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If titans get the facts wrong

In deciding how to assess the now 30-year history of Edward Said’s Orientalism for the Times Literary Supplement (May 9, 2008), Robert Irwin chose to focus on two openly hostile books, Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (U Washington P) and Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Prometheus).  Those books, whose essential critiques are affirmed by Irwin, accuse Said of discouraging Middle Eastern studies from critically engaging Islam, of rhetorical excess and perjorative writing style, of outright fraud (e.g., Said mistranslated a passage from Flaubert in a manner that provided him with otherwise absent evidence), of willfully mistaking irony for serious polemic (such as in Said’s reading of Alexander Kinglake), and more.  Warraq piles it on:  Said got the basic facts of Arab history wrong, imposed sexualized readings on actually innocent texts, was weak in the languages he was working with (Said has been criticized for his poor German and Arabic) and libels the great accomplishments of the West.

Yet for all the criticisms, Said’s work has been undeniably influential, even dominating, in certain scholarly circles; even Irwin closes his review by noting how Said’s “shadow hangs heavy” still.

Said is not the only example of this phenomenon where extraordinarily influential intellectuals are criticized, even damned, after their passing for their sloppiness.  Deirdre McCloskey, finishing the second and third volumes of her defense of bourgeois virtue for the University of Chicago ( I love the fact that she is appointed as Extraordinary Professor of Economics and English at South Africa’s University of the Free State), had this to say recently about Karl Marx and other luminaries:

For all Marx’s brilliance – anyone who does not think he was the greatest social scientist of the 19th century has not read enough Marx – he got the history almost entirely wrong.  Whatever the value of his theories as a way of asking historical questions, on almost no important historical fact can you rely on Marx.  This is not some special Marxian fault.  The same is true of the other practitioners of merely philosophical history before the facts started arriving in bulk at last, during the 20th century:  all of them, Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Hegel, Tönnies, Durkheim, and even, a late instance, on many points Max Weber, and still later Karl Polanyi, got the historical facts quite wrong.  The theory of capitalism that educated people still carry around in their heads springs from Marx, St. Benedict, and Aristotle, repeated in the rhetoric of other eloquent men and a few women.  It is economically mistaken.  And the point here is that it is historically mistaken as well.

Others are easily added to the list.  Michel Foucault is criticized for his historical inaccuracies in accounting for the emergence of the disciplinary subject although his theoretical framework is still persuasive despite the counter evidence.  Sigmund Freud exerts extraordinary lasting influence, if mainly now through the second and third and fourth generation followers (Klein and Jung and Adler and Lacan and Kristeva and Irigaray) even though he is commonly dismissed on the facts.  In 2006 Newsweek ran a story that described him as “history’s most debunked doctor” and one more “out there” interpretation says Freud’s theories actually came fully deformed from a mind addled by excessive cocaine use.  Jürgen Habermas is attacked for his sloppy history of emergent European enlightenment public spheres.

And yet despite all this, Freud and Marx are counted among the greatest intellects of the last five hundred years and among the two most influential minds on twentieth century thought, and Foucault and Habermas and the others hold solid second tier positions for many other academics.  What explains this apparent anomaly, where scholars and theorists can have such a sustained influence even when their research is so commonly disparaged, and even under circumstances where they may be plausibly accused of the academy’s capital crimes of plagiarism and the falsification of data?

Perhaps jealousy is at work:  transformational ideas are the most vigorously attacked and often on partisan grounds.  Thomas Kuhn’s account of old paradigms giving way to new ones vividly portrays the angst and trauma evoked when an old guard is threatened.  More innocently, perhaps such responses are simply the inevitable outcomes resulting when any piece of scholarship is systematically revisited over decades of close analysis – might any research survive such sustained attention over such protracted periods of time?

I wonder if something more isn’t at work that speaks to the very nature of intellectual labor and conceptualization, which relates to the fact that scholars able to see the world in profoundly different ways are, one might say, so fully seized by their new insights that they are only able to see the data when it is consistent with their views.  Such distortions of thought are not finally defensible, of course – the lingering influence of vivid and compelling alternatives is only as good as the subsequent research, and if sloppiness jeopardizes the larger architecture in a fundamental way, it will be discarded.

But how should responsible thinkers treat such lapses or shortcomings?  It seems an awkward and indefensible reaction to ignore serious charges when they are made and documented.  And yet the brilliant provocations of these thinkers continue to work their influence, for better or worse.


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