[Humanist] 25.760 scholarship and peer-review

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Feb 27 07:51:21 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 760.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 26 Feb 2012 17:29:04 -0800
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>
        Subject: re Scholarship and peer review

Jim R. suggests peer-to-peer vetting as one way to keep scholarship
standards, vs. journalism on the internet by "intellectuals."  His comment
reminded me of an essay of skeptical import I published online in 2009,
titled, "In the Great Dismal Swamp."  I found my text and copied one
paragraph I had written as part of a longish introduction to my views about
the situation we found developing in the last 1/3 of the 20th C.  It is a
skeptical comment on high-level scholarship, and "vetting by peers."  Does
the Internet favor peer review?  For what it's worth, I paste it here:

"Parenthetically, today one may also ask if the very idea of history as a
narrative of truth - the standard iterated by a major figure of such
historical writing in the 19th Century, Leopold von Ranke - can be accepted
uncritically. For example, although Ranke asserted that what he wrote was a
narration that described "how it actually was" - wie es eigentlich gewesen
ist - the phrase, "how it actually was," was not original with Ranke, but
is a quotation from Thucydides. Thucydides, who did not believe the past
could be written about, seems seldom to have based his work on documents;
moreover he never disclosed his sources of information, except where he
suggests he himself was personally involved. Concerning documents, which
are the basis of Ranke's "objective," "scientific" historical narratives
about the way things were, it is odd that even in his most successful work,
the 3-volume history of the popes, there is rarely specific citation of the
sources he consulted (a catalogue of 185 manuscripts from between 1453 and
1783). It is difficult today to know why or how these sources were cited;
in fact, without reading everything Ranke read, there is no way to check
his narrative. In other words, no matter how honest we may suppose he was,
who can know how well he grasped the essential in each of the many
thousands of handwritten documents he consulted in the various archives of
Europe, or how accurate were the notes he took? So much for the notion of
an "objective" history about the past, at least as exemplified by the sort
of narration the 19th Century was so proud of.* As for 20th Century
historical prose, history composed after Marx, Darwin, and Max Weber, it
takes many forms and uses a variety of "methodologies." Unfortunately, it
is not much read by other than the professional, usually academic,
historian, except when popularized. Popular history, however, is much
closer to journalism than to history as it has been traditionally written
and understood."

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

More information about the Humanist mailing list