great historical moments or forces. They embody elements of history larger than themselves.

Hegel himself had witnessed one such giant personality, in the form of the Emperor Napoleon. It was just after the battle of Jena (1806), when the previously feared Prussian army had been routed by the French. The small figure of Napoleon rode past Hegel, who wrote: ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it’.4

(L) The academic philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and (R) the man of action, Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821),  both present at Jena in October 1806The means by which Napoleon’s posthumous reputation has survived are interesting in themselves. He did not found a long-lasting dynasty, so neither family piety nor institutionalised authority could help. He was, of course, deposed and exiled, dividing French opinion both then and later. Nonetheless, Napoleon left numerous enduring things, such as codes of law; systems of measurement; structures of government; and many physical monuments. One such was Paris’s Jena Bridge, built to celebrate the victorious battle.

Monuments, if sufficiently durable, can certainly long outlast individuals. They effortlessly bear diachronic witness to fame. Yet, at the same time, monuments can crumble or be destroyed. Or, even if surviving, they can outlast the entire culture that built them. Today a visitor to Egypt may admire the pyramids, without knowing the names of the pharaohs they commemorated, let alone anything specific about them. Shelley caught that aspect of vanished grandeur well, in his poem to the ruined statue of Ozymandias: the quondam ‘king of kings’, lost and unknown in the desert sands.6

So lastly what about words? They can outlast individuals and even cultures, provided that they are kept in a transmissible format. Even lost languages can be later deciphered, although experts have not yet cracked the ancient codes from Harappa in the Punjab.7  Words, especially in printed or nowadays digital format, have immense potential for endurance. Not only are they open to reinterpretation over time; but, via their messages, later generations can commune mentally with earlier ones.

In Jena, the passing Napoleon (then aged 37) was unaware of the watching academic (then aged 36), who was formulating his ideas about revolutionary historical changes through conflict. Yet, through the endurance of his later publications, Hegel, who was unknown in 1806, has now become the second notable personage who was present at the scene. Indeed, via his influence upon Karl Marx, it could even be argued that the German philosopher has become the historically more important figure of those two individuals in Jena on 13 October 1806. On the other hand, Marx’s impact, having been immensely significant in the twentieth century, is also fast fading.

Who from the nineteenth century will be the most famous in another century’s time? Napoleon? Hegel? Marx? (Shelley’s Ozymandias?) Time not only ravages but provides the supreme test.

1  R. Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (New Haven, 2010).

R.P. Heitzenrater, ‘John Wesley’s Principles and Practice of Preaching’, Methodist History, 37 (1999), p. 106. See also R. Hattersley, A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (London, 2002).

3  W. Lamont, Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History, 1652-1979 (Aldershot, 2006); C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (London, 1983); E.P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993).

G.W.F. Hegel to F.I. Neithammer, 13 Oct. 1806, in C. Butler (ed.), The Letters: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831 (Bloomington, 1984); also transcribed in www.Marxists.org, 2005.

See http://napoleon-monuments.eu/Napoleon1er.

6  P.B. Shelley (1792-1822), Ozymandias (1818).

For debates over the language or communication system in the ancient Indus Valley culture, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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