Great Antidote Extras: Eric Daniels on History

history economic history american history historical interpretation

Christy Lynn for AdamSmithWorks

Can historians correct in themselves the errors they see in others and how do non-specialists evaluate disagreeing experts? Daniels offers suggestions and examples in this Great Antidote episode. 
Eric Daniels' recent Great Antidote podcast episode, Eric Daniels on History, is a timely reminder of what the study of history can be, how it’s changed over time, and why it’s important. While Daniels and host Juliette Sellgren spend a bit of time lamenting a lack of basic, factual information (one example is high school students not knowing the decade the US civil war took place; another is immigrants often having more knowledge than native-educated individuals), Daniels also emphasizes that just knowing dates and names is also not enough. Students (and all careful thinkers) also need the ability to think about those facts in a methodical, historical way. Daniels makes the analogy between historical knowledge and knowing a foreign language like French. The facts (names, dates, laws, etc.) are the vocabulary and methodology is the grammar. 

Daniels and Sellgren spend some time talking about the example of the 1619 project but they could just as easily have talked about the Phil Magness Great Antidote episode on Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, and MacLean’s highly questionable claims about James M. Buchanan. They could have also just as easily talked about the recent series on AdamSmithWorks where Jerry Muller and Jacob Soll present competing and mutually exclusive visions of Adam Smith and his ideas. 

(You can read those here: 

In all of these cases we see people trained in historical methodologies coming to very different conclusions, often based on the same sources, although not always. What’s a secondary source reader to do? Daniels reminds listeners of the importance of also understanding a historian’s philosophy and how that influences their explanations. As an example, he contrasts what a Marxist historian might do with the same sources as a non-Marxist historian. 

About 41 minutes in, Sellgren and Daniels talk about Adam Smith. This is (predictably) of particular interest. One reason is that Adam Smith himself was a historian. While that isn’t the first discipline that springs to mind for him (yes, economics, I see you waving your hands; yes, philosophy, I see you too), he is both recording historical data (corn, herring, silver, and more) and explaining why commodities are treated in the way they are. 
John Burrow has written about this in his piece, “Adam Smith, Historian,” but it’s also clear to anyone who has read even a little bit of Wealth of Nations (WN) or his posthumously published essay, “History of Astronomy,” written prior to WN and the Theory of Moral Sentiments

The second reason I like thinking about Smith is this context is because these problems also existed in Smith’s time! David Hume even wrote an essay, “That Politics may be Reduced to a Science” where he is, among other things, trying to understand the relationship of the people acting in a time with the historical and institutional forces around them. 

Many questions linger, here are just a few. Please feel free to add your own. 

1 - What is the proper role of the historian?

2 - How much raw, factual knowledge is necessary to have a solid understanding of a historical period? Do different time periods require more or less factual knowledge? 

3 - Is it harder to be knowledgeable about history now than it was in the past? 

4- Daniels points to a focus on testing as a challenge for early learning (dates are easier to grade than “causes”) and the rise of specialization as a challenge for later learning (professional associations and disciplinary silos). What other historical or institutional forces contribute to these problems? (Don’t forget to guard against your own philosophical biases when answering!)

Related content
Cara Rogers on thinking about competing sources (11:08) from a VRG Extra on The Election of 1800 (in this case, a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 26 January 1799 and Jefferson’s 1st Inaugural Address BUT stick around for the bonus corrections to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton).
John Burrow, “Adam Smith, Historian,” at Speaking of Smith.
Hans Eicholz, “Acton on Doing History: To Judge or Understand,” in the Reading Room at the Online Library of Liberty.
David Hume’s essay, “That Politics may be Reduced to a Science,” at the Online Library of Liberty.
Lord Acton-Bishop Creighton Correspondence which includes remarks on the proper role for moral judgments in history at the Online Library of Liberty.