Neutrality Isn’t Popular

Wikipedia on Thucydides:

Thucydides has been dubbed the father of “scientific history” due to his strict standards of evidence-gathering and analysis in terms of cause and effect without reference to intervention by the gods, … [and] the father of the school of political realism, which views the relations between nations as based on might rather than right.

This famously objective historian was however actually rather partisan:

If Herodotus retains his proper title as the “father of history,” Thucydides, his younger contemporary and author of the “History of the Peloponnesian War,” an elaborate account of that bloody 30-year internecine spat between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century, B.C., might be called the father of all those historians who aspire to comprehend the past coolly, objectively, dispassionately, scientifically and without a brief for any partisan cause. He was the first sociologist. Or so we have blithely tended to believe. …

Contrary to prevailing notions that Thucydides penned his work from a distant, Olympian remove, he was actually a participant — an accomplice, really — in the war he so eloquently and painstakingly depicted; his was a partisan’s point of view. A general high in the Athenian command earlier in the war, he was forced into exile after he lost Amphipolis to the enemy in 422. Years later, he wrote his account to defend his actions and indeed those of his class. Democracy was, he believed, ever prone to dangle before citizens the deceptive promises and baubles of demagogues like Alcibiades, at whose door he placed blame for the Sicilian debacle. And so it was Athenian democracy itself that caused Athens’s eventual defeat, not her more enlightened generals like Nicias and himself. The “History,” according to Kagan, represented as much as anything else Thucydides’ apologia, not a detached rationalist’s tale of simple cause and effect.

Real objectivity is much more a niche than a mass market.  So while one might expect the rare historian to try to be cool and objective, one should be surprised to find that such a historian is very popular.  So one should have been surprised by Thucydides’ popularity, given his supposed objectivity.  Learning that he was in fact quite partisan resolves that puzzle quite nicely.

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  • Eric Johnson

    Why so quick to accept Kagan’s take?

    He “ardently supported plans for the invasion of Iraq, talking as tough as Alcibiades and disparaging unpatriotic ‘defeatists’ who criticized the invasion or doubted its positive effects.” Source: Slate. Draw your own conclusions.

    I say this as someone who likes and sort of respects him. (I watched his intro course on the greeks on Academic Earth, and enjoyed it.)

  • Let’s say you have a controversial issue. You’re going to get a bimodal distribution of opinions due to attitude polarization. That distribution has most people lumped on either side, with a smaller number of people choosing the middle ground indicative of attempting real objectivity.

    Now let’s say you write a neutral blog about a controversial issue. How well will you get linked? Well, the incentive for other bloggers to link to you is low. The ones who care about the issue have typically chosen a side. They’re much more likely to link to blogs that share their view. They don’t want to link to a blog that seems to show the other side might be reasonable! But it gets worse. Not only will you get less links by being neutral, but Google will amplify your punishment, since Google uses the number of links a website has as a key way to measure the website’s rank.

    There’s a market for neutrality, but it is niche, and it has to be really fact-centric rather than opinion-centric to work, and Wikipedia has cornered that market. Of course, I only trust facts from Conservapedia…

    • Smart post -so smart I don’t think you believe that topics naturally have the “two sides” our cognitive architecture prefers (or even only just a third side, “more objective and in the middle”), but I think it would be helpful for you to incorporate that nuance explicitly in your analysis.

    • Ben – you seem to be confusing “real objectivity” with in-betweenism.

  • jonathan

    First, I had Don Kagan and he’s a fantastic teacher and knows this material as well as any human being can.

    Second, the concept of neutrality is itself a construct that we self-define and impose. That is an essential point made in deconstructionist analysis and it’s obviously correct if you think about it. Any analysis occurs in a context. We look back and see a context that didn’t exist when earlier analysis was done. A simple rule is that facts overwhelm the closer one is to an event and that threads simplify and then oversimplify as distance grows. Let’s say we look back at Ancient Greece. We think we have a conclusion but our knowledge is framed by a tiny number of available sources. And the person working back then – or in the years closer to it – would have had different but not necessarily always reliable resources.

    Take as an example the history of Roman emperors. Almost all we know comes from a few unreliable sources. Was Caligula really a monster or was the story changed because an emperor was murdered? We now have a very different picture of Nero, one quite different from the usual views of only a few decades ago. How exactly did Tiberius, who was notably an ascetic – a guy who literally retired to live by himself on a beach to avoid messing with his step-father Augustus’ plans for succession – become characterized as a sybarite enamored of young children? Is that because the accusation is a traditional calumny? Is it to show that emperors aren’t as noble as the Roman Republicans were?

    Look at a book called The Night Attila Died. It takes apart the traditional story that Attila got drunk after his wedding and died to show that he was likely murdered by a conspiracy between the E. Roman Emperor and Attila’s disaffected family.

    How exactly is one “neutral” in any of these circumstances? How does one know when one is being “neutral”? In what context are you defining “neutral”?

    • jonathan,
      That’s a tour de force of your topic literacy, but it’s kind of weak for you to end just with questions. There is an earthy sense of degrees of bias which seems to me to be something more than random noise.

      I think that’s the space Professor Hanson in looking for, and your comment is more of a retreat from that epistemological ambition with a flourish of topic literacy, rather than a build upon it. It reminds me of the worst of Professor Gelman’s comments to Professor Hanson’s posts.

      I wonder if Professor Hanson has a more widespread tendency to draw these type of reactions out of topic experts (less epistemological ambition, perhaps more topic literacy, adopting a critical posture toward a professor Hanson post about their field)?

    • Eric Johnson

      If you believe that ultrasubjective everything is problematic, everything is indefinable hokum, you have at least one salient disagreement with Kagan already. When a person wakes up, should he put his socks on or blow his brains out with a gun? How will you recommend one over the other if everything is so indefinable? Not only recommend it to yourself — but to another ordinary non-miserable person with, gasp, his own subjective existence! “I refute it thus.”

      There is no way Thuc can be perfectly neutral, but we call him neutral if he is a lot more so than the average bloke. Neutral means he gives us the views of highly regarded individuals, both on matters of fact and on matters of interpretation. Who is highly regarded? While it is a little subjective at the edges, the highly regarded people tend to substantively agree on who is in their club. Artists tend to know who are the great artists, and they substantially agree on this. Etc. We know that these people disagree and cant all be right. We know that sometimes the right view is not even found, always, among their various views. But usually it is.

      Thuc is neutral — that is to say, a lot more neutral than most — if on almost every important and disputable point, he prepares us to decide against what he himself believed to be most likely true. He should give us such complete information as will prepare us to opine better than he opined, when for whatever reason we think we have reason to know better. It could be because someone gathers better info than he did, two centuries later — he himself doesnt know for sure that this wont happen. This person wasnt there when it happened, but perhaps he had greater wealth than Thucydides had, permitting him to travel around and obtain better primary sources. Or maybe someone finds out that a written source or two of Thucydides’ (if he had any) was faked by someone who needed a few drachmas. Etc. Evidently someone told Herodotus that a certain people had very much thinner skulls than the greeks, which we now know is boloney. We could dismiss all info from that source.

      Now the skulls of the Persians are so thin, that if a man hit them only with a pebble he will break them easily, but the skulls of the Egyptians so strong that scarcely with a great stone will a man break through them. And the people of the country say that the cause of this difference is this that shall be told, and indeed it seems a reasonable thing. An Egyptian hath his head shaved even from a child, and the bone grows thick, the sun beating upon it. But with the Persians it is not so, for they have their heads covered from childhood, wearing turbans and hats.

      Whoops! Well, Thucycdides was smarter and a better scholar.

      As Kagan himself said in a lecture, wherever and whenever he disagrees with Thucydides about what happened, he better have very clear reason for thinking Thucydides wrong.

      Neutrality is not a construct.

      • Eric Johnson

        Actually, I cant disagree with your account of the indeterminacy of say Tiberius’ nature. But what such examples really show is the difficulty of being right when sources are few and their neutrality is hard to ascertain — not the difficulty of being neutral.

        After all, I could easily write a rather neutral account of the sources on Tiberius, no? What is hard, when so few sources exist, is to actually be right about Tiberius. To be neutral, I would only have to recount the best arguments about the value of each source. To be highly neutral, I would have to use up a lot of ink, so that I could cast a wide net — that is, include arguments from people who dont have a lot of prestige today; even those who shouldnt have a lot of prestige according to me, myself. But it can still be done.

        And when it comes to the philosophical level — the question whether things can ever be rather objectively “true”, I say they can be. I say they chances of being deceived can go very low indeed, much lower than would be suggested by very abstract ultra skeptics like Derrida. The fact that quite a bit of indeterminacy may remain in the case of TIberius, due to a paucity of sources, doesnt mean that such indeterminacy inheres in *all* attempts to find truth. Indeed, I would say that many people knew the truth about him, with very limited indeterminacy. But they all died. We arent them.

        The truth we are after in life is never totally un-admixed with pragmatism. This is where Derrida errs. Would you be surprised if, at the end of life, things we provisionally believe turn out to be illusions created by god, or a deceiving genius, or by shadows in a cave? Of course not. Of course Decartes’ so-called “disproof” of the deceiving genius possibility was erroneous. But we dont philosophize about such possibilities. They are infinite in number, and no headway can be made with them. We may think about them but we do not attempt to validate or invalidate them. And the reason for that is really mere pragmatism — something that comes out of the good, not the true. It may not take very *much* pragmatism to choose not to spend all your time considering possibilities on which zero empirical or a priori validation or invalidation is possible. But it does take a mote at least.

  • Neal W.

    Robin, since you are so fascinated about the future, I have a question about it.

    A common theme you see in sci-fi movies is men and women sharing bathrooms/shower rooms. Battlestar Galactica and Starship Troopers come immediately to mind. Do you foresee this happening in, say, 200 years?

    PS I’m not asking because I’m a pervert!

  • Eric Johnson

    I’ll add this. Kagan wasnt just some dowdy classicist who supported invading Iraq. He was part of the very influential Project for a New American Century — I’m not sure there was any greater pole of influence on neocon foreign policy this decade.

    So, while I dont doubt his honesty, I think he came to a really bad conclusion. And he has limited credibility with me. Thems the breaks.

    • Are you saying you have evidence that Kagan is mistaken in saying “A general high in the Athenian command earlier in the war, [Thucydides] was forced into exile after he lost Amphipolis to the enemy in 422. Years later, he wrote his account to defend his actions and indeed those of his class”?

      • Eric Johnson

        I’m only saying, “why is he right about Thucydides being biased”? It seemed from your post that you hadnt read Thucydides (or most of him) plus a longish review of Kagan’s book, which seems like the minimal way to examine whether he is right. If you have in fact read those things, I certainly apologize for wasting time (one used to say bandwidth — always an exaggeration I think, but now a truly ludicrous one!).

        I realize of course that his credentials and post making his thinking much more likely to be true, but I wouldnt think this would suffice.

        I think an apologia, if that was really Thucydides’ primary purpose (I havent a clue about that), can still be more neutral than most works. As I say above, if something accurately and with balance recaps most of highly respected views on pretty much every controversial point, then we can decide for ourselves, and (relative) neutrality is achieved. Suppose I am him, and I know I was right about the war, and I also have confidence in peoples’ ability to find the truth. In that case, an apologia and a neutral history are not at cross-purposes.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I don’t see that it’s necessarily the case that “objective” and “partisan” are opposites. Can’t you be at once passionately in favor of a cause or a venture, and yet cold-bloodedly realistic about its chances of success and about the necessary means of achieving it, or subsequently about the reasons for its success or failure? That may be a rare combination of traits, but is there any reason to suppose that it’s a contradictory one?