JOYCE APPLEBY, 1/95
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
Can we tell the truth about history?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Joyce Appleby. She is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, coauthor of Telling the Truth about History. She has written numerous other distinguished works. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Appleby. What is the book Telling the Truth about History answering? There is obviously a dialogue in our day that has some questions.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it's addressing a range of issues, but probably the most important one is a pervasive doubt that we can know the past, or indeed that we can know anything about a reality that is not subjective. Basically, what we're interested in is how history got in the middle of all of these controversies, because history used to be that course that bored you between 10 and 11 o'clock in the morning, and now history is sort of dead center into, in contemporary debate about national identity, about whether or not there is indeed any knowledge about the issues of objectivity and neutrality, and because history is implicated in science, because for so long historians wanted to tell about the past as it actually happened. It's also sharing in some of the disrepute in which science finds itself today. So, I think there's a modern crisis of knowledge, with history very much in the center of it, and that's what the book is addressing, trying to scope out the problem. Why is there this problem? What is the history of the kinds of questions, perhaps skeptical questions, that are needling and nudging this body of once-very-secure information about the past?
MP: Well, to make sure we're not attacking a straw man, the ordinary person has already come to doubt history because they have phrases in their minds such as "history is written by the winners," the feminists would argue that history completely overlooked women, and many minorities would argue that certainly in America we have taught a history that ignores the magnitude of immigration and the contribution of immigrants. So that is what has probably made the authority on the popular side a little more dubious.
JOYCE APPLEBY: I think that's true. But in that case, it's sort of ironic, because it's historians who have brought us the history of African-Americans, it's historians who have done the work on women's past experiences, it's historians who have looked at different ethnic groups and to the immigration and its impact. It's historians in the last twenty-five years who have looked at failure and discontent, and all of those experiences aren't neatly fitted into the American success story. The historians have done this and now they have raised these doubts. If this is in the past, why didn't we know it before? Is it not possible, then, for people to say that something is history when it is not fully history? But I don't think it's just that simple. I think we also live in an age in which we are very much aware of multiple perspectives, and at the same time we are reluctant to defend what we believe, and we usually will retreat and say, "Well, that's what I think," as though all I can do is state what my beliefs are, I don't have the capacity to persuade you, that this is a correct ?stand.
MP: So in that case we actually do have a straw man, in which the ordinary person is claiming the perspective is central and determinate, but a fairer statement of that position would be, there is always a dialogue of our time and there's always a perspective in which the participants view their own history, if I was using Stanley Fish, he would argue that you are listening to the emerging and changing power bases of the people who are speaking, but he wouldn't contend that there was no history.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think you're right that that would be one way to interpret it. But I don't agree with you that it's a straw man, because you act as though there are these facts over there and then there's somebody who's rearranging them and interpreting them, and actually we never get the facts independent of an interpretation. Therefore, to say that it is all an interpretation is to take the facts down with you. And I think this is certainly what we're concerned about, the increasing belief that there cannot be a widely shared body of knowledge. And I think that requires faith that there can be a widely shared interpretation of that knowledge because I don't think you can separate the two.
MP: Well, let's go ahead. Let's just take, on your desk is Jefferson. How do we go about looking at the documents, it's an enormous body of documents, of course, and an enormous range of interpretations of Jefferson, and look at what would be the truth of history?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think it requires a group of people to do this. I think that our knowledge is a social product, and I think that it takes a commitment to the reality of a Jefferson, acts of Jefferson and decisions of Jefferson, that can be adequately reconstructed. So, those are some of the elements that would have to be present. You have to be open to the other perspectives, but you have to also be willing to close and say, no, that interpretation doesn't do justice to what we know about eighteenth-century manners, eighteenth-century ideals, and what evidence that has been left, the paper trail, as it were. So I think that knowledge is built up by decisions, by making choices about inferences from evidence, and I think that it is, as I say, a social act and you have to have a group of people who are willing to contest with one another. But they have to have a common goal, which is to have an adequate understanding of Thomas Jefferson. It would never be definitive, because the next generation is going to ask questions that we haven't thought of, but it would be adequate for the kinds of questions that we have, that we want to bring to Jefferson's life. I think that it can be done, but I believe that the elements that I have described have to be present, which is this belief that there is such a thing as a shared body of knowledge that is valid and will stand up under some rigorous testing. And then, a curiosity. And then a willingness to entertain diverse opinions and the kind of conflict that comes with creating knowledge.
MP: And a desire for a consensus among the body of workers on the project.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Yes. I think a desire for the knowledge, not so much for the consensus. The consensus would come because they agreed upon the rules. Because they were not going to be cavalier or they were not going to be simply obstructionist, where they were going to agree that this letter which was written to these people does indeed indicate that his intentions were what he said they were, barring any evidence to the contrary. That sort of thing. That's so true of so many of our institutions. What they require to function is cooperation, but a cooperation around some common goals, but also accepting the discipline of rules.
MP: Does this model of truth in history become more fragile as time passes? Would we be more capable of finding this truth two centuries ago in the United States? and less so a thousand years ago, even in, say, France?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I certainly think that it changes with time, and that's what Telling the Truth about History is about, it's really about what happened to change what people expected from history. And the first thing that happened was the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It raised expectations for truth and completeness and accuracy. In history, historians wanted to pattern themselves after scientists in this regard. Then, in the end of the eighteenth century, you had what we might now say was a very hubristic desire to develop the laws of social interaction, so you understood governments and you understood the economy. And history seemed to be the great source of information in which you could uncover these great social theories. And you think of Marxist theories, you think of theorists like ?Comte, deÝTocqueville, Adam Smith. This is something new in the world, this belief that you could get all of this information, this data, and come out with some universally valid statements about human social constructions. So that changed history. And then the third great force was nationalism. The strongest thing that binds a nation is a common history, and frequently that common history is an invention! It is a common story that provides the myths, the narratives, the values, the heroism, the aspirations that will bind the people together in the modern world, because nationalism is a modern phenomenon. So we looked at those three thingsóscience, social theory, and nationalismóand saw the way in which they had broadened and deepened and greatly extended the reach of history. But we also saw how they raised expectations that could not be fulfilled, and now I think we're living with those, the disappointment and disillusionment that has come from a generation of skeptics, and a generation of people who you've just described, who say, "Look, this is all about power, this is not about truth. This is about who has the right and the opportunity to tell the story, his way or her way." And I think what we're trying to do is to see if we cannot look at this battlefield and find among the pieces that have been strewn about, the campaign, find the stuff with which to construct a more realistic expectation of truth in history.
MP: As we go back, we find, let's say, colored lenses and part of the historian's job is to identify the colored lens at each one of the sequences. We realize we've now, we're not just looking through red, we're looking through red, yellow, blue, and green, and when we get to Eleanor of Aquitaine, she's not standing there, between Eleanor of Aquitaine and ourselves an enormous range of changes of ideas and values and language and notions of the world about us.
JOYCE APPLEBY: And a variety of different questions that people wanted to have answered about Eleanor of Aquitaine. You see, this is a part of the skepticism today. Part of it has come about because we know so much more about how human beings create knowledge. We're so aware of the subjective element. But the subjective element has always been there, but we have explored it thoroughly now. Now, you can look at that and be sad, now we see it's all subjective, there's no possibility of objective. Or, you can take the stance that I prefer to say, this is the way human beings create knowledge, we have to explore this subjectivity. Any understanding of truth has got to start with the fact that it is an inquiring person who begins the production of knowledge, and has to be included in our understanding of that knowledge. And this is true whether it's a biologist or a high-energy physicist or a sociologist or a literary critic or an historian.
MP: In fact, the parallels between our contemporary understanding of science and the description you've just given of history are very similar. We're beginning to realize that science does require an audience, a free dialogue, and it is always a contemporary perspective that shapes what people are capable of learning and understanding and the questions they are capable of asking.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think we're also understanding how important theory is to every body of knowledge. They once thought that investigators just simply emptied themselves of any presuppositions and just took in the data. And now we realize that, no, our questions are always structured by theories and those theories are usually embedded in the kind of interests that resonate in our own time, the kind of exciting issues. Again, you could say, well, this is really disappointing. I thought there was a possibility of neutral, objective truth, and now you're telling me that, no, we've got individuals who are just churning with interests that had to do with their time, and their generating theories, and it's then that you finally get to some information. I believe the other way to look at that, as I said earlier, is to recognize we know a lot more about what's going on when human beings create knowledge than we ever had before, therefore we're much closer to understanding what's involved, and hence have a more adequate theory! about the production of knowledge.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Joyce Appleby, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is most recently coauthor of Telling the Truth about History. She has written numerous other distinguished works. You mentioned that social theory was one of the components in the construction of truth about history. And your own work earlier was in the social theories of Economic Man.
JOYCE APPLEBY: What I looked at was economic thought in the seventeenth century to get at how some of those suppositions about economic behavior got into the classic texts, like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, or the work of David Ricardo or Robert Malthus. You know, economics, we may think it's the dismal science, it's a dry subject, but it contained a revolutionary conception of human nature, when it was first developed. And I would say Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations brings this speculative literature together in a brilliant synthesis. But this new conception of human nature was that human beings were rational, that they pursued their own interest, but their interest lay in self-improvement, that they could enter into bargains with other human beings, and that they could produce an orderly world because of the orderly way in which they went about satisfying their needs. Now this was not the view of human nature that Christian ministers talked about from the pulpit every Sunday. There was a human being that was drenched in sin, it wasn't the human beings that the Elizabethan poets or Shakespeare wrote about, then it was fickle, impulsive, irrational human beings. So, it's fascinating, to me, to see the way in which with a changing concept of human nature you open up the possibility of theorizing in brilliantly speculative ways about social action, the creation of the economy and the writings about the economy is perhaps one of the most fascinating artifacts of knowledge production.
MP: Your description of seventeenth-century economic writers, these people appear, by acting not only through such significant figures as Adam Smith, but through the work of the Founding Fathers in the United States and Jefferson, who have shaped the very perspective on the world that we have today. What is that chain of thinking?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think first of all is that in orderó, as the market becomes more important, as commerce and international trade figures more prominently in national life, in the life of the English mark, or the monarchy, people had to understand the market, and they observed men and women making bargains, selling labor, selling chickens, growing crops. They observed this behavior and that's when they discovered this orderly way of acting in the market. What this led to, over several generations of theorizing, was the idea that human beings didn't need strong hierarchical institutions to control them, that they actually had an ordering mechanism within themselves. And this concept of economic rationality is really what made possible the liberal democracy that we see emerging with Thomas Jefferson, the belief that people can take care of themselves, that they don't need government, that government should be restricted to a very few roles and provide services. This was Jefferson's great battle against Alexander Hamilton, against the Federalists, who continued to think in a rather old-fashioned way that family needed strong fathers and that ordinary people needed strong magistrates and ministers. And against that was pitted this modern theory of society which put forward the idea that there was a natural harmony. Adam Smith called it "the invisible hand of the market," Thomas Paine refers to it as the fundamental society that is produced by our wants as government is produced by our wickedness. And so you have the government ceasing to be this wonderfully elaborate artifice that brings people out of the war of all against all, and instead it's seen as an artifice that actually should be limited in giving scope to the free range of individual initiatives, in an environment of liberty. So that this economic theory that I've talked about, based as it is upon a new conception of human nature, as you say, was extraordinarily important when Americans came to describe what their new nation represented. It represented the last best hope of mankind. It represented the opportunity to show and a clean slate, as it were, what human beings under conditions of liberty could do for themselves. It was a demonstration, it was a pilot project for the world. And this gave Americans in the early nineteenth century a great deal of respect for themselves at a time when the country was an insignificant European outpost in the New World.
MP: Are those institutions deeply embedded, now? Because, in some sense, the world that Adam Smith described has jumped national boundaries. It's far greater than any nation-state.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, the market certainly has. We have a global economy and we have, obviously, we all know of countries that have not had any experience with the market and entrepreneurial spirit. Trying to introduce what grew rather naturally over a long period of time into a very short ?compass of time. It's ........... fascinating. I think we're still very much committed to this idea. I read in the paper today about President Clinton's welfare reforms. That's really an effort to get everybody in society to take care of herself and himself, there is the sense that ifó, there is this belief that this is what human nature is and that it's also an ideal. And it sure is fascinating when something operates as both an ideal and a norm, because to the extent that it's a norm, you can rely it, but to the extent that's an ideal, you have to create it, you have to create institutions to produce it. And that's what I think is sort of fascinating, that's going on right now, today. We rely for our freedom upon this conception of human nature that people are able to take care of themselves and want to, and want to improve themselves. If that doesn't pan out, if a significant number in the society don't do that, then inevitably we are going to see our faith this kind of liberty erode and we are going to have more and more institutions that prescribe to people the way in which they live. This may be necessary, the theory may be wrong.
MP: The origins of both notions, in looking at the contemporary welfare issue, appear to lie in the seventeenth century. What was the role of say, John Calvin? Because many of the tenets of Calvin seem to appear in Adam Smith, but they also are the rudiments for some of our notions of simple living and austerity, that was a battle that was lost.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, that's a very astute question. I think Calvin, Calvinism, Protestantism, perhaps Lutheranism, indeed Christianity in its catholic form, instilled a kind of discipline that was necessary for human beings to act in the market as observers saw them acting. That is to say, cooperating, working, deferring pleasure, fulfilling their promises. This is the kind of cultural infrastructure that's absolutely essential to a market economy, and I agree with Max Weber that Calvinism, for a variety of reasons, its emphasis upon rationalism, its extolling of a calling, its dignifying of work, it did create this culture of self-discipline, and that self-discipline is basic to a market economy, and to a political democracy I think. The problem is that you can't have an economy that is just composed of self-denying producers. You've got to have people consuming the goods that they produce. And from the very beginning, from the 1690s, this tension arose, because people worked harder if they had things to buy, but if they indulged themselves and bought things, that tended to undermine this discipline that was necessary for their productivity. You know, it's like alternating currents of electricity, you've got to buy and you have to sell for this market to continue. This is another thing that we have not solved. But that consumption, getting away from the simple life, appeared relatively early, swiftly, and it was because these new productive forces could create wonderful things, books! and colored fabrics! and pottery! and maps! Delightful things that people had never had before and they were willing to work a couple of days more a week, or save, defer pleasure so that they might have these things.
MP: The most extreme example today would be Puritan dress, where the exterior was very austere, black if possible, might look like a contemporary Arab woman's very, very covered outfit, and yet the petticoat was lavish, not necessarily in materials, but in colors and design.
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, I think that love of material objects I think is as deeply rooted in human beings as any other aspect of economic behavior. I don't happen to be against consumption as such. Certainly, there are aspects of it that are distasteful, but I think that people's love of objects, of things that human beings can make, of design, of color, of shape and form and utility, I think those are fascinating aspects of human beings and I think that the power of the market is a direct response to people's desire to have these objects in their lives, and to elaborate a life around them.
MP: But here is a case where at least I'm not aware of social theory representing that position. I read recently a woman defending how much, how wonderful television is. Virtually no one outside the industry, nobody who is a consumer of television ever says how wonderful television is, how educational and broadening. I'm not sure. Was there a social theory that glamorized or explained or a gave a position to the desire to have beautiful petticoats?
JOYCE APPLEBY: No. You're very astute again. I have commented on this frequently, how reluctant social theorists were to dignify consumption. And I think it's because consumption always carries with it questions of power. If you can consume, you can define yourself, you have a scope of action, which is threatening to people in positions of power. I feel that they are much more comfortable if people are being taught to be self-disciplined and restrained and to defer pleasure. So that I think consumption is always seen as troubling, subversive, it's going to overturn a given social order, it's children acting like their parents, women putting on the airs of men, social inferiors acting like their social superiors. Consumption is basically a radical force, and as such it's had very few proponents.
MP: When the two interact, let's say in the nineteenth century or the beginning of the nineteenth century, we get Hamilton and Jefferson reversing their roles. Jefferson was the consumer. Hamilton was the man of austerity. What did that do?
JOYCE APPLEBY: Well, you're absolutely right. In fact, I was reading some letters of a friend today, of a friend of Hamilton's today, who said that Hamilton finally wanted to buy a country estate and he was finally billing his clients and he was finally getting his income up to 2,500 a year. He said, "maybe we won't have to pass the hat at his funeral, after all." And it was just a wonderful tribute to the fact that he was a man of austerity and not interested in money for himself. He couldn't even normally bill his clients. Hamilton is a state builder, and he is disciplined and dedicated to that object of building a state, an energetic state. Jefferson is also a builder, but Jefferson is a builder of a free and open society, and I think in that view of the free and open society I don't think Jefferson's consumption is incompatible with that. I think he ?credited other people loving beautiful things and loving interesting things, ingenious devices, as he did. Oh, he did wonderful things. He and Madison bought a pair of merino sheep for every county in Virginia, it was something that they would be, Wouldn't it be wonderful to have these marvelous merino sheep frisking all over the hills of Virginia!? and then of course we'd have this wonderful wool and then we'd be able to make these marvelous woolens. I respond to that side of Jefferson, because I think it kept him in touch with the aspirations, petty, though they may have been of ordinary Americans, and helped him make the American presidency and the government itself accessible, to the people, as it had not been before.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Appleby. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Joyce Appleby, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, coauthor of Telling the Truth about History, published by Norton in 1994.