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American Historical Explanations

American Historical Explanations: A Strategy for Grounded Inquiry

Copyright Date: 1980
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    American Historical Explanations
    Book Description:

    In this new edition of American Historical Explanations, Gene Wise expands his examination of historical thinking to include the latest work in American Studies, the new social history, ethnography, and psychohistory. Wise asserts that historians address their subjects through an intervening set of assumptions, or what he calls “explanation forms,” similar to the philosophical paradigms that Thomas Kuhn has found in scientific inquiry. Through analysis of historical-cultural texts (including the work of V. L. Parrington, Lionel Trilling, and Perry Miller) he defines the forms used by several groups of American historians and traces the process by which an old form breaks down and is replaced by a new set of assumptions. Throughout, he aims to study the process of change in the history of ideas. His conclusions extend beyond historiography and will be useful for those interested in literature, social sciences, and the arts._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6494-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Gene Wise

    A writer ought to let readers know what they are in for. Some books speak for themselves, some do not. This one, I imagine, may need some help.

    When a work of scholarship functions wholly within pre-established forms, readers can simply plug it into ready receptacles-say, “historiography,” or “intellectual history,” or “sociological theory,” or “literary criticism”—and thus be prepared for what is to come. But my intent in this book is to begin outside the traditional forms of historical scholarship—not by abandoning them, but rather by trying to gain some analytic distance and critical perspective on them, then...

  2. Prologue, 1973: The Imperative of a New “Territory”
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    The human species, it is said, is distinguished by its history. That is not true. Dogs and mountains have a history too. Humans distinguish themselves not by their history, but by their capacity totalkto their history, through constructed forms.

    Academic historians, I believe, have not sufficiently emphasized this distinction. They have thereby constricted one potentially rich branch of historical understanding. Many historians have a peculiar sense of priorities. Using a set of assumptions that we shall explore more thoroughly with David Donald in chapter 3, they feel one should go out anddohistory-work before thinking much about...

  3. Prologue, 1980: Reflections on “Reflexive” Scholarship
    (pp. xxi-xlviii)
    Gene Wise

    This book contends that what people are willing to admit as real and right and important is deeply implicated incontext—in who sees and thinks what, when, through what preoccupations, and under what conditions. It says that people’s ideas (or in the language developed herein, “explanations”) have their forms, their roles, their audiences, their functions, their seasons.

    Some critics of the book’s first edition, committed perhaps to different contexts of explanation from mine (hence to different forms, different roles, different functions, different audiences, and maybe to a different season), were disturbed at what they sensed to be a pernicious...

  4. BOOK I Encountering the Forms:: The Idea-Form, the Reality-Form, the Book-Form, Historians’ Explanation-Forms

    • 1 “Pictures in Our Heads”: Symbolic Forms amid the Flux
      (pp. 3-22)

      It is fitting—given the dialogue-tenor of this book—that its opening chapter should begin with a question. Or rather, a series of questions. People have ideas. But why? And when? And what can ideas do for them? Intellectual historians have written for some decades now about “The American Mind,” but few have stopped to ponder what “mind” is. And scarce anyone in the field has paused long to reflect, “Just whatisan idea?”

      Professional historians have taken it for granted that ideas exist, and have gone on to ask of them: “Do ideas have a self-generating power of...

    • 2 “Perspectives” on Historical Reality: The Relativist Dilemma
      (pp. 23-56)

      This book is about mind, through its constructed forms, encountering world, and about strategies for entering that encounter. In chapter 1, we’ve outlined a model where ideas function not simply to reflect peoples’ experiences, but to channel and mobilize them. Seen through this model, ideas serve not asmirrorsof external reality, but as devices whereby people try andcope withthe reality of their perceptions.

      That is how we said ideas work for people generally. In this book, however, we’re concerned with one special variant of the people-species—historians. More particularly, American historians. Does this model apply to them...

    • 3 The Book-Form: Historians and “Primary” Documents
      (pp. 57-81)

      In the opening two chapters, we’ve maintained that ideas are not so much reflections of historical reality as they are means of coping with the world of our experience, and that in order to cope, we must invariably reduce that world to size. We haven’t denied that there are objective facts in the world, but we have contended that there are no unperspectivistic, or locationless, views of those facts. Any view must come from somewhere, at some time, by someone, through some form.

      That of course, is a truism in the study of history itself. We assume thehistoricityof...

    • 4 Changes of Mind: Historians and Explanation-Forms in Twentieth-Century America
      (pp. 82-110)

      In the first three chapters, we’ve talked generally about idea-forms and historical reality, and about the book-form in history studies. It remains now to look at someactualidea-forms advanced by American historians as a preliminary to our later controlled analyses of these forms in the case studies.

      In those case studies, we’ll attempt to get inside a form and view historical reality in America from there—trying to see the world as it experiences it and observing how it behaves under strain and in response to change. In short, we’ll be looking for “perspectives” on historical reality there. And...

  5. BOOK II Some Strategies for Grounded Inquiry

    • 5 Changes of Mind II: Some Strategies for Focus
      (pp. 113-157)

      We’ve now got some alternative explanation-forms in front of us. Our next task is to explore how we might move beyond their outer surface and get down into them—trying, in effect, to see their world from the inside out.

      We opened the last chapter with a brief, elementarydescriptionof the three forms—Progressive, counter-Progressive, New Left. We then passed to the next more complicated plane ofanalysis,taking the forms as general and set categories and glancing around at their several sides.

      These first two planes are legitimate introductions to handling historians’ ideas and explanation-forms. They familiarize us...

    • 6 Historical Criticism and “The Strategic Journey”
      (pp. 158-176)

      Thus far, we’ve contended that the profession needs a subfield devoted to “explanation in historical studies,” and we’ve sketched in parts of such a field. We suggested that it could use an anthropology of ideas (a “symbolic”), and we outlined a functional model for that in the opening two chapters. We also said this field needs some different strategies for handling ideas, and in chapters 4 and 5 (especially 5) we laid out a few possible ones. Further, we noted barriers in the profession which have inhibited such a field to date; and in chapter 3, when making a case...

  6. BOOK III Strategic Forms in Action:: The Case Studies

    • 7 “When Prophecy Fails”: Turner, Progressives, and Paradigm Strain
      (pp. 179-222)

      All through this book we’ve been looking into ideas—what functions they may perform, and how and where we might study them. Here, in the first of our case study chapters, we’ll focus on one particular kind of idea-behavior—how mind responds to stress. We’re calling this behavior a “paradigm strain.” Or rather, it’s a paradigm strain with the Progressive historians, since their mode of explanation was so widely assumed and held over so many years that it seems to have reached the status of a Kuhnian paradigm. That’s not true with either the counter-Progressives or the New Left, though,...

    • 8 A Paradigm Revolution in the Making: Parrington and the “Moments” of Lionel Trilling and Reinhold Niebuhr
      (pp. 223-295)

      It’s such a principle of ambiguity which Lionel Trilling catches up on in 1950, in his preface to a volume of essays onThe Liberal Imagination. In that preface, and in several of the essays which follow it in the book, Trilling aims to update the liberal mind-form. In effect, he is after a new kind of strategy for what he sees as a new kind of situation. What we have here is a paradigm revolution in the making, or part of one.¹

      The Liberal Imaginationis thus one of those threshold moments marking the transition from Progressive explanations to...

    • 9 A New “Consensus” Forms: R. W. B. Lewis, Perry Miller, and the Counter-Progressive Explanation
      (pp. 296-360)

      InThe Irony of American History,Reinhold Niebuhr confronts head-on the Progressives’ anomaly-dilemma. As we’ve watched it develop over the last two chapters, that dilemma poses the question:How do you respond when you begin with one set of purposes but end up with a contrary set of results?How, in short, do you manage incongruity? Do you just consign incongruities to the realm of anomaly and exception, then quickly pass over them? Do you take the cynical pose, and resign yourself to the inevitable failure of good intents? Or what?

      In 1944 andThe Children,Niebuhr had rejected these...

  7. Appendix: Taking a “Strategic Journey”: Some Questions for Inquiry
    (pp. 363-370)