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Law and Interdisciplinary Scholarship (or the advantages of being an intellectual weakling with a big budget)

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5 Responses

  1. In Nate Oman’s view, history is an “intellectually weak discipline,” as compared to economics, a “self-confident” one. He borrows this from another blog, but repeats and signs on to the characterization in his post. The evidence? A summary statement on another blog.

    There are useful discussions to have about interdisciplinarity, as Anthony D’Amato has shown in his (nevertheless IMHO) wrong-headed recent SSRN paper on the topic, but we don’t get very far by characterizing one field as “self-confident” and another robust and important part of the academy as, well,….

    Prof. Oman is welcome to come on over to the Legal History Blog where our “intellectual weakness” is regularly on display. http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/

  2. Nate Oman says:

    Prof. Dudziak: I think that your response is unduly defensive. Omar’s point is that history — unlike economics, say — lacks widespread methodological agreement about its core explanatory concepts and therefore is more permeable to interdisciplinary approaches. He is not saying that historians are stupid. The point seems rather commonplace to me.

    For myself, I think legal history is an important field. I blog regularlly (too much for some of my co-bloggers I suspect) on historical topics. I am a member of a the American Society for Legal History and subscribe to Law & History Review. I have written directly on legal history as well as including a great deal of historical material (too much I am told by some) in theoretical pieces. I have no problem with history.

    I do think that history lacks a set of powerful explanatory ideas. In some ways this is a weakness and in some ways it is a strength, as it authorizes historians to wallow in the particularity of the pasts that they discover, an activity with its own virtues.

  3. Nate,

    If you don’t mind, and I do not mean this as a challenge, could you say a bit more about why you think “history lacks a set of powerful explanatory ideas”?

  4. Nate Oman says:

    It seems to me that to the extent that historians try to account for the events that they document in terms of some broader, more generally applicable theory they fall back on ideas developed elsewhere, e.g. Marxism, sociology, neoclassical economics, etc. Unlike economists or sociologists, I don’t see that historians are primarily interested in generating generalized theories of human behavior. Rather, I take it that their primary concern is to provide a narrative of past events on the basis of documents, a difficult task requiring a great deal of skill, to be sure, but somewhat different than the task of providing general theories of human behavior. I realize, of course, that one cannot identify history with the vice of mere antiquirianism. On the other hand, in my experience historians are eager to emphasize the nuance and particularity of the topics they study, rather than suppressing that nuance to construct a broader theory. I think that this is an important thing to do, but I also think that it runs the risk of dissolving into a sterile nominalism. Any theory can be met with the objection that it lacks nuance, since one of the functions of theories is to suppress detail — nuance — in order to reveal causal or other underlyng structures. For this reason, the objection can become trivial.

  5. Fair enough. The particularity of history is likely the reason I love it as much as I do, as I think the search for broader theories is itself a mischievous legacy of modernity (And, like you, much of my work involves historical considerations; history of medicine is my minor in my graduate program).

    I do tend to disagree with you that seeking “generalized theories of human behaviour” is a chief criterion of having “powerful explanatory ideas,” as I think the particularity and nuance resonant in the best academic histories derive much of their explanatory power precisely from the particularity of the narratives adduced.

    And I also think it’s inriguing to note your inclusion of Marxism as an example of an idea that historians fall back on given the central nature of Hegel’s dialectic and philosophy of history to Marx’s musings. One might plausibly go so far as to say that without theorizing about history, there’d be no Marxism at all, or at least it would look very different than it currently does.