Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle

Perhaps I can best summarize the book by quoting from the preface:

The structure of the book is designed to examine how both the general and the specific versions of these theories have been applied to the writing of history. The principal targets of the investigation and the places where they are discussed are:
  • Cultural relativism: Chapters Two and Nine
  • Semiotics: Chapter Two
  • Structuralist theory: Chapters Two, Three and Nine
  • Poststructuralist theory: Chapters Four and Five
  • Anti-humanism, genealogy and discourse theory: Chapter Five
  • Hegelian and Marxist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Postmodernist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Radical skepticism and scientific relativism: Chapter Seven
  • Hermeneutics: Chapter Seven
  • Historical fiction and theory of peotics: Chapter Eight

Executive summary: Any time you find a person using the currently fashionable forms of the above theories to model the world, you are looking at a fool.

In each case above, Keith explains the theory, doing his best to make it as clear and plausible as possible, then shows it in action in some historical analysis, and then shows the author's self-contradictions and the failure of the theory.

Perhaps you have heard of the widely used fake "Chinese taxonomy" (actually invented by poet Jorge Luis Borges) which Foucault quotes as dividing the world into things "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs ... (n) that from a long way off look like flies." If this was a real taxonomy then some of the more radical propositions about human consciousness would have a leg to stand on, but on close inspection all such evidence for these solipsistic philosophies dissolves into fog.

Keith's background doesn't include enough physics to allow him to hammer Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as hard as it deserves (a physicist like Kuhn should have known better than to write such muddy nonsense). Those chapters (on non-cumulative meaning) I read were, in Pauli's famous phrase "not even wrong." But Keith has a grand old time taking Popper and Hume to pieces in defense of induction.

Keith is a reasonably good writer, but there is only so much nonsense I can take at one time, and it got to be a struggle to get through the last chapters. I applaud his work to refute nonsense and lies, and I recommend the book.

I have to take some detailed notes of the who goes with what theory, and I'll post these later. A painful duty...

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