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Peter E. Gordon comments on "The Unintended Reformation"

September 13, 2013

Has Modernity Failed?

"Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is noteworthy for its readiness to tread upon questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain. It is a common characteristic of historical scholarship as it is practiced in the modern university today that it abstains from grand philosophical themes and fastens its attention upon a narrow set of questions in an empiricist mode. This is perhaps due in part to the way that a highly administered society that is bound with ever-increasing intensity to technocratic norms is inclined to make a fetish of academic specialization. It is no doubt also due to an accumulation of historical knowledge and a professional imperative to keep abreast of the published work within one’s field. Because the drive to produce in the corporate university cannot exempt itself from the largely quantitative assessment of a scholar’s value, the sheer mass of information to be absorbed increases as the range of academic expertise narrows. Despite the new vogue for “global” history and high sales for books that extol the apparent superiority of Western civilization, most historians are humble creatures who prefer the domesticity of the local and the precise. Meanwhile, the disciplinary imperative of historicist skepticism holds in abeyance all but the most implicit normativity, though the discerning reader can usually grasp without difficulty what political or moral judgment may have animated the historian in her work and guided her toward certain conclusions. History is a strange discipline insofar as—like all human inquiry—it seeks the guidance of strong normative frameworks even while an ethic of neutrality partially occludes this guidance, and forbids the historian from trespassing upon neighboring humanistic disciplines, such as political philosophy or moral theory, in which the explicit articulation and elaboration of such frameworks would be permissible."

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