Paul L. Caron

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Thomas Haskell and the Risk/Reward of Interdisciplinarity

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:

I read a wonderful story about the risk and reward of overstepping disciplinary bounds in academia. At some point, I happened upon the work of Thomas Haskell, an eminent historian, whose work on the rise of professional disciplines was relevant to my own intuitions about the artificiality of their boundaries. Back in 1974, when Haskell was getting his Ph.D. and I was still a serious undergraduate history student thinking about getting a Ph.D., economists Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman wrote a controversial history of slavery entitled Time on the Cross. The thesis was that slave labor was more productive than free labor, based on an economic measure called the “index of total factor productivity.” I vividly remember the substantive stir it caused as well as the methodological issue among historians. The goal was to make the discipline more of a science, where historians would no longer be narrativists but “cliometricians.” Haskell described his reaction to the thesis upon reading the book:

"By the time I was halfway through it I suspected the authors had committed a blunder. Untrained in economics and having received my Ph.D. in history only a year earlier, I knew it would seem absurdly presumptuous of me to accuse two of the nation’s most distinguished economic historians of misusing a tool of their trade…."

Haskell succeeded in getting the New York Review of Books to publish his review, the first paragraph of which contained the following sentence: “I am not an econometric historian or a specialist in the history of slavery, but I am a reasonable man and, as such, entitled to judge the plausibility of the author’s argument.”

I found that inspiring, and it is how I feel about my own inter- or metadisciplinarity. I was (a) never coopted or socialized as a graduate student into any particular discipline, and (b) energized by learning enough about a subject area to borrow from it. I know I am a reasonable man. Sometimes crossing the boundary works and sometimes it doesn’t. You only hope that when it doesn’t, you figure it out before publishing it in a non-peer reviewed law journal where the editors don’t know any more about the subject than you do.

Legal Education, News | Permalink