Polemic and History

 

From: at
Date: Thu Mar 11, 2004 11:42 pm
Subject: Polemic and History

Polemic and History

I have accused Peter Staudenmaier of writing polemic, and he appears puzzled as to why that should be a bad thing. And certainly, from one point of view there is nothing 'bad' about polemic; it is what it is, after all. I have further argued that polemic history has important differences from standard, or what I even might call "ideal" history. Should someone attempt to point out that all history is necessarily polemical, I beg to differ. Whether something is or is not polemical has to do with the intention of the author, not the effect of the work.

Examining the etymology of the word, as shown in the dictionary entry at the end of this post, the word polemic is derived from the Greek "war" and was originally used in theological contexts. To indulge in polemic is to wage war against an idea and those holding the idea. Originally, it was theological (religious) ideas that were so attacked, but in the present, polemic is an attack on any sort of idea. So while in on narrower sense the word also means "argument", perhaps even in the sense of "to formulate a case against" it clearly has stronger connotations, as a glance at the list synonyms (also listed below) makes clear. A polemical argument is not one that is necessarily couched on reason, nor is reason the only tool at the disposal of the polemicist. And a polemical argument is certainly not one that will consider all sides of an issue in an attempt to find truth. That is, a polemical argument is by definition not objective. Being objective (or fair) is not the objective of polemical writing.

History is an examination of the past, done from the present. History goes beyond merely cataloging details of events, and involves an attempt to put these events into a meaningful context, and answer questions involving "Why?" If (big if) you subscribe to a philosophical realist or idealist position, then there will be some answers that are more correct, and others less correct. The relativist historian, on the other hand, sees the past a collection of raw material to be assembled into whatever order pleases him or her and/or suits his or her conscious or unconscious agenda. No explanation is any more right or wrong than any other, they are merely more or less effective. All is merely a matter of how you choose to look at things. If, on the other hand, some versions of history are correct, and others incorrect, then this implies that those who care about truth are seeking a more correct version. Pursuing the goal of truth for its own sake, the more objective and fair you can be, the closer you are likely to come.

That is worth repeating. If you believe in truth and pursuing truth for its own sake, then the more objective and fair you can be, the closer you are likely to come. How does polemic fit into this? With polemic you are waging war against an idea, and probably for some reason. Any and all tools, tricks, and methods are at your disposal, including selective presentation and even outright and deliberate distortion, to extremes of fabricating of charges against those you are attacking. While all polemical writers do not necessarily employ these less savory methods – some may even eschew all of them - there is a long history of such tactics within the genre. Nor is objectivity and fairness a helpful in to the goals of polemical writings. They may appear inadvertently in some polemical pieces, but they don't help the effectiveness of such a piece as polemical writing (on the other hand, the appearance of objectivity and fairness, is just another trick in the bag of the polemical writer – call it camouflaged polemic, or polemic masquerading as objective presentation). And even if no deliberate distortion or even selective presentation is employed (in which case the piece is arguably no longer polemical) there is still the question of the writer's intention.

A polemical writer has the intention of convincing, of changing the opinion of their readers on some subject or other. While they may hope to convince by force of reason rather than intellectual subterfuge, if in the end either method is considered valid in pursuit of the goal (a variation of "the ends justifies the means" morality) then the goal is no longer truth, but power. Or put another way, if winning is more important than how you play the game, you desire victory over sportsmanship, or power over truth. When does writing cross the line from elucidating to polemical? When the author crosses the lines of sportsmanship and resorts to dirty tricks to win the point, whether in such mild a manner as selective quotation that alters the original author's intent only slightly, or as strong as outright fabrication.

We can discern two opposing attitudes on the part of an author. The author may be offering the results of their research for consideration, fully respecting the freedom and integrity of their readers, or an author may be determined to convince the reader, sway them to a certain viewpoint and away from another viewpoint. The second is the source of polemical writing, the first of objective, or elucidating writing. Consider further the consequences of error in the two types of authors. A writer who is honestly seeking truth for its own sake, and sharing the results of their struggle as an offering to their fellow human beings may in some instances be wrong, but their intention is not coercive. A writer who is seeking only to convince, to marshal an argument, may also be wrong, however the moral quality of such a coercive untruth is quantitatively different.

In my estimation, a true historian is someone interested in the past who offers results of their research for consideration, no strings attached, in a spirit of openness and desire for truth. In such true historical research, contrary viewpoints would be first and foremost interesting, and therefore included, rather than distained and dismissed. The polemical historian, on the other hand, is fighting for a cause, against another cause, and is simply abusing history as the raw material in support the argument. Beyond the moral quality of the attempted coercion, the polemical historian has every reason to mislead the reader by ignoring additional perspectives or distorting them to blunt their effectiveness. For this reason alone they are not to be trusted.

I hope I have been clear on this subject. Peter Staudenmaier's acknowledgement that his own writing is polemical is reason enough to distrust it. The numerous factual errors and inconsistencies in his published work are further grounds for doubting his expertise and/or his integrity, and his studied obtuseness and evasiveness to any and all objections (despite a façade of openness) is final proof of that his writing is primarily polemical, and historical.

Daniel Hindes

 

The NEW OXFORD Dictionary of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

polemic

noun a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something: his polemic against the cultural relativism of the Sixties | [MASS NOUN] a writer of feminist polemic.

(usu. polemics) the art or practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute: the history of science has become embroiled in religious polemics.

adjective another term for POLEMICAL.

DERIVATIVES

polemicist noun

polemicize (also -ise) verb.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek polemikos, from polemos ‘war’.

 

The NEW OXFORD Thesaurus of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

Polemic (noun)

1 this is not just a polemic against injustice

DIATRIBE, invective, denunciation, denouncement, rant, tirade, broadside, attack, harangue, verbal onslaught; reviling, railing, decrying, condemnation, brickbats, flak, criticism, censure, lecture, berating, admonishment, admonition, abuse, stream of abuse, battering, stricture, tongue-lashing, vilification, vituperation, obloquy, fulmination, castigation, reprimand, rebuke, reproof, reproval, upbraiding; informal knocking, blast; Brit. informal slating; rare philippic.

2 (polemics) skilled in polemics

ARGUMENTATION, argument, debate, contention, dispute, disputation, discussion, controversy, altercation, faction, wrangling; formal contestation.

Polemical (adjective)

Brunner published a polemical tract against Barth

CRITICAL, hostile, bitter, polemic, virulent, vitriolic, venomous, waspish, corrosive, biting, caustic, trenchant, cutting, acerbic, sardonic, sarcastic, scathing, acid, sharp, keen, tart, pungent, stinging, astringent, incisive, devastating, piercing; rare acidulous, mordacious.

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From: Patrick
Date: Fri Mar 12, 2004 8:19 am
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Polemic and History

Dear Daniel,

Thank you very much for this post. It is most helpful. Thank you also for your previous comments in this discussion and your willingness to own your mistakes though they be but few. Thank you for the depths of your research and for taking up certain threads of my arguments.

Patrick

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From: winters_diana
Date: Fri Mar 12, 2004 9:05 am
Subject: Re: Polemic and History

Daniel, what you wrote about polemic versus history fails the test of the thesaurus definitions you yourself pasted in (which I leave in here hopefully to obviate the typical "but you shortened my post" retort).

I have accused Peter Staudenmaier of writing polemic, and he appears puzzled as to why that should be a bad thing.

Well, sweetie, because "polemic" has two definitions, fairly distinct ones. One is "diatribe" (stream of abuse, ranting, haranguing etc.), and the other, quite different, is "argumentation" (synonyms including "criticism/discussion/argument/debate/dispute"). Writing that is polemical is not necessarily untrustworthy. To use an example given from the thesaurus, if someone writes a "polemic against the cultural relativism of the Sixties," it is probably safe to assume upfront that they are going to say negative things about the culture of the Sixties. It means they are taking a pronounced and probably negative stance toward the subject; it does not mean they are lying, distorting facts, etc.

Even with all the negative words such as "tongue lashing," "attack," "vilification," etc., note that not one of them suggests dishonesty. (Well, okay. I am not sure of the meaning of the word "mordacious." I don't feel like finding the dictionary. I'm probably thinking of "mendacious.") Most of them do not suggest dishonesty. Dishonesty is not implicit in "polemic." Unless, of course, you believe that nothing should ever be attacked, and you feel that a polemic in itself is indefensible. I doubt that you really think this. I suspect there are many subjects on which you appreciate a good polemic yourself. Arguably on subjects on which a person feels strongly, a "polemic" is a more ethically appropriate form of discourse than an approach that purports to be dispassionate and objective about which the author does not reveal his or her strong personal opinions or involvement.

Diana

 

The NEW OXFORD Dictionary of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

polemic

noun a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something: his polemic against the cultural relativism of the Sixties | [MASS NOUN] a writer of feminist polemic.

(usu. polemics) the art or practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute: the history of science has become embroiled in religious polemics.

adjective another term for POLEMICAL.

DERIVATIVES

polemicist noun

polemicize (also -ise) verb.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek polemikos, from polemos ‘war’.

 

The NEW OXFORD Thesaurus of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

Polemic (noun)

1 this is not just a polemic against injustice

DIATRIBE, invective, denunciation, denouncement, rant, tirade, broadside, attack, harangue, verbal onslaught; reviling, railing, decrying, condemnation, brickbats, flak, criticism, censure, lecture, berating, admonishment, admonition, abuse, stream of abuse, battering, stricture, tongue-lashing, vilification, vituperation, obloquy, fulmination, castigation, reprimand, rebuke, reproof, reproval, upbraiding; informal knocking, blast; Brit. informal slating; rare philippic.

2 (polemics) skilled in polemics

ARGUMENTATION, argument, debate, contention, dispute, disputation, discussion, controversy, altercation, faction, wrangling; formal contestation.

Polemical (adjective)

Brunner published a polemical tract against Barth

CRITICAL, hostile, bitter, polemic, virulent, vitriolic, venomous, waspish, corrosive, biting, caustic, trenchant, cutting, acerbic, sardonic, sarcastic, scathing, acid, sharp, keen, tart, pungent, stinging, astringent, incisive, devastating, piercing; rare acidulous, mordacious.

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From: at
Date: Fri Mar 12, 2004 9:40 am
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Re: Polemic and History

Diana:

Dishonesty is not implicit in "polemic." Unless, of course, you believe that nothing should ever be attacked, and you feel that a polemic in itself is indefensible.

Daniel:

True, polemic alone does not equate automatically to dishonesty. But the polemical approach is one that offers many temptations to dishonesty, especially to the historian. Some may be able to navigate the road with their integrity intact. Others fail. The reader should be aware of this in reading a polemical writer.

Further, it is hard to remain an effective polemical writer and at the same time remain an honest historian. As a historian, it is your responsibility to consider objections and additional complementary material that is brought to your attention. As a polemical writer, it is not in your interest to consider these objections and additional complementary material. Doing so weakens your argument. One way out of this is to "play dumb" and not actually "hear" any objections. That is the path Peter Staudenmaier has chosen. In his mind, his integrity is intact, because he has never met a serious objection to any of his work. At this point that game is starting to look utterly ridiculous. It also demonstrates that he in no measure can claim that he is an honest historian trying to understand a phenomenon of the past. He is merely a polemical writer with no interest in hearing anything that doesn't support his hypothesis. In as much as he claims to the contrary, his is impinging his own integrity.

Daniel Hindes

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From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Fri Mar 12, 2004 10:16 am
Subject: Re: Polemic and History

Thanks for your thoughts, Daniel. I think you still have a shaky grasp of what objectivity means to a historian and what role it plays in historical writing. I also think that a large chunk of your argument depends on the notion that persuasion is a kind of coercion. I think that idea is entirely wrongheaded. The part of your post that struck me most was this:

In such true historical research, contrary viewpoints would be first and foremost interesting, and therefore included, rather than distained and dismissed.

Why do you say "rather than"? The proper approach is to include contrary viewpoints and then criticize them and explain why you think they are mistaken. There is nothing wrong with disdaining and dismissing arguments that you think are erroneous, especially ones that you think are silly and pointless.

Peter

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From: at
Date: Fri Mar 12, 2004 10:36 am
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Re: Polemic and History

Peter Staudenmaier:

Thanks for your thoughts, Daniel. I think you still have a shaky grasp of what objectivity means to a historian and what role it plays in historical writing. I also think that a large chunk of your argument depends on the notion that persuasion is a kind of coercion. I think that idea is entirely wrongheaded. The part of your post that struck me most was this:

Daniel:

Peter, my essay on the subject suggested that the determining factor in whether persuasion is coercion is the intention of the writer. This is consistent with a number of schools of thought in the fields of ethics. I am applying it specifically to polemical writing here.

It surprises me not in the least that you would claim my solidly grounded discourses on objectivity are "shaky" to your eyes. I would expect nothing less of you.

Daniel wrote:

In such true historical research, contrary viewpoints would be first and foremost interesting, and therefore included, rather than distained and dismissed.

Peter Staudenmaier:

Why do you say "rather than"? The proper approach is to include contrary viewpoints and then criticize them and explain why you think they are mistaken. There is nothing wrong with disdaining and dismissing arguments that you think are erroneous, especially ones that you think are silly and pointless.

Daniel:

It is all about intentions again. And attitude. If you find contradictions interesting, you are more likely to try to understand each viewpoint on its own merit. If you find contradictions stupid, it is unlikely you will spend much time trying to properly understand them, and your chances of succeeding are slim. And it all goes back to whether your goal is truth or power.

Daniel Hindes

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From: winters_diana
Date: Sun Mar 14, 2004 7:11 pm
Subject: Daniel - history and polemic

Daniel:

True, polemic alone does not equate automatically to dishonesty. But the polemical approach is one that offers many temptations to dishonesty, especially to the historian.

I disagree, I think you are confusing basic human nature with objective descriptions of different writing styles or types of analysis, and despite the careful, measured tone you maintain with such care, you're only getting away with not acknowledging that your own work on Rudolf Steiner is largely polemical because most of the list shares your particular biases, i.e., general unreceptivity to any unflattering interpretation of anything said by Rudolf Steiner (and generally hostile reaction to having this pointed out).

Some may be able to navigate the road with their integrity intact. Others fail. The reader should be aware of this in reading a polemical writer.

The reader should be aware of this in reading any writer.

Further, it is hard to remain an effective polemical writer and at the same time remain an honest historian. As a historian, it is your responsibility to consider objections and additional complementary material that is brought to your attention. As a polemical writer, it is not in your interest to consider these objections and additional complementary material.

I don't understand. Why would it not be in the interest of someone writing a polemic to consider the objections that might be raised or all complementary material?

Diana

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From: at
Date: Tue Mar 16, 2004 12:53 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Daniel - history and polemic

Daniel:

True, polemic alone does not equate automatically to dishonesty. But the polemical approach is one that offers many temptations to dishonesty, especially to the historian.

Diana:

I disagree, I think you are confusing basic human nature with objective descriptions of different writing styles or types of analysis, and despite the careful, measured tone you maintain with such care, you're only getting away with not acknowledging that your own work on Rudolf Steiner is largely polemical because most of the list shares your particular biases, i.e., general unreceptivity to any unflattering interpretation of anything said by Rudolf Steiner (and generally hostile reaction to having this pointed out).

Daniel:

My point is that polemic in particular tempts human nature, because of what the writer is attempting. It is the difference between the writing of a politician and a political analyst. And please, inspect my statements with the same careful analysis that you apply to Peter Staudenmaier's writing.

Daniel:

Further, it is hard to remain an effective polemical writer and at the same time remain an honest historian. As a historian, it is your responsibility to consider objections and additional complementary material that is brought to your attention. As a polemical writer, it is not in your interest to consider these objections and additional complementary material.

Diana:

I don't understand. Why would it not be in the interest of someone writing a polemic to consider the objections that might be raised or all complementary material?

Daniel:

For the same reason that a defense attorney does not make the prosecutions case more effectively than the prosecution. If you are trying to win an argument, you want to present your case more strongly that the case against your case. The jury (the readers) ought to know who is the attorney for the defense and who is the attorney for the prosecution. Polemical writing operates on the same level.

Daniel


[Continued in the thread "Association Smear Tactics"]

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Association Smear Tactics

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