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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Aargh!

After all my posts on the philosophy of history, after I thought I had at least made my position clear, I get a note from someone saying, "I don't understand how you can dismiss Fukuyama as an historian: he's probably one of the top five historians in the world."

What am I supposed to say? Perhaps that it is impossible to "dismiss Fukuyama as an historian," since he isn't one and doesn't pretend to be one! On his book jacket, he is listed as a "top political theorist." His Wikipedia page lists him as "an American political scientist, political economist, and author.

Do you see what is missing from that list? HISTORIAN. He's not an historian! I am not saying he is a bad historian, because that would be like classifying Hayek as a bad writer of sonnets.

Furthermore, you can determine this without going to Wikipedia or reading his own self-description. Look in his bibliography. In The Origins of Political Order, what do we find? Well, although Fukuyama discusses the history of the Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and Turkic states, there is not a single work listed that is in Chinese, Indian, Arabic, or Turkic. There is no original source material in any language whatsoever, so far as I can tell. (I may have missed one or two, I admit.) Someone who is an actual historian of the Turkic state will be working almost entirely with documents in Turkic, Arabic, Greek, Persian... well, I don't know what other languages, because I am not such a person.

What's more, Fukuyama's sources are almost always not even the secondary, scholarly journal literature of the specialists in these areas. Some of his sources are the third-level works these scholars produce for more general consumption: their summaries of the detailed scholarly literature for non-specialists. But many of the works cited are at an even higher level, or summaries of summaries of actual historical research.

Fukuyama is a bright guy, and is worth reading. But he is not an historian, doesn't describe himself as an historian, and doesn't do any original historical research. Calling him an historian because he talks about the past is like calling him a physicist because he often mentions material objects.

6 comments:

  1. He would be pretty dumb to declare the end of history, if he were a historian.

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  2. Well don't paraphrase when you are using quotes, especially when the statement was a qualified one.

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  3. Well, Ryan, as I did not attribute the quote to anyone in particular, and did not pretend to quote anyone in full, I thought it would be understood that I was summing up my correspondent's views. But if I have misspoken, that correspondent can let me know.

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  4. Also, I'm making this a second comment because I don't want the last comment to be lost.

    How we define "history" is semantics. But while you've stated repeatedly than historians can give (at least roughly) definitive explanations of the past using historical methods, and you've quoted authoritative figures saying basically the same thing, you've given no indication in any of these posts how to differentiate between history of a high enough caliber to be published in history journals that you like and history of a high enough caliber to be published in history journals that is Marxist. And correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't history still a "book-culture," whereas economics and physics focus on journals?

    I am becoming more and more hesitant about responding because I am unable to determine your position - I pointed facts being theory laden because you criticized Fukuyama for exactly that in an earlier blog post. Or at least me, with my apparently mediocre reading skills, interpreted it as such.

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  5. "Well, Ryan, as I did not attribute the quote to anyone in particular, and did not pretend to quote anyone in full, I thought it would be understood that I was summing up my correspondent's views. But if I have misspoken, that correspondent can let me know."

    Such a person may be using a template of "historian" as "academics that people believe deeply understand history" as opposed to what a given group may perceive to be "real" historians.

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  6. History ended when Fukuyama became an historian.

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