Saturday, July 29, 2017
I learned from Al Brophy's post this morning that Rice University historian Thomas Haskell passed away. See Al's post for Haskell's contribution to the history of antislavery sentiment in the antebellum U.S. This is my tribute.
Professor Haskell wrote not just about history, but about the philosophy and the writing of history - historiography. That work is relevant to anybody, including law professors, who attempts to cross-disciplinary boundaries. Law professors (including me) do it all the time, and the risk/reward is obvious. Disciplines are human-created categories. Professor Haskell's history of the rise of these categories in academic social science was The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority. Disciplines engender orthodoxies and received wisdoms - authority. To succeed in an academic discipline, you need to be careful about challenging them (see Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University).
If you are within the discipline, the likelihood you are coopted into the received wisdom or are pragmatic about testing the limits is obviously higher than if you are not. If you aren't in the discipline and do challenge the received wisdom, you stand a good chance of being taken as a dilettante. Hence, the risk/reward (even paradox) of interdisciplinarity. Those most inclined to it must do it very, very well even they do not carry a professional credential (Ph.D.) for the field into which they stray.
The story of Professor Haskell's own courage in testing the limits comes after the break.
I was a serious history major at Michigan about the time Professor Haskell was getting his Ph.D. One of my mentors there, Robert Berkhofer, inspired my own interest in the process of historiography - how what actually happened gets filtered through the perception of those who recorded it and those who later try to explain it. Many years later, when I was dipping my toes back into academia I came across Professor Haskell's work on historiography because of its relationship to lawyering (i.e. lawyers write narratives; a theory of the case is the skeleton for how the lawyer writes the history of the encounter being litigated). That work you find in his Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History.
In an email he sent me back in 2009, responding to my having sent him a draft of an article citing his work, Professor Haskell asked me to jog his memory if he didn't respond. I regret now I never did. I did, however, pay tribute to his interdisciplinary courage in the preface to Beyond Legal Reasoning: