Somewhat related to last week's mention of the whole liberalism issue in Mormon scholarship, comes an article on positivism in writings from Signature Books. The article is by Alan Goff and is called "Positivism and the Priority of Ideology in Mosiah-First Theories of Book of Mormon Production." Before I discuss that essay though, I really must say that the whole FARMS/Signature feud is more than a little tiring. Isn't it long overdue to simply let bygones be bygones? This feud has been going on since the early 90's and is amazingly silly. Further, FARMS keeps making themselves look bad by continually harping on the issue. I'll not comment on them, but there are a few other essays from this year's review of books that do this as well. Justin Butterfield over at the Mormon Wasp blog has a review of Louis Midgley's paper, for instance. The problem is that the various asides and rhetorical flourishes make it seem like the whole issue is far more personal than it ought to be. Further to a lot of readers, it turns them off from everything these authors write. Now I've talked to many of these folks face to face and I know they aren't much like their occasional rhetorical facades. Still, I think many apologists get so caught up in the immediate battle that they lose sight of strategy. At times, it seems like they are more interested in scoring points as seen by their fellow writers and fans than they are in developing ideas or persuading Mormons unsure of the various sides of scholarship. While there were numerous things in it I disagreed with, I think the essay, "Defending the Kingdom: Rethinking the Faith" made a lot of good points about the tone of apologetics.
But back to Goff's essay. I think he makes a lot of excellent points. By suggesting a completely dispassionate approach to Mormon scholarship is possible and that they engage in it, many of the Signature authors do buy into a position close to positivism. By casting aside what they perceive to be metaphysical issues (whether justly or not), many of these authors really are merely promoting a hidden ideology they refuse to discuss. That's not to simply discount everything they say, nor to merely cast aside their arguments as "remnants of Enlightenment thinking" as I think some do. I think many of them make good points that readers need to address. However one can't help but think back to Quine and some of his attacks on positivism. The whole notion that Quine brought up regarding both indeterminacy or perhaps underdetermination really is appropriate for the discussion. (I've discussed these outside of this issue here and here)
About the only qualm I'd make with Goff is his conflating scientism with positivism. I understand why, in the context he discusses, he does this. However I think Mormons, being largely interpreted as materialists, might well at times argue that material is all there is. Further I think Mormonism has traditionally been highly skeptical to worldviews resting on questionable but strongly held metaphysical grounds. (i.e. much of traditional Christianity's approach to the Bible) Mormonism, in harmony with much of scientism, has emphasized an empirical ground to its religious approach. The problem, of course, is that the phenomena Mormonism values, has rarely been public phenomena.
I must confess as a young man I was fairly strongly in both the positivist and scientism camps. Without having ever read Russell, I probably held many of his views early in my college career. (I'd even developed on my own a view similar to his bundle theory) That changed by the time I graduated. Semiotics and then a more thorough reading of Derrida and Heidegger probably finished that approach off for me. Having said that, I think Goff is far too hard on positivism. Yes, I recognize that among philosophers positivism is nearly a dirty word. And I'm more than aware of its problems. My critique of Goff though is that he confuses the philosophy for the reality. The problem with the authors he critiques (and many authors in general) isn't positivism but being over confident with what their evidence points to. The issue is really less scientism and positivism than it is underdetermination. The evidence, especially with respect to Mormon origins, is horribly ambiguous. Now one can assert that the evidence points to a single probable interpretation. But discerning what is probable is frequently difficult. What further complicates the case is that most authors on both sides of the issue only deal with the evidence that supports their case. They all too frequently neglect much of the evidence at hand. That's fine in a court room while making a case. But even if positivism was true, such an approach would be open to criticism.
So to me while I agree with many of Goff's ultimate points, I really don't think the divide between FARMS and Signature is one of philosophy. Rather it is one of evidentiary presentation as well as dealing with competing interpretations of the evidence. (i.e. actually engaging the arguments of ones opponents in an honest way) That problem, however, is a problem that tends to plague papers whatever the underlying philosophical premises.
This has become the thread that never dies. Although it is an interesting enough topic with the key actors in the debate contributing, so I certainly am not complaining in the least. Even so, I've added a few extra pages of comments. If you post a comment here it will go to the last page.
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Well, I'll get to Goff's essay later, but I'll second the "please let it die" plea about the FARMS/Signature debate. I can't figure out why the senior leaders stay 100% behind an organization full of cocky academics who feel authorized to pick nasty arguments with people they don't like. I don't see any GAs acting that way.
Okay, I read Goff's essay. I'm puzzled by those who think postmodernism offers a solid base for orthodox Mormons to critique peripheral Mormon perpsectives. Briefly: (1) I don't see Goff's glib rejection of objective history or mainstream science as resonating with intelligent Mormons or, for that matter, with academics outside literary criticism and its neighbors. (2) I don't see the postmodern position as consistent with orthodox Mormon claims, which seem to hold out an objective account of key historical events (First Vision, angelic visits, real Nephites) and a broad doctrinal approach that is friendly rather than antogonistic to science. (3) Goff and others seem quite happy to use pomo critical tools against dissenting Mormon positions, but don't adopt that perspective to critique orthodox Mormon claims or any other academic claims. So they are not really embracing postmodernist modes of analysis, just using a handy rhetorical tool to beat dissenting Mormons. I get the impression they are dealing from both ends of the deck sometimes, as if they think we can't tell they are just playing word games rather than articulating arguments they really believe themselves.
However, Goff's essay did motivate me to unwrap my copy of American Apocrypha and start reading the essays. FARMS reviews are always a good way to identify quality Mormon Studies books. The more essays FARMS prints against it, the better the quality of the book they are attacking.
Let me more or less agree with you. I think Goff was unwise to bring in postmodernism. The reason is that while this is indeed contained within the general catch-all movement of postmodernism, it can also be found in many other movements. Quine after all was the one who was considered to have delivered the death blow to positivism. While a lot of what Quine did parallels certain movements in postmodernism, he is anything but a postmodernist. There are many others who've made similar attacks. For instance Kuhn is a neo-Kantian and a lot of similar comments to what Goff was driving at can be found among many neo-Kantians of the last 50 years. There they point out that many of the categories of thought we analyze with are socially constructed.
Having said all that though, I think you may be downplaying the influence of postmodernism in the various humanity departments in the US. Especially in terms of what might be called liberal thought, it has really become a strong force. That's why I mentioned this was relevant to my comments about Juliann Reynolds last week. I think her point and Goff's is simply that the way some at Signature do history no longer in dominant anymore. Her argument in particular, but followed to some extent by Goff, simply is that Signature is a few decades out of date in methadology.
As to the relevance of this to the average member - there isn't much. But then FARMS has always had that kind of schizophrenia regarding audience. Are they writing to people interested in academics or to average members? I think that frequently it is the former, but that problem of audience does plague them at times. Personally I think they ought to have two journals - one aimed at academics and more technical discussions and one more oriented towards the average person who might not be up on all these issues.
I do think however, that the whole divide is played up far too much. Even though I think Signature often does adopt the presumption that the burden of proof for everything is on the Mormon side, I don't think it affects their arguments as much as some suggest. Generally when something is wrong, it is simply wrong because it is a weak argument. As soon as arguments start resting upon "burden of proof" then they already are problematic (IMO). But that is true of either side.
BTW - I think you are somewhat unfair. Not everyone at FARMS adopts postmodernism. Indeed I think many look askance at it. There is a lot of diversity of opinion and I credit FARMS for allowing the diversity to be published. I think you are looking at FARMS as more univocal than is fair. So the charge of "playing both sides of the deck" is more than a little unfair.
I'd also say that while Mormons hold to the reality of events like the first vision, I don't think they hold to objectivity regarding them. But that gets to the meaning of objectivity. Unfortunately it has come to be considered akin to "real" or "true" while the problem of subjectivity is somewhat different.
Anti-anti-Mormons are fond of saying things like "the way some at Signature do history is no longer dominant" within history. What isn't noted is that there simply is no dominant, generally accepted way to do history now. History, as a field, has disintegrated into a variety of subfields along disciplinary lines, each with its own journals and its own view of what the important questions are, what the facts are, and the perspective one should bring to history. (See Novick's That Noble Dream, 1988). It is simply false to imply that FARMS looks at LDS history like professional historians do while Signature approaches LDS history like bumbling amateurs.
Au contraire, the way FARMS looks at history, arguing that historians should take angelic visitation and divine intervention into account as plausible explanations for historical events, is almost certainly not a "live option" for most historians even today, whereas the Signature approach of looking for naturalistic explanations for historical events is certainly still followed by many historians. This holds for religious history as practiced by non-FARMS authors as well as secular history.
There are postmodernists who want to view history as simply another text to interpret and even science as simply another interpretive enterprise. There's a whiff of that in Goff's article. But that is certainly not how most historians view the practice of history or how the vast majority of scientists view the way science is done.
I agree with you that a better debate relates to the sufficiency of evidence, distinguishing between well supported or poorly supported arguments.
Actually I think that is exactly their point. There is no "one objective history." That's the whole point. The point is that when Signature moves beyond, "here is a perspective" to "this is objective history" then they are in trouble. When Signature does asides to the line of Mormons are silly to believe what they do, then I think that is doubly true.
I certainly agree that the vast majority of historians take naturalistic perspectives. But as a critique of Mormonism, that ends up begging the question. i.e. is Signature simply offering a naturalistic perspective on Mormonism or critiquing Mormonism as Mormonism? With respect to many topics (i.e. DNA) I think they are doing the later more than the former.
Okay, one last round, then let's declare this horse dead. For the sake of argument, let's assume as true the following: The postmodern critique has firmly established the proposition that no human historian can write purely objective history. Subjective perspectives will invariably creep in and influence her view of facts, causation, and conclusions. How are historians (who aren't going to simply terminate the practice of history and all go teach high school) going to adjust?
One way is for every historian to place a disclaimer at the front of each chapter reading "Important Note to Reader: This is not objective history, this is simply the author's perspective on the events considered, and even the occurence or not of some of the events may be a matter of one's perspective." The orthodox critique of Signature is that its authors don't state this disclaimer once or maybe twice per chapter, somehow misleading readers into thinking they are reading objective history rather than just the author's viewpoint. Of course, no one puts such a disclaimer at the front of every chapeter of a history book. So the orthodox critique is misplaced. They are faulting Signature authors for not saying or disclosing something no author says or discloses.
Alternatively, what most historians and social scientists do now (and didn't used to do) is up front, in the introduction, disclose their own philosophical perspective and their own views and biases regarding the subject matter. This forewarns the reader as to how the author's perspective or bias might influence (either consciously or unconsciously) their treatment of controversial topics. This is what most authors do. This is what most Signature authors do, sometimes in great and lengthy detail. Signature authors disclose their perspective and biases, like most other authors, then present their evidence and arguments.
So, IMHO, one might fault Signature authors on a case by case basis if their facts don't support their arguments or if they accept questionable or unsupported facts. But I still think the tireless refrain that Signature authors practice some kind of outmoded or invalid approach to history is entirely misguided. In fact, it's counterproductive--by always leading with complaints about method, it suggests that the authors probably have solid facts and good arguments! I think FARMS Review authors would be better off focusing their critiques on questionable facts and weak conclusions, and put their method complaints in a footnote.
I suppose the obvious question is, even if we accept Signature need not do this, why is it wrong for FARMS to point out in their review the premises Signature takes? That seems a perfectly fine critique. We may quibble with the tone of FARMS responses, but I don't see the problem with the content
I suppose if there is a problem it is once again the target. Who is FARMS speaking to? If it is to the academically educated, then to keep harping on this issue of objectivity gets old fast. That seems to be your criticism. However if it is to lay members who may only read that criticism as the response to some Signature book that shakes their faith, then perhaps the response is appropriate. The problem is that there really isn't a straightforward audience, as I see it. Thus the repetition on the assumption one is writing to a simultaneously naive and informed audience.
One last thought before I stop beating the dead horse. It seems to me that the latest FARMS review has a paper much like Goff's, but oriented towards LDS works. "Recent Trends in Book of Mormon Apologetics" by Ben Judkins. It is in the context of a review of Givens' By the Hand of Moroni but really is about that issue of perspective as it relates to various discoveries. Perhaps it should be read in accompaniment to Goff so as to show that what these FARMS scholars are doing is trying to work out the place of faithful LDS scholarship in the world. When put like that, I think that perhaps Goff's paper is contextualized a little.
I'd add as well that even at their worst reading, the number of papers by FARMS harping on this philosophical difference are quite small relative to the whole.
You referenced your review of Goff's article over on ZLMB, so I came here to read it. In my view, Dave has done a much better job of analyzing the problems with the article. His comments are perceptive. I'd cut and paste a few of them and add my own comments, but I can't figure out how to do it here.
I'd like to respond to Goff in more detail, but am not sure of the best electronic forum. Do either you or Dave have any suggestions? Thanks.
I'm not sure I deserve that compliment, since when it comes to philosophy I'm just shooting from the hip, whereas Clark actually knows what he's talking about. Reminds me of the time in high school English where I got the best mark in the class on an essay on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, despite only reading the first 30 pages . . .
I believe contact information can be found on his his home page at DeVry - Phoenix where he teaches. However it doesn't look too up to date. (It lists classes from 1999) FARMS still lists him as working there though, so presumably the email and possibly the phone number still work.
If you wish, invite him to come here to discuss it.
BTW - to indent text so as to quote, use the blockquote tag. My scripts automatically translate it to the appropriate style
When I try to copy text from other posts so I can paste it in the message body, everyhing above where I left-click is highlighted (selected). Is there some trick to selecting individual sentences or paragraphs so they can be posted in a reply?
That sounds like your computer. I don't have that problem on any of the browsers I use. -- wow. I just tried Internet Explorer and it is doing that. Hmm. I'll have to play around with that. There isn't anything in my stylesheets that should be doing that. Yet an other IE bug to work around. (It didn't used to do that)
OK. I have it fixed. For some reason some versions of IE don't handle the !DOCTYPE tag properly. Weird bug on their side. I use Firefox or Safari for browsing so I didn't notice the change. IE also doesn't do the divisions quite right for each of the panes.
I have included my current email address so interested parties can contact me. Let me incorporate it into this message. I don't see how it is displayed otherwise: firstname.lastname@example.org.
BTW - clicking on the commenter's name will open up a mail message to them. I've thought about doing what some blogs do and link to a web page they enter in. But I decided that email is more useful.
This is a minor note, but it wasn't me in the article who equated scientism and positivism. I was quoting Huston Smith on that point. Positivism was originally a simple idea: that we need to apply the methods of science in human concerns. Since Comte, it has acquired various-but-related definitions that I think it useful to distinguish, with the recognition that they intertwine and some (the empiricist and anti-metaphisical claims) are just the opposites sides of one coin.
What unites the following positivistic assertions is the claim that somehow the historian can divest him or herself of all ideology, bias, presuppositions, and particularities. Here are the ten varities of positivist experience: (1) the historian can or must gain access to brute facts, facts free of all interprtation, (2) empirical knowledge is the only valid form of knowledge, (3) the historian must free him or herself of all presuppositions that bias explanation, (4) the historian must avoid all metaphysics leaving that airy realm to those who deal with abstraction andn other non-sense--philosophers, poets, theologians, (5) scientistic positivism is that version which asserts one must follow the method of the mathematical or physical sciences in order to acquire truth, (6)the historian can gain access to brute facts by going to the archive, (7) the historian must use an approved method, for only by methodical approaches can he or she do repeatable work with which all rational people will agree, (8) the historian must divest herself or himself of all value commitments, (9) any particularity (national, religious, gender, regional) must be overcome, (10) history, despite its genealogy in literature, must have no commerce or intercourse with fiction (that is why narrative is so suspicious to positivistic historians because it is too much like storytelling).
I can cite Mormon revisionists who articulate each of these ten positivistic assertions. Positivism is the very air they breath. I think it is useful to root out these ideas. Many of them are just plain unbelieveable since the 1970s and those few that are marginally useful (archives, after all, aren't a bad thing, and neither is a repeatable method in certain contexts as long as neither is used as a kind of trump card to defeat the person who disagrees with an interpretation). Some Mormon revisionists (Edward Ashment and Brent Metcalfe) make four or five of these separate claims; I have never seen such a concentration of positivistic claims in any discipline or subdiscipline in which I have read.
We can admire a few Mormon revisionists (Sterling McMurrin and Dan Vogel) who quite proudly and frankly say "I am a positivist"; but most of these Mormon positivists make positivistic claims at the same time they deny they are positivists. Surely we have to put a heavy burden of argumentation on these folks; since these positivistic claims are so thoroughly discredited, they can no longer take them for granted but must defend them. A specific apology of these claims would bring the epistemological commitments into the open where they work much less effectively.
I ought to let someone else get a word in. Tomorrow or the next day I will logon and answer the question about how Mormon believers can think postmodernism is a useful tool to use. That question seems the most interesting one raised in this exchange so far.
Alan, since I rather like many things that fall under the rubric of "postmodernism" I certainly don't mind postmodernism. What concerns me with some at FARMS adopting the label of postmodernism is that it has a rather disreputable reputation among so many.
Now, as I've argued in various postings here the past few days, I think this generally the result of ignorance. But it is real. Further postmodernism in the humanities and soft-sciences more often than not ends up being a kind of muddle headed relativism that does no one any good. Indeed I'll probably join the jeers of many supposed postmodern arguments in many disciplines. I recognize that this isn't just a result of philosophical postmodernism but also various trends in disciplines such as anthropology. (Margaret Mead comes to mind whether fairly or not)
Since those less addle minded by exposer to the goofier aspects of the soft-sciences and humanities look so askew at postmodernism, "paradigms," and so forth, is it really a good argument? I mean here not an argument necessarily in the strength of logic, but in terms of persuasive power. Even many postmodernists will acknowledge that many of these criticisms are matters of degree.
Now I certainly think that many at Signature, just as many at FARMS, make the evidence say "more concretely" than it does. Certainly many at Signature discount, out of hand, any divine intervention. But is that really worth all the ink that has been cast at FARMS? Isn't a paragraph pointing out that they exclude the divine from the beginning enough? Why bring in postmodernism at all?
Clark, you are becoming the go-to Bloggernacle site for author interaction--well done. And it's nice that authors "get out and mingle" with interested readers.
The postmodernist position seems to be that one cannot do fully objective history anymore, implying this is news to the world. I think it's clear one cannot do fully objective anything anymore, and that point was, I believe, widely acknowledged well before postmodernism became fashionable. But that doesn't imply one can't do any history at all. It raises methodological and theoretical issues of the form: Well then, what can be done or said in terms of history? Obviously there are historical sources and one can say something about them. What is it that one can say?
On that score, postmodernism is weaker. It doesn't purport to provide and defend a new paradigm, just critique prior attempts. History may be recounted in narrative form, but it originates in written and artifactual sources. What exactly do postmodernists tell historians they should do with their sources and artifacts to fashion better historical accounts or narratives than was done before postmodernist criticism? And how exactly does this translate into what postmodernists or postmodern-leaning FARMS scholars would say to Mormon historians about how to better practice their craft?
Thanks, Alan G, for your comments about positivism. I agree that when a particular methodological or "epistemic" stance like positivism is used to "trump" another argument about a text, or other piece of evidence, it needs to be addressed.
Your article was stimulating, but it seemed to me your extended and generalized criticism of "positivism" ended up not doing much work when you turned to the specific criticisms of the Mosiah-priority arguments you were considering. Take the dictation-order feature of the M-priority thesis. (Let's distinguish that, as you do, from the "JS as composer" feature of the thesis.) I couldn't tell at times if you were really trying to discredit (or thought you had successfully discredited/undermined) the dictation-order feature. Maybe you could say what you think about the status of that feature of the thesis following your article. It seems to me, in any event, that the dictation-order feature is well-supported enough that it is not undermined by your criticisms of positivism. Maybe I should stop there, since your position may be that it is not seriously called into question except insofar as one adopts a particular postmodern approach to the evidence for it.
Thanks again for filling out the definition of positivism with your examples, above.
Dave, I think that what "Addictio" said is about right. The complaint is less that nothing can be said than when a particular kind of discourse is priviledged. Now one can debate about whether Signature does that. I think they do at times with occasionally the underlying tone that faithful Mormons are dupes or hiding their head under the sand. Clearly not all do that. But to the degree they do, then I think Alan's comments are quite appropriate.
Further, as I mentioned earlier, the issue really is one of audience. For those of us educated on these issues the whole bit about "objective history" is old news. Why not move on? But is that true of the majority of FARMS readers?
When one starts building a house, one would do well to build well from the beginning. At a site called Mormon Metaphysics, I can surely expect those involved to understand the importance of metaphysics. If you start building the skeleton of the building out of unsuitable material, the entire house will be imperiled. That is the reason Mormon revisionists must be engaged. One element of postmodern is the need for reflexivity; the historian must reflect on his or her own ideology and presuppositions and warn the reader how they affect the historical interpretation. The positivist historians I criticize refuse any theoretical reflection. This is typical of positivism generally; Habermas has pointed that out. The Mormon Positivismusstreit deserves to begin where the German Positivismusstreit left off, not go over the same ground again. Positivistic historians believe they don't have a philosophy of history, that they can avoid metaphysics. So Ed Ashment says, "Thus historiographically, the challenge is rendered specious, because it requires a presupposition on the part of the historian that would automatically disqualify any historical inquiry and thereby nullify conclusions that historical analysis would make. For it represents 'an attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means' by 'framing . . . a question which cannot be resolved before the researcher settles some central metaphysical problem." Ashment believes he can bypass the metaphysical problems and skip straight to the empirical ones. He doesn't realize that he assumes a positivistic metaphysics in the very act of denying he needs one. Likewise, Phil Barlow asserts a stereotypical positivisistic claim:
I am convinced that reality has dimensions far transcending human capacities to ascertain. Perhaps those dimensions impinge on human activity. It may even be, as Richard Lovelace has said, that history, viewed without allowance for spiritual forces, "is as confusing as a football game in which half the players are invisible." If those forces are discernible at all, though, the discernment must come through private intuitions, or the vision of prophets, or the inspiration of poets, of the speculations of metaphysicians. They are not discernible through the tools of historians, strictly speaking, whose more modest task is to deal with things visible. Prophets or metaphysicians may, of course, point to matters of history. However, they are not by that motion acting essentially as historians, but as something else.
If the historian makes such a simplistic error of declining reflection on his or her own ideas by asserting that philosophical reflection is beyond the expectation of what can be imposed on historians, then I respond that this is just plain wrong. Philosophical critique must be done, and if they don't do it someone must.
History as a discipline was dominated by positivism until the 1970s. Since then a small corps of philosophically-sophisticated historians has emerged that has attacked this positivism from within the historical profession. Mormon historians are almost totally unaware of this critique (except someone like Richard Bushman).
If the historian begins his or her historical interpretation building with such weak materials as this positivistic metaphysics, those errors are going to ramify in the building of the walls and ceilings. Everything will be wrong. That is the problem with the positivistic Mormon history.
If you hold a simplistic historiography, you are going to end up with superficial readings of the Book of Mormon or explanations of the conflict between Mormons and their Missouri neighbors. The skewing of the building will get worse the further you get away from that original sin. Book of Mormon interpretation is the best example of the shoddy workmanship which results from superficial assumptions.
This sophisticated cadre of American historians who criticize positivism often point out that historians are professionally trained to be weak readers. Any complex reading violates the integrity of history and the assumption that literature and history are ontologically distinct. Intellectual history is the only subdiscipline within history that encourages engaging complex texts complexly.
I spend time, a good deal of time, critiquing the Signature stable of positivists because I think Mormonism is a house fitly joined together. These writers propose that they can remodel it better than the original structure. If you have gophers digging in your front yard, it would be ineffective to say to them once, "now stop that tunneling." Is a paragraph enough to get rid of the gophers? I don't think so, especially if you have a whole colony. You must relocate or eradicate the entire group and fill all the holes. One must begin from the philosophical foundation and demonstrate how distant positivistic Mormon history is from the philosophical center of contemporary historiography today. The problem with insophisticates is that they aren't aware of their insophistication. I am aware of the limitations of analogy, but surely you don't believe a paragraph will have any effect on the positivistic assertions that dominate Mormon history today; you don't believe postivists will stop using the rhetorical advantage they get from saying, "You are an apologist for an ideology, but I just report history the way it happened" if someone writes a paragraph do you? I am just asking that interpretations in Mormon history be built according to code. If I have to appoint myself building inspector to do so, someone has to take up the task.
Looks like there is still a small bug in the way quotes are handled in the comments. I'll fix that when I get home. (I'd been working on it last week and may have screwed it up while adding other features)
First, let me say that I by and large do agree with Alan. Probably where I differ is, as I said, in the audience issue. (i.e. who is FARMS targeting their articles to? Something I don't think they've decided upon) But I do think that if there is one issue that Mormon history has as a huge flaw, is a certain philosophical naivete. And I include many Mormon authors in that.
Take one of the more important books (IMO) on Mormon history the last while. Quinn's book on esotericism in Mormonism. The problem was that there was no thought to the philosophical underpinnings of his approach or more importantly to the philosophical underpinnings of his thesis. I don't mind reading people I disagree with. But Quinn was simply all over the place. (And I've heard this complaint from many people, not just Mormon apologists) It ends up undermining the effectiveness of his text. It ends up being a scattergun of parallels without any overarching structure. (I think Nibley frequently guilty of this too, btw, so as to be an equal opportunity complainer.)
Now one author I strongly disagree with is Dan Vogel. However as Alan points out he does tend to offer a fairly consistent perspective and, I think, doesn't really hide his assumptions under the table. Further he frequently brings his assumptions out so as to show how it affects the evidence - putting it under an interpretive scheme. I think him wrong, but I enjoy reading his books. Contrast this with say some of the books of DNA or so forth.
Adding to what Dave said earlier and by way of brief response to Alan, this.
Alan, just as the problem with "insophisticates" is that they may not be aware of what, at least in the eyes of sophisticates, makes them that way, metaphysicians and philosophers of all kinds are not immune from overstating the impact of their accounts and theories upon (a particular form or type of) human activity. I'm not saying that the enterprise you're embarked on -- putting Mormon history on what you see as a sound metaphysical and methodological footing -- is or will prove to be unimportant or instead might end up having a major impact on the way both "revisionists" and say, FARMS writers, go about making historical claims and reading historical texts, or even understanding the nature of what they're doing as historians and text readers. As Dave said, though, with respect to postmodernism, it's often difficult to determine whether (or the extent to which) proponents of a movement or theory can actually show that it has the impact or significance claimed for it. For example, what at the practical level of engaging in a particular form of human activity such as writing accounts of and making inferences about events in the past, does the theory actually vindicate or undermine? As Dave suggested with respect to postmodernism, and regarding the work of historians, what exactly does it discredit or undermine, and what does it absolve or vindicate?
To clarify and test the practical impact (and/or practical value) of a proposed metaphysical or philosophical approach is to ask its proponents to use it to draw distinctions, basically to sort between, the vindicated or acceptable features of an identified human activity (here, a form of inquiry) and those that are discredited or foreclosed. Until that is done, it is unclear what is actually being claimed and what is at stake.
For example, it doesn't follow from Kuhn's arguments about the nature of scientific revolutions that his arguments have any impact on or provide any critique of all sorts of day-to-day scientific work, what he calls scientific "problem-solving." That's one (rough) way in which his theory goes about "sorting," characterizing human activity in the manner I've suggested.
That's why I referenced your article. The "work" I see your general critique of positivism doing in the article, once you've finished making it, is not discernible to me. Apart, that is, from certain fairly uncontroversial points such as criticizing critics for suggesting or arguing that only LDS "apologists" are the defenders of an ideology. Once the rhetorical playing field is evened by your point, though, what else follows? Your positive arguments against the "JS composition" feature of the M-priority thesis, for example, continue to stand or fall on the merits of, strength of, the inferences about past events you are making.
"One element of postmodern is the need for reflexivity; the historian must reflect on his or her own ideology and presuppositions and warn the reader how they affect the historical interpretation."
I don't see how this is an "element of postmodern." Isn't that just being generous and setting a tone for an open ended discussion?
I'm honestly hopelessly lost when it comes to the relation between postmodernism and mormon history. Can someone please explain how Derrida, Heidegger, Levinas, Lyotard, Deleuze, Guattarri, Baudrillard, Mark Taylor, or whoever else has anything to do with the historical methods taken by FARMS?
Further, is it really the typical case for postmodernists to generously reveal their presuppositions and ideology? Do for instance, Michel Foucault's historical writings do this? Are there some postmodern theorists who've undertaken historical inquiry who's writings are considered to be the standard for proper historiography?
It seems to me, the mormon history/postmodern connection goes about as deep as saying, "no history will ever be perfect." But I see no significant points of inflection between how FARMS actually writes history and how postmodernists or poststructuralists theorize about the world. I'm open. But like I say, so far it's all superficial stuff about Absolute Truth and Objectivity.
"Gadianton," I don't think most of those philosophers really get at the issues discussed in Mormon history. There are some exceptions, for instance Foucault's discussion of lines of power is rather significant in looking at history dealing with power relations. (i.e. analysis of Priesthood, women's influence, etc.) That's not to say such philosophers are never relevant. But in the context of descriptions of events, they are less significant.
Where they might come into relevance is when we move beyond "simple history" of determinations of what happened into a more theoretical analysis. However one common criticism of Mormon history is how rarely this is done well. (By other side) An example of this done might be Todd Compton's theory of dynastic relationships as an explanatory model for Joseph Smith's polygamy. Certainly at that stage theory enters into the discussion of history far more. Whether you agree with Compton or not, I think his explanatory introduction does explain his basic biases as well as (more or less) the theoretical underpinnings. That to me is good history. At the other extreme, as I mentioned, was Quinn's attempt to do this which was muddled, confused, and problematic theoretically. That despite having a lot of excellent arguments with respect to individual "events" or "facts."
Let me say once again though, I think this problem of "theory" or "finding general patterns" is a big flaw in both sides within LDS history. Take Nibley for instance. While I'm not prepared to argue for it, I think he adopts a kind of Platonism that affects how he reads many things. He also accepts some models of diffusion that some might find problematic. Ignoring his individual arguments (some which are strong, many which are weak) there often is a problem in which he doesn't clearly present, explain or defend his basic theoretical approach. For instance if he quotes a 12th century Kabbalistic text to explain LDS notions of the three degrees of glory, what justifies that? I can sketch out a presumed model he is working from, but you'll not find it in the texts. Contrast this with the better presentation of similar arguments by say Brookes or to a certain extent Quinn based upon a diffusion model.
Note: this page at Times and Seasons is a pretty good discussion of this problem of a lack of grand narratives in Mormon history. I can't comment on Signature and the degree to which they have this problem or engage in grand narratives in a problematic fashion. I've simply not read many of the books that seem to be in controversy. Generally though when I criticize a book it is because the grand theorizing is done in a muddled fasion (as in Quinn's Magic World View or because evidence is left out that significantly changes the argument such as in say Widmer's arguments about modalism. In these cases though there are typically rather obvious flaws without needing to appeal to some vague postmodernism.
But in the context of descriptions of events, they are less significant.
We're on the same page with that.
Where they might come into relevance is when we move beyond "simple history" of determinations of what happened into a more theoretical analysis
Then of course, it would be interesting to see how postmodern theorizing contributes to these analysis better than other more conventional kinds of theorizing (and I wonder where positivism comes in at this point). I don't think FARMS delves into any of this at all do they? At most I see from them, are in the above vein, a reference maybe to Kuhn by John Gee basically saying egyptology isn't perfect. Hardly illuminating. As I've said before, I am very interested in what will become of the "yale conference." from the little bit I've read, seems that might be the real first evidence of a postmodernish history culture within Mormonism. Maybe that kind of stuff already comes up on your LDS phil list, I really should subscribe to that. Anyway, aside from my own perspective that pomo has nothing to do with FARMS, Dan Peterson also backed me up on that point on ZLMB. Except he took it even further, despising postmodernism apparently, far more than I do.
Anyway, I'm curious what kind of postmodernism you see shaping history of a more interprative kind. I can definitly see your point though, in those cases where, one might be blind to the limitations of their own method. not that I think postmodernists don't suffer from that as much as positivists or anyone else.
****I hereby acknowledge that all supposed facts in this post are subject to interpretation and that my comments reflect my personal bias as an apostate mormon and critic of the usefulness of postmodernism generally.****
I still haven't gotten to the comments I intended to write about postmodernism. Several of the comments about FARMS's audience, though, reflect an unrealistic expectation of consistency that borders on conspiracy theorist. FARMS doesn't have any single theory of history or scripture, nor does it have any single audience.
The FARMS Review and the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies are edited by different people and those editors have wide discretion in what they print. The reader might see considerable difference just based on the editorial leadership. When I have submitted to FARMS publications, I have usually written the entire article, then sent it off to the editors. The editors didn't have any input into the framing of the argument or the type of evidence used. Only once, when I reviewed Mark Thomas's book, did the editorial staff approach me about writing the review. Even then, they didn't tell me how to to approach the essay nor what to write about; they just sent me copy of the book. Sometimes I make an inquiry of the editors before writing the essay, but the response I always get is, "That sounds interesting; put something together." The FARMS Review does rather light editing of my essays, changing little of the structure or development. The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, on the other hand, edits heavily for content and audience considerations.
So to comment about the postmodernism at FARMS is mistaken. The postmodern approach is used by some of the contributors to FARMS, and I would think very few of the FARMS contributors. It seems to me that Sunstone and Dialogue are much more editorially consistent in working from a particular worldview than is FARMS. Not the most recent issues of those two periodicals, but the three or four before those were so cover-to-cover bitching and moaning about the institutional leadership of the church that the two publications have long since passed into tedium for me.
Any discussion of the postmodern stance at FARMS seems a hasty generalization to me. If some of the contribitors to FARMS address a more popular audience and some a more scholarly one, that is because those approaches are initiated by the authors themselves, not the editors. Without a doubt most of the contributors share ideological affinities with the editors at FARMS, but the same would be said about Dialogue, Sunstone, and Signature.
I think the relationship between modernity and postmodernism is crucial to my use of postmodern approaches in Mormon studies. One of the most consistent debates about postmodernism is whether it is a continuation of modernity or a sharp break from modernity. I see it as continuous. Modernity casts a jaundiced eye on all tradition, but especially religious tradition. Modernity, generally, looks on religion as an attempt to control people, take away their liberty. Think of Voltaire or someone like Russell. Modernity attempts to replace the function of divinity (God gives order to the world, is that Archimedean point that orders society) with some substitute they view as more reasonable and true to the world.
Modernity has been the attempt to find a replacement for God. So, following Descartes, modernity has attempted to find a series of replacements, an appropriate foundation for knowledge and truth. The history of modernity is the failure of this project. Reason, science, method, mind, community, sex, empirical observation: these and others have been explored as potential substitutes for God. Modernity turns into postmodernity when thinkers finally turn the same critical eye modern thinkers turned on religion back on modernity itself. The modern project inevitably results in relativism as a consequence because it insists on a foundation but goes to work stripping that foundation of reason and authority.
This relativism looks like relativism from a foundationalist or a positivistic perspective (I want to hedge on the following assertions because from a postmodern point of view relativism is only a problem if you are a positivist). You can arrive at the easy and happy-go-lucky relativism of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish or you can have the hard-edged relativism of Derrida and Foucault, but you can't escape what is often called nihilism once you start down that modern path. You can, but only by refusing to carry modern assumptions to their logical conclusions. Postmodernism is useful to point out the lack of thought in the positivism that dominates our modern society and university which insists on being critical but refuses to apply that critical approach to its own form of thought. I think Leo Strauss (I don't want to have to detail this here, but I believe the secret teaching of Leo Strauss is nihilism, so the so-called East Coast Straussians have their teacher's esoteric teaching down right) points us to this problem--the inevitability of relativism once you adopt modernity--in quite useful ways.
Among most Mormon historians we get a simplified version of modernity whose proponents aren't even aware of the problems. For the most part Mormon revisionists still think reason and history are some kind of refuge from doubt. If we just apply the right historical method, we can answer questions about the past indubitably; if we exclude supernatural claims and explore the events under the influence of naturalistic assumptions, we can get at the truth of what really happened. They don't see the circularity in their own arguments because they still invest in a simplistic positivism. The most effective tool for pointing out this lasck of reason among people who propose reason as their foundation is postmodernism. Postmodernism poses its own dangers to the traditional Mormon position (and is, therefore, an ambiguously useful tool to use), but that seems a discussion for some later time.
Alan, I'm extremely sympathetic to the view that postmodernism can't escape modernism and never attempts to. Rather postmodernism argues that rather than taken everything as completely given, we must continually retake up the question of being.
Having said that though, I don't think I agree with your other comments. I can't speak to Fish, not having read him much. But even Rorty, whose notion of postmodernism is probably most at odds with my own, isn't a relativist of the sort I think you assert.
While I think there is nihilism entailed by modernism, it is because it denies to "open" in thought. Having said that though, I don't think modernism has necessarily engaged in a series of replacements for God, depending upon what one means by that. Take Leibniz. While I think he fails in his project for certain reasons, I'd not want to say he has replaced God. He may be wrong, from a Mormon perspective. But that is a different matter.
If this is how you arrive at the positivism problem, then I probably disagree quite a bit. But beyond that, I think the complaint others made is quite a bit more relevant. The issue is less these philosophical groundings than the practical implications of postmodernism to arguments. i.e. when push comes to shove, what difference does it make? Foucault, for all his many failings, at least argues how his underpinnings lead to profound differences in how we perceive the history of madness, sexuality, prisons, and so forth. What is the equivalent is Mormon history?
Nice comments, Alan. I don't have any problem with your sketch of the postmodernist perspective and, like Clark, find a lot to like in the postmodern stuff I've read, so it's not like I dislike the postmodern view the way a neoclassical economist rejects Marxist economics. However, I still think what you see as a clear application of that perspective to revisionist Mormon history (your third paragraph) is more complicated than you are outlining. "Refuge from doubt" might be restated more sympathetically as the conviction that "some historical knowledge is possible." Yes, revisionist Mormon historians believe some knowledge is possible based on the historical record. As do orthodox Mormon historians and every other kind of historian. But we've been through that enough lately.
I've read Kaufmann's books on existentialism, which recast nihilism as "the tragic world view" and give it a sympathetic hearing from Shakespeare through Dostoevsky and Nietzsche to Sartre. They graft meaning onto nihilism, a trick that has some appeal, but I think it is still the reflexive urge of any Mormon is to fight against nihilism and insist that meaning and value have some foundation other than naked human experience. That extends more generally to a Mormon rejection of the nihilistic versions of both postmodernism and positivism in favor of either orthodox Mormonism (defended with whatever rational, historical, or rhetorical tools are at hand) or an alternative pseudo-intellectual foundation.
It still strikes me as odd to see your perspective and use of postmodernism in defense of Mormonism, but it's certainly enjoyable to read. It would be fun to read a longer and more developed essay along the lines of "A Postmodernist View of Orthodox Mormonism," freed from the apologetic context of the current FARMS essay.
Some apologists try to label me a positivist. A rejection of the supernatural does not automatically make one a positivist. It only means that one is a naturalist. The two positions are philosophically distinct. A positivist might be a naturalist, but a naturalist is not necessarily a positivist. Positivists are methodological monists who aspire to unify social and natural sciences under one method, whereas naturalists are methodological pluralists who can recognize the value of reason and metaphysics. While a positivist believes that objectivity is possible, a naturalist has no commitment to that notion, at least not in the sense discussed by positivists.
I think the introduction to my biography makes it abundantly clear that I'm not a positivist. Positivist historians would not attempt an interpretive biography, nor would they draw on psychology and sociology. They certainly would not describe themselves as "ontological naturalists."Whereas a positivist seeks to establish history on positive grounds, I'm comfortable with interpretations that carry various degrees of probability. Hence, I would describe my position as basically a post-positivist ontological naturalist.
Strictly speaking, I do not say the supernatural does not exist, for it is impossible to prove a negative; I only assert that there is no proof for the supernatural. So I'm a naturalist until the supernatural is proven.
While I'm not a positivist, I do believe some historical reconstructions are better than others. The theory that utilizes the documents critically and accounts for most of the evidence with the least elaboration and qualification is the one that is probably true.
Dan Vogel takes the strategy of isolating a single definition of positivism, then concluding since he doesn't hold that one idea, he isn't a positivist. Vogel himself equates naturalism and positivism: "Neither is one surprised when Christensen attacks the naturalistic assumptions (i.e., positivism/empiricism) of Book of Mormon critics"(Dan Vogel, "Dan Vogel's Reply to Kevin Christensen,"9 Sept. 2004 ). Vogel doesn't deal with the complexity of the notion of positivism.
A notion as complex as positivism needs to be dealt with in a complex way or it becomes simplistic and reductive; one needs to be sensitive to the historical development of the term. The unity of science is one variety of positivism, but only one of many. Part of the problem is that positivism has been so discredited that it is largely used as a polemical term, one you apply to your opponents but rarely to yourself or allies even when appropriate.
Russell Keat refers to the varities of positivist positions: "I believe it can be shown that what they call 'positivism' in fact consists of a number of distinct claims, which have quite complex logical and historical relationships to one another" (Russell Keat, The Politics of Social Theory: Habermas, Freud and the Critique of Positivism [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981], 12). It is now naive to treat one of those definitions of positivism as somehow necessary in order to be properly labeled positivistic. Vogel's main and repeated positivistic assertion is that people who disagree with him are apologists while he and ideological allies are not apologists for an ideology. This claim is a variety of the idea that Vogel and other Mormon revisionists don't have an ideology but are objective, free of ideology, bias, presuppositions.
This claim gives these positivists a certain rhetorical advantage if it isn't challenged. Postmodernism has made this assertion impossible to uphold, so this is one of the best reasons to use postmodern thought to engage naive modernity, a specific variety of which is positivism. When Dan finally admits he is an apologist for an ideology (that he presents evidence in ways advantageous to that ideology and doesn't include opposing evidence sometimes willfully but also at times because his ideology blinds him to its import), we will have made some progress toward leaving positivism behind us. Roy Rosenzweig, commenting on Peter Novick's book, articulates why historians are so reluctant to begin exploring their ideological commitments: "Novick, then, has combined a subject that historians love to talk about (other historians) with one that they assiduously avoid - the underlying philosophical assumptions that guide their work. It is that aversion that helps explain why so many historians still hold to the noble dream of objectivity when almost everyone else has given it up, and why it has taken so long for a book like this to be written" (Roy Rosenzweig, "Tell It Like It Is," review of Peter Novick's That Noble Dream, in The Nation (Feb. 6. 1989): 168-69). Historians and those not professionally trained as historians need to begin to explore their metaphysical commitments (most of them adhered to uncritically) in order to operate in the new world of historiography.
Every researcher has an ideology and is therefore an apologist. It is true that we aren't left with just ideology. We still have the protocols of reason and protocols of the discipline to guide us in deciding which historical interpretations are to preferred over others; we still have archival, eyewitness, and other kinds of evidence to guide our interpretations and preclude some possibilities. But these protocols and evidence are almost always equivocal; the application of a different perspective or ideology to the same evidence will yield different conclusions. Not criteria free of ideology are available to mediate these interpretations. Positivists think that resort to the evidence is sufficient to settle arguments, but postmodern historiography and some frankly modern deny this. Reflection such as I am engaging in is antithetical to positivists who can't contemplate their ideology and still have it be effective in persuading readers. I could cite hundreds of sources on this matter, but let me cite just one, Hans Kellner's book Language and Historical Representation: "Objectivity is not a fashionable term among historians today because of their sensitivity to the ideological implications of any position within a historical context. Once 'value neutral' social science itself came under examination as a tool of domination, the universality of ideology came to be taken for granted" (206-207). I think it useful to go back earlier in this discussion to see the 10 varieties of positivism I articulated. One must see a complex subject such as positivism in a complex way in order not to be simplistic. Vogel is simplistic about his philosophical assumptions; one should not be surprised if he is simplistic about his historical and textual interpretations because they are based on such a dated metaphysics. Vogel has made a consequential faith commitment to a philosophy that can no longer carry the burden it is asked to support.
Alan, I understand that you're angry with me for questioning your faith. Actually, I only question the reasons upon which you justify your faith, not your faith. I want to hear reactions from the other participants in this discussion before I respond. Additionally, I will allow you to re-read what I wrote and give a more thoughtful analysis that responds to what I wrote rather than some formulaic monologue with yourself. You really need to listen to your opponent better and not forget the principle of charity: "If a participant's argument is reformulated by an opponent, it should be expressed in the strongest possible version that is consistent with the original interpretation of the arguer."I don't claim to be the smartest, but you underestimate and disrespect me if you think you can get away with what you wrote above.
Alan, surely while everyone is an apologist for an ideology, there is a difference between that and what we more normally think of as apologetics. Apologetics proper, especially religious apologetics, is more concerned with showing that one can rationally be a believer. It seems that for whatever flaws it has, traditional history is concerned with showing what is probable given public information. When we limit ourselves to public information, clearly the Mormon view is improbable. However one can still be a believing Mormon and be rational. Yet there is little the Mormon apologist can offer an unbeliever which would make him become a Mormon, other than spiritual experiences.
I don't think that a bad thing, mind you. Indeed I think that if there is lacking the kind of evidence for the Book of Mormon a more disinterested historian would need to convince them, that it is most certainly intended that way. The Book of Mormon, even back in the days of Joseph Smith, was primarily a tool for conversion. Meaning that it forced people to pray and potentially have a spiritual experience they could build off.
I'm sure you don't disagree with that. Yet to say that everyone is equally an apologist seems to overlook that point. While one can be an apologist for the naturalistic position, I think the vast majority of naturalistic writings aren't strongly apologetics at all. I can't speak for Vogel, as I only have two or three of his writings. I'll confess that I didn't see what I perceive to be positiivism in them. A thoroughgoing skepticism and naturalism, yes. A defense of his model, yes. But not as much apologetics as I think of them as you suggest. Some, I'll agree.
As I said though I've not read the texts in question, so I can't comment to those.
The comments were so popular on this particular entry that I started up a a few more pages. If you post a comment here it will go to the last page.
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