What Are Some Examples of Bad History Books?

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,745
Blachernai
#11
John Julius Norwich's three-volume History of Byzantium, its one-volume epitome, and Brownworth's epitome of the epitome. The books are based on a completely un-critical reading the sources and in many cases do little more than echo Gibbon. Despite being published 1989-1995, Norwich did not take account of any research produced in the field in the last century. The result is a travesty filled with half-truths, outright lies, uncritical acceptance of the sources, but he is certainly a lively writer.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#12
I found Edward Said's "Orientalism" to be really quite transparently ideological - in a bad and unconvincing way - when I read it (it was obligatory at my university), but I am not sure it qualifies as a historical work.

Besides those kinds of works, there are quite a number of works in comparative economic history that for some reason have gotten a lot of attention, but I personally do not understand why. One such is Ian Morris' "Why the West Rules - for now". Another is Kenneth Pomeranz "The Great Divergence". I have to emphasize though, I still have a bit of respect for Ian Morris for an interesting article he published on "Economic Growth in Ancient Greece".

Anyway, both books are more than mildly autistic in their tendency to ask irrelevant questions and focus on strange things, while missing the proverbial forest. They also use strange methodology. To take an example from Ian Morris: he considers "the West" to also include Mesopotamia, Egypt and later the Southern Meditteranean - and then proceeds to contrast this "Mega-West" with China, India and Japan over the course of the last 15 000 years. Except for the fact that when he reaches the modern era he basically narrows that definition to only include Europe and what most people intuitively identify as "the West".

More importantly though, his entire view of looking at civilizations, trying to quantify everything is - despite the fact that I find economic history very fascinating and often useful - not convincing at all. As a Classicist he should frankly know better, and reducing societal development to something measurable in a "Social Development Index" where the level of advancement in a civilization is measured by the amount of energy they can capture is - the source situation aside - not convincing in and of itself, which should be clear enough to someone with even a schematic understanding of the past 2500 years of history, even only Western history. To build on that: I am for example sure that the Eastern Greek states that were annexed by Persia in the 500s had a higher "SDI" than the Western Greek ones at that time, and yet - interestingly enough - it wasn't Miletus that saved the Greeks at Marathon or Salamis, just like it wasn't Ephesus that was responsible for the huge development in material wealth and culture during the Classical period. Similarly, the Byzantine Empire plausibly had a much higher SDI than the Frankish Kingdom, and yet - interestingly enough - that didn't really help them much in the end. I could go on about the same pattern in medieval Europe and modern Europe, but I'd rather not.

The point is obvious: he is far too dismissive of political, military and especially cultural particularities of various societies, and just prefers to measure them according to this same scale. He also seems to not think in secondary effects. Just because a particular culture or society is wealthy at a particular point in time does not mean that it has the characteristics necessary to maintain this wealth and sophistication, or develop to even higher levels of wealth and sophistication in the future. I couldn't get through more than 2/3rds of it, because I got tired of the reductionist bullshit arguments permeating every chapter of the book.



As for Pomeranz, his work is even more strange. Apparently it is hailed by some people as a kind of "proof" that Europe and China had the same level of economic development until Industrialization (i.e. late 1700s/ early 1800s). While just like Morris book it is far from a worthless read, it is also not very convincing. He focuses far too much on agricultural productivity as the engine for economic growth, and openly triviliazes the obvious European superiority in machinery and military technology from the Renaissance onwards. Essentially his case is that the only thing that made Europe superior to China was overseas trade and overseas colonies, but fails to answer how that situation came about to begin with. When comparing "Markets" (i.e. property rights and lack of transaction costs) in Europe and China he makes the case that China seems to have had a "more efficient market", but he completely misses the fact that there is no institutional competition. He also seems to pretend that the source situation is the same for Europe and China, which is fundamentally not the case. David Landes book is (while arguably "euro-centric" while Pomeranz is transparently defensive about China) much better...

What provoked me about those two books was that we have two obviously erudite men, who nonetheless lack the ability to address the obvious big-picture counter arguments to their stances. I find that kind of narrow-minded thinking - particularily when one is trying to address the broad historical questions of comparative history - to be among the worst things a historian can do, as it provides the reader with a narrative and lots of "facts" which, while plausibly true, also omit all the relevant counterarguments.
 
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Likes: Gvelion
Aug 2010
16,173
Welsh Marches
#13
I'm afraid that Said's mediocre screed is wildly overvalued. If I may repeat previous posts:

Edward Said was one of the over-estimated 'scholars' of his age; it was merely that his nonsense suited the prevailing nonsense of the age. People don't devote their lives to learning difficult foreign languages and studying eastern cultures because they want to dominate and denigrate those cultures. Said's account of the scholarly 'Orientalists' (if one wants to describe them as such) is ideologically driven, one-dimensional and totally unreliable. It has been adequately refuted, e.g. in Robert Irwin's 'Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents'. From a review-article:

"Irwin maintains that Said's thesis is false, the arguments he made for it dishonest, distorted and weak, and his theoretical framework self-contradictory and evasive. He charges that Said engaged in a counterfactual rewriting of history, attacking figures from earlier eras because they did not say or do what Said thought they should have. Said's entire project, in his view, is "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations."

Irwin takes pains to point out that, politically, he is on Said's side. "I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's 'Kim,' or Glenn Gould's piano playing." This strengthens Irwin's position, as some of Said's supporters have argued that much of the opprobrium heaped on "Orientalism" has come from those opposed to Said's outspoken support for the Palestinian cause, thus serving as an example of the very Orientalist bigotry Said attacks. No such charge can be leveled against Irwin.

Irwin's strategy for demolishing "Orientalism" is to focus on the major figures in the field and to show that who they were, what they believed, and what their scholarship and attitudes were toward the Arab world bear no resemblance to Said's version. He devotes only one chapter to a direct critique of Said's book and in the final one considers other critics of Orientalism. The rest of "Dangerous Knowledge" presents the rich and complex history of Orientalist scholarship and the often eccentric men (and they were almost all men) who engaged in it. His goal is to use reality to dissolve the abstract and tendentious cloak of villainy that Said drapes over an entire scholarly field. It's on this empirical battleground, not in the lofty clouds of theory, that Irwin battles Said. He uses the history of Orientalism and the careers of Orientalists as a needle to let the hot air out of Said's 30,000-feet-above-facts balloon. And the result is one of the more spectacular deflatings since the Hindenburg.

Contrary to Said, Irwin reveals, the towering figures of Oriental scholarship tended to be unworldly, solitary figures, who, far from demonizing the Arab world or Islam, were sympathetic to it and were often regarded as suspiciously un-Christian by their contemporaries. Many were opposed to Western imperial designs on the Near East. Like scholars through the ages, they spent most of their time working diligently on often dry-as-dust textual or linguistic problems. They were also often slightly loony. The father of Orientalism, Guillaume de Postel (1510-1581), was, Irwin notes, "quite barmy": The "foremost expert on Arabic and Islam in Europe" also believed that a woman named Johanna was the angelic pope, the new Eve, the mater mundi who possessed X-ray vision that allowed her to "see Satan sitting at the center of the earth." Postel's weird ideas led the Inquisition to investigate him, but the Holy Office, in a kinder, gentler moment, decided that he "was not a heretic, merely insane."

Irwin acknowledges that a handful of Orientalists suffered from a conflict of interest because they worked on imperialist state projects, but the vast majority did not. Similarly, although a few, like Ernst Renan and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, were explicitly racist, most were not. They were genuinely fascinated by the Arab world and Islam, and though some of their scholarship may have suffered from received ideas and prejudice, there is no evidence to support Said's overwrought thesis that all of it did. And even if some of them were working in bad faith, Irwin argues, that did not necessarily mean their scholarship was bad. Above all, there was no unitary, unchanging Orientalist discourse. Like any other academic field, "Orientalism advances ... through disagreement and criticism rather than comfortable consensus."

Moreover, Irwin argues that Said grossly oversimplified the complex historical encounter between East and West. For much of its history, he points out, Europe either ignored Islam or regarded it as a form of Arianism, the ur-heresy that denied the divinity of Christ and was rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Far from turning Islam into a menacing Other, for centuries most Europeans couldn't care less about it, being much more concerned with demonizing rival Christian sects. Nor did the West always hold the upper imperialist hand over the East: The European powers were fearful of the mighty Ottoman Empire for centuries. In short, the relationship between East and West, rather than being one of simple dominance and submission, was far more nuanced.

No one denies that the West ultimately dominated the Orient and colonized it, or that its often racist domination affected the way Westerners thought about the East. Yet Irwin points out that the history of Orientalism simply doesn't track with the history of imperialism. Some Orientalists in the imperialist heyday held strikingly enlightened and nuanced views; others were myopically "essentialist" when the Mideast was of no political or economic concern to the West whatsoever. ....
 
Aug 2010
16,173
Welsh Marches
#14
Against Said, who insisted that Orientalism remained frozen in place, Irwin shows that the field progressed, that knowledge increased. He believes in the possibility (not always attained, of course) of objective scholarship. He argues that academic inquiry is not merely a handmaiden of power, but has its own logic and internal development, and that successive generations of Orientalists criticized, built on and transformed the work of those who came before. "There are such things as pure scholars," Irwin writes. "I have even had tea with a few of them." This view is regarded as sentimental, naive and retrograde in certain circles, but at least you can argue for or against it on the basis of evidence. We really do know more about the textual history of the Koran than we did before, for example.

Said's radically skeptical position, by contrast, was so abstract and chameleonic that it was impossible to disprove it, since it constantly dissolved (and hid behind) a multitude of deconstructive readings. The eminent Middle East expert Fred Halladay made a telling point when he argued that the close literary analysis of texts, Said's specialty and his primary analytic technique in "Orientalism," may not be applicable to social science.

Irwin also makes the devastating critique -- one that even Said's defenders don't really attempt to rebut -- that Said ignored examples that don't fit into his theoretical framework. One of the most glaring examples was his almost complete failure to engage with German Orientalists. Said peremptorily dismissed critics who raised this issue, saying their point was "superficial or trivial" and that there was "no point in even responding to them." But if Orientalism is inseparably bound with political power, as Said posited, then German Orientalists should be of minimal importance, as Germany had no imperial stake in the Arab world. In fact, as Irwin points out, German Orientalists dominated the field for a long time. Similarly, Said completely ignored the Russian Orientalists, who in fact did serve an imperial empire in Muslim Asia. The reason is obvious: The German and Russian Orientalists didn't support Said's thesis.

The most eminent of all the German scholars of the Arab world, and indeed a figure whom Irwin calls the "greatest of the Orientalists," was a Hungarian Jew named Ignaz Goldziher. Shaped by "the overlapping worlds of the German and Jewish Enlightenment," Goldziher rejected the racist essentialism of Renan, who had "previously generalized grandly on the intrinsic monotheism of the Semitic spirit and the incapacity of the Jews and Arabs to generate any kind of mythology. Goldziher considered all that to be racist nonsense: 'There is no such thing as a psychology particular to a given race.'" Goldziher revolutionized Islamic studies, breaking major ground with his research on the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) and exploring Islamic revivalist movements. "He believed in the future of Islam and its ability to revive itself from within. As has been noted, he was hostile to colonialism and the Westernization of the Near East. He had supported the Egyptian nationalist revolt of Arabi Pasha (in 1881-2). In 1920, he wrote a letter to a Christian Arab friend in Mosul: 'I have lived for your nation and for my own. If you return to your homeland, tell this to your brothers.' A year later Goldziher was dead."

The great scholar Albert Hourani, author of the magisterial "A History of the Arab Peoples," said "Goldziher shaped our view of what Islam is more than anyone else." Irwin writes that "a book on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies that gave no account of Goldziher's work in the field would not be worth the paper it was printed on."

And what did Said have to say about this towering figure? He mentioned Goldziher twice in passing. The first comes in a list of other scholars; in his only slightly more substantive discussion, which consists of a single sentence, he wrote, "Yet Ignaz Goldziher's appreciation of Islam's tolerance toward other religions was undercut by his dislike of Muhammad's anthropomorphisms and Islam's too-exterior theology and jurisprudence." Said concluded that the crucial fact about Goldziher's work was his belief in Islam's "latent inferiority." For Said, it seemed axiomatic that merely to express negative opinions about any aspect of Islam or the Arab world was to be a biased, racist, essentialist Orientalist. By those standards, Said himself might well have qualified, since as Irwin points out, he himself seemed to have had no sympathy for or interest in Islam.

It should be said that Said's failure to engage with Goldziher was not driven by any kind of bigotry. As is clear from his political writings -- which are much more lucid than his attempts at grand cultural theory -- Said was bitterly opposed to anti-Semitism in all its forms; he denounced terrorism and always insisted that justice for the Palestinians must be accompanied by Arab acceptance of the Holocaust and respect for the historically unprecedented sufferings of the Jewish people. The charge raised by some of his opponents that he was anti-Semitic is scurrilous. However, that fact does not excuse Said's tendentious and distorted use of historical evidence in "Orientalism." Said ignored Goldziher not because he was Jewish but because his exemplary career gave the lie to Said's thesis.

Another of Irwin's key criticisms is that Said was hopelessly confused about what the Orientalist discourse actually was. At times, he wrote about it as if it were inescapable and the Orientalists merely victims of a system of thought they were powerless to resist. But at other times, he explicitly blamed the Orientalists for being racist and imperialist. This structural ambiguity, which, Irwin acutely points out, originated in the tension between the views of Foucault and Gramsci, fatally weakened Said's argument (although it allowed him to slip out of all criticism).

Finally, as Irwin reveals, Said's convenient poststructuralist position that the Orient did not exist, but was a Western construction, ignored reality. Different regions of the world do share certain cultural traits, and it is absurd to deny that Islam plays a major role in the societies and culture of the Middle East -- and that it is a role significantly different from Christianity's in the West. To say this is not to "essentialize" those societies or reduce them to religious caricatures, but merely to acknowledge the obvious. Perhaps Said's most compelling argument, as Mike Jay notes in one of the smartest reviews of Irwin's book, is that Orientalists, obsessed with their caricature of exotic Islam, ignored the political and economic reality of the Arab world and rarely paid much attention to individual Arabs. This is true, but it is not necessarily evidence of bigotry: It took scholars in all fields a long time to understand the importance of such unglamorous realities. In any case, it's hardly surprising that Islam, the most obvious marker of difference between Europe and the Middle East, should have interested European scholars. Said cited Western pronouncements about Islam as if they were prima facie evidence of essentialist racism, when in fact they mostly seem to have been attempts -- admittedly often rather purple and unconvincing -- to make sense of it. As with many poststructuralist arguments, there is an emperor's new clothes aspect to Said's outrage at the attention that Orientalists paid to Islam."

(from here:
How Edward Said took intellectuals for a ride - Gary Kamiya - Salon.com)
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#17
I'm afraid that Said's mediocre screed is wildly overvalued. If I may repeat previous posts:

Edward Said was one of the over-estimated 'scholars' of his age; it was merely that his nonsense suited the prevailing nonsense of the age. People don't devote their lives to learning difficult foreign languages and studying eastern cultures because they want to dominate and denigrate those cultures. Said's account of the scholarly 'Orientalists' (if one wants to describe them as such) is ideologically driven, one-dimensional and totally unreliable. It has been adequately refuted, e.g. in Robert Irwin's 'Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents'. From a review-article:

"Irwin maintains that Said's thesis is false, the arguments he made for it dishonest, distorted and weak, and his theoretical framework self-contradictory and evasive. He charges that Said engaged in a counterfactual rewriting of history, attacking figures from earlier eras because they did not say or do what Said thought they should have. Said's entire project, in his view, is "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations."

Irwin takes pains to point out that, politically, he is on Said's side. "I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's 'Kim,' or Glenn Gould's piano playing." This strengthens Irwin's position, as some of Said's supporters have argued that much of the opprobrium heaped on "Orientalism" has come from those opposed to Said's outspoken support for the Palestinian cause, thus serving as an example of the very Orientalist bigotry Said attacks. No such charge can be leveled against Irwin.

Irwin's strategy for demolishing "Orientalism" is to focus on the major figures in the field and to show that who they were, what they believed, and what their scholarship and attitudes were toward the Arab world bear no resemblance to Said's version. He devotes only one chapter to a direct critique of Said's book and in the final one considers other critics of Orientalism. The rest of "Dangerous Knowledge" presents the rich and complex history of Orientalist scholarship and the often eccentric men (and they were almost all men) who engaged in it. His goal is to use reality to dissolve the abstract and tendentious cloak of villainy that Said drapes over an entire scholarly field. It's on this empirical battleground, not in the lofty clouds of theory, that Irwin battles Said. He uses the history of Orientalism and the careers of Orientalists as a needle to let the hot air out of Said's 30,000-feet-above-facts balloon. And the result is one of the more spectacular deflatings since the Hindenburg.

Contrary to Said, Irwin reveals, the towering figures of Oriental scholarship tended to be unworldly, solitary figures, who, far from demonizing the Arab world or Islam, were sympathetic to it and were often regarded as suspiciously un-Christian by their contemporaries. Many were opposed to Western imperial designs on the Near East. Like scholars through the ages, they spent most of their time working diligently on often dry-as-dust textual or linguistic problems. They were also often slightly loony. The father of Orientalism, Guillaume de Postel (1510-1581), was, Irwin notes, "quite barmy": The "foremost expert on Arabic and Islam in Europe" also believed that a woman named Johanna was the angelic pope, the new Eve, the mater mundi who possessed X-ray vision that allowed her to "see Satan sitting at the center of the earth." Postel's weird ideas led the Inquisition to investigate him, but the Holy Office, in a kinder, gentler moment, decided that he "was not a heretic, merely insane."

Irwin acknowledges that a handful of Orientalists suffered from a conflict of interest because they worked on imperialist state projects, but the vast majority did not. Similarly, although a few, like Ernst Renan and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, were explicitly racist, most were not. They were genuinely fascinated by the Arab world and Islam, and though some of their scholarship may have suffered from received ideas and prejudice, there is no evidence to support Said's overwrought thesis that all of it did. And even if some of them were working in bad faith, Irwin argues, that did not necessarily mean their scholarship was bad. Above all, there was no unitary, unchanging Orientalist discourse. Like any other academic field, "Orientalism advances ... through disagreement and criticism rather than comfortable consensus."

Moreover, Irwin argues that Said grossly oversimplified the complex historical encounter between East and West. For much of its history, he points out, Europe either ignored Islam or regarded it as a form of Arianism, the ur-heresy that denied the divinity of Christ and was rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Far from turning Islam into a menacing Other, for centuries most Europeans couldn't care less about it, being much more concerned with demonizing rival Christian sects. Nor did the West always hold the upper imperialist hand over the East: The European powers were fearful of the mighty Ottoman Empire for centuries. In short, the relationship between East and West, rather than being one of simple dominance and submission, was far more nuanced.

No one denies that the West ultimately dominated the Orient and colonized it, or that its often racist domination affected the way Westerners thought about the East. Yet Irwin points out that the history of Orientalism simply doesn't track with the history of imperialism. Some Orientalists in the imperialist heyday held strikingly enlightened and nuanced views; others were myopically "essentialist" when the Mideast was of no political or economic concern to the West whatsoever. ....
Agreed, with practically everything - although I feel the part about Ernest Renan made me a bit defensive. I'm not sure I'd agree with Irwin about Renan being "racist", especially not in the way someone like Gobineau was racist (in the technical, not the pejorative sense). I've only read "What is a nation", and the general feeling I've got from it was not that of Renan being the stereotypical 19th century eugenicist.

Apart from that though, I have to congratulate you on a thorough smashing of Saïd's "Orientalism"!
 
Aug 2010
16,173
Welsh Marches
#18
Agreed, with practically everything - although I feel the part about Ernest Renan made me a bit defensive. I'm not sure I'd agree with Irwin about Renan being "racist", especially not in the way someone like Gobineau was racist (in the technical, not the pejorative sense). I've only read "What is a nation", and the general feeling I've got from it was not that of Renan being the stereotypical 19th century eugenicist.

Apart from that though, I have to congratulate you on a thorough smashing of Saïd's "Orientalism"!
Thank you, but I feel obliged to say that the credit should go the the article that I quoted, which relied in turn on the excellent and very erudite critique by Robert Irwin (who showed that the dastardly 'Orientalists' were in fact a varied, interesting and often eccentric bunch of people who differed considerably in their attitudes). The people who quote Said's work as being gospel truth don't care of course, since ideology is always what ultimately counts with them, Said in their view showed what kind of people 'Orientalists' ought to be and that should be enough! :)
 
Aug 2010
16,173
Welsh Marches
#20
Thank you, but I feel obliged to say that the credit should go the the article that I quoted, which relied in turn on the excellent and very erudite critique by Robert Irwin (who showed that the dastardly 'Orientalists' were in fact a varied, interesting and often eccentric bunch of people who differed considerably in their attitudes). The people who quote Said's work as being gospel truth don't care of course, since ideology is always what ultimately counts with them, Said in their view showed what kind of people 'Orientalists' ought to be and that should be enough! :)
Closer to my own area of expertise, one could point I suppose to Bernal's 'Black Athena', which was discussed a little here:
Black Athena book review and manipulation of history.
 

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