Wednesday, August 29, 2007

History of Sensibilities

Article in AHR by Dan Wickberg.

two interpretive directions of new cultural history

A) cultural history of representation
B) history of sensibilities

I think these two relate to the discussion of intellectual history v the social (material) history of intellectuals but I am not sure how? Maybe what the first article says is that Wickberg, rather than study what people have thought about (which would put IH very close to history of philosophy or perhaps in history tend toward a cultural history of representation) or study what made people think about certain things (which would be a social history of intellectuals), believes we should study HOW people think and feel about things - and how, historically, we have perceived the things we think and feel about ... which would be a history of sensibilities.

The first case looks at how eg whiteness is represented and think that says something about race - the second case "foregrounds the sensibility" (662)

He quotes Huizinga and says that "what separates the people in the past from our contemporaries in the present is not so much the things they were concerned with, but the alien ways in which they sensed and felt those things" (664).

Then we get a short history of the term sensibilities - founded in the idea of sense experience as described eg by John Locke and defining sensibility as the general capacity for sense experience and the faculty of mind responsible for sensation.

A second lineage developed though, emphasizing the moral, emotional, and literary elements of character, associating sensibility with refined feeling, taste, and sensitivity to suffering. This is embodied in "the Man of Feeling".

Along these two paths sensibility was unitary - you had it, to a larger or lesser degree, but it was one thing. In the twentieth century art movements took aesthetic sensibility and turned it into sensibilities (666).

When Trilling and Sontag used the term they "emphasized its collective nature and tied its moral to its aestethic content" (667). Sontag equated sensibility with collectively held forms of taste (667)

When Clifford Geertz used the term, he linked culture and sensibility - "what marked people as different from one another was precisely the difference in the structure of perception, feeling, and value that could be designated as 'sensibility'; the task of cultural anthropology was to translate one sensibility into another without collapsing the differences between them" (668)

IN a different direction TS Eliot talked about the dissociation of sensibility - sensation and perception are separated and thought and feeling divided - not good. His discussion shows that sensibility is not just a structure of feeling but a pattern in which idea and emotion are bound up with one another" (669)

Why is sensibilities better? Because it is broader and combines things in a better way:

Episteme (Foucault) and paradigm (Kuhn) are focused on thought and knowledge - not emotion.

Mentalité (Annales school) distinguishes between elites - who have rational ideas - and the people - who have "popular attitudes" or .. mentalités.

Structures of feeling (Raymond Williams) is good because it considers emotion, but limited because it seems to imply formal systems of thought do not contain particular structures of feeling .. it is also Marxist

Habitus - Bourdieu - focus on embodiment makes it problematic for groups? Also, "the notion of habitus is lacking that sense of the interior mental and emotional life that the concept of sensibility captures so well; its problem in some sense is that it is too rigid in its focus on system and structure to capture the looseness and fluidity of sensibilities" (672)

Finally - all the other concepts have a lot of theoretical baggage that sensibilities does not have.

Why not sensibilities? (673)

1) It avoids discussions of POWER
- "posits deep structure of mind" where "meaning is not negotiated, but is already given"
- concerned more with description than with explanation

this can of course be seen as an advantage too - coz it lets us talk about culture that is not implicated in power - "culture is not power, nor is power the most important element of culture" (674)

2) focuses more on what than why - bad for folks who want causality

3) propensity for use in a sweeping and over-generalizing fashion
- tends toward "consensus" history since it easily portrays a uniform culture
but it doesn't HAVE to be like that - you can change elements that are outdated - [so I wonder why this is not theoretical baggage and the outdated elements of other concepts are not - maybe it is easier to broaden a concept and add complexity than to narrow a concept and take out complexity?]

Good examples of sensibilities:

William James who distinguished between tender minded (rationalistic - going by principles - intellectualistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious etc) and tough-minded (empiricist - going by facts - sensationalistict, materialistic, pessimistic, sceptical, irreligous). James believed though, that these were psychological habits of persons , rather than cultural habits of collectives so he is not a historian. (677)

Richard Hofstadter who is one of the primary architects of consensus history, described what he called the paranoid style in American history (one particular kind of conservativish conspiracy theorist)

Jackson Lears whose history of advertizing became an entre into changing sensibilities. Like Huizinga he describes a paradise lost where people felt differently, but the important thing is that he asked readers to "look beyond the 'what' of consumer culture ... to see the 'how' - the separation of desire from the embodied world.

David Brion Davis who wrote about the humanitarian spirit that developed in the 19th century and challenged slavery among other things. Haskell criticized Davis writing but never quite dealt with the sensibility issue - "In order to emphasize the supposed new ways of imagining causal sequence provoked by the market, Haskell had to downplay the moral ideas and feelings of the new sensibility (680).

Thomas Laqueur demonstrated that realistic representation of concrete details .. drew a moral connection between concreteness, immediate sensation, and ameliorative action. Realism fosters moral impulse to intervene (hmm - - - is that really what happens? Is that why we have all the reality shows?)
In these footsteps follow Karen Halttunen who works on horror and the 'pornography of pain' and Elizabeth Clark who works on humanitarianism.

Also there is the history of emotions as researched by Stearns, and a history of the senses themselves (visual sense has been privileged so we need to consider other senses and how "the significance of various forms of sensory experience is culturally variable")

Sceptics will say that sensibilites will be found only in representations - that it is only in discourse or texts of some sort that we can see these sensibilities - and they are right. But instead of collecting texts about slavery and insist that they are saying things about slavery we should see that they say something about HOW those people said things in general. The humanitarian sensibility is not a response to slavery - rather slavery came to be represented as a moral evil in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at least in part because of the development of a humanitarian sensibility. [I don't know that I buy that causality - I DO think that the humanitarian sensibility deter .... THis is where my computer did not save stuff ... rewrite

footnote 29 is a whole universe by itself: nomothetic or ideographic discipline - social science or humanistic discpline? Sounds a little bit like the distinction between lumpers and splitters (and Isaiah Berlin's categorizing thinkers as 'Hedgehogs' (lumpers) and 'Foxes' (splitters) in his essay on Leo Tolstoy, 'The Hedgehox and the Fox'.)

from Britannica:
"question of whether it is better to study groups of individuals and attempt to draw general conclusions (termed the nomothetic approach) or to study the behaviours that make individuals unique (termed the idiographic approach)…"

from Wikipedia:
Nomothetic and idiographic are terms coined by Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge, each one corresponding to a different intellectual tendency, and each one corresponding to a different branch of academe.
Nomothetic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to generalize, and is expressed in the natural sciences. It describes the effort to derive laws that explain objective phenomena.
Idiographic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to specify, and is expressed in the humanities. It describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, accidental, and often subjective phenomena.
Usually, nomothetic approaches are quantitative, and idiographic approaches are qualitative.