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Onwards! March 3, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Here at EWP, we feel we’re turning a bit of a corner.  A good portion of our posts to this point have consisted of honing our methodological sensibilities.  We don’t really imagine that we’ve convinced anybody of much of anything they don’t already know, but it’s been very useful to us to get our heads around the mechanics of historiography, as well as to get a general sketch of the historiography’s own history.  What this does is let us start moving forward constructively.  In the spirit of practicing what we preach: rather than harp on the same things ad infinitum, it’s time to move on to the next phase of the project, though I’m sure we’ll be unable to resist returning to methodology from time to time.

First, we’ll probably be posting a little bit less.  Methodology is kind of easy, because it’s impressionistic and requires introspection rather than extensive research.  Now we’ll be doing more “Canonical”, “Oeuvre”, as well as what we hope will be a fun new series: “Ancient History”, examining stuff written before 1980.  This means more reading and less writing, so we’ll probably reduce our output to two posts per week.  (Plus, I’m trying to finish up this book, which is taking some time.  Redraft done, but now footnotes, and polish, polish, polish…..)

Our main project for this new phase might eventually crowd out Hump Day History, because of some of its similarities: this is to assemble brief information and literature on historical topics, except to do so in a systematic way.  The object is to try and sketch out “what we already know”.  I expect the effort to be kind of slapdash and idiosyncratic, since we are not perfect masters of “the literature”, but hopefully we might get some commenters to help us out, and I’m sure we’ll get better at it as we go along.  We’ll try and keep track of the results using the tabs at the top of the blog.

One thing we would like to try and do as we move along is to keep distinct some concepts for intellectual history: practices, commentary, ideas, cosmology, and philosophy.

Practices are straightforward basic skills: glass-blowing, map-making….  Presumably, the best evidence we have concerning practices are their products.  We hope to learn about practices primarily through specific museological or historical analysis of practices, rather than through analyses of contemporary commentary.  For that we have….

Commentary is stuff that is written on practices.  So, De re metallica is commentary on mining.  The existence of commentary on practice, we assume, represents a sort of intellectualization of practice, which presumably has its own traditions separate from the practice itself.

Ideas are things like notions about the natural world, or ethical principles, which we can pick up from an analysis of practice and commentaries on practice, or in an epistemic reading of more clearly literary culture (see below).  While ideas “have a history”, we do not imagine this history is coherent.  In other words, we expect people’s ideas to conflict with themselves, and that it is possible for people in the same community to have had different ideas.  We certainly do not expect certain ideas to define places or eras.

Cosmology is a more carefully thought-out system of ideas, a literary “universe” where effort has been made to collate ideas and knowledge in some self-consistent way.  Thus, we mean cosmology more in its pre-19th-century connotation, rather than in terms of the “inflationary universe” or some other specific cosmological idea.

Philosophy may coincide with cosmology—the philosophy of technology, for example, relies on a specific cosmology of what constitutes “technology” and how it relates to society—but we generally take it to mean a direct engagement with metaphysical or epistemological problems.  You know, Hume, Kant, all those dudes.

By dividing our work up in this way, we hope to avoid mistaking one kind of history for another.  For example, if we decided we wanted to look at a “history of technology”, we would want to distinguish an economic “history of industrial practices” from a “history of ideas about technology” a la Lewis Mumford and his fellow thinkers.  Nevertheless, we are of course open to fluidity between the areas, and even take greater or less fluidity between these areas to be an interesting historical problem.

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