Thursday, March 22, 2007

Bruce Mazlish

One of my prime concerns has been the evolution of the human species. And how we go about looking at this—the question of what lenses we use to look at the past—has run through all my work. One of the lenses is psychological. Historians deal with human motivation. How can you not try to use the most insightful tools of psychology to get at this? I should say, parenthetically, that my mentor, Jacques Barzun, disagreed with me on this. At any rate, my doctoral thesis was on the history of conservatism, a foolish undertaking. It was much too large a topic, but eventually I got the thesis down to under 500 pages. In doing that study, I became acquainted with the work of Karl Mannheim, and I also incorporated some of his thinking on the sociology of knowledge into my thesis. Barzun grilled me on this and said, “Now, Bruce, you just can’t have this stuff in there. Look how badly it is written.” I replied, “It’s my translation, but it’s pretty bad in the original, too. But he has so much worthwhile to say.” To which he responded, “But he is a sociologist.” At that point I became very aware of how disciplines can get in the way, rather than helping inquiry.
From Psychohistory to New Global History: A Conversation with Bruce Mazlish, Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, Volume V, Number 6 (July/August 2004)

In the same issue:

The history of things, to guess at its future, will not consolidate itself into a formal school or an established curriculum. Its sources and motives are too diverse; its subjects and methodologies are too numerous, if not eccentric. Its embrace of novelty, no doubt, invites those who cherish cleverness and book sales over scholarship. Nevertheless, at the same time, it will provide fresh topics and approaches. It will give a deserved place to the history of science, technology, engineering, design, and the landscape, which is fitting in this era of moral and social subjects. It will also leaven economic, business, family, local, and regional history. Negating abstract ideologies and uniform and governing explanations, it will stimulate our imaginations, enhance the flexibility of our causalities, and meet Jacques Barzun’s prescription for good history by joining “Narrative, Chronology, Concreteness, and Memorability.” Finally, with its accent on details, precise connections, and contextual accuracy, the history of things will leave us, as any good narrative should, trembling before the power of the common and ordinary, the small and invisible, to write human destinies.
— Joseph A. Amato, Little Things Mean A Lot : The History of Things, or Histories of Everything