[Humanist] 28.20 measures of Crosby's attempt

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 15 02:32:11 CEST 2014

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 20.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 14 May 2014 09:26:27 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: measures of Crosby's attempt

My thanks to John McNaughton in Humanist 28.18 for checking the reviews
of Crosby's The Measure of Reality and finding criticism one must not
ignore. I let my enthusiasms carry me away; though the reviews show I'm
not alone in this, there's a lesson to be learned. Some books one can
lean on, e.g. G.E.R. Lloyd's The Ideals of Inquiry, meticulously argued
with elegant caution. Crosby's "unusual and exciting book... [making] a
few questionable claims" (Edward Grant in Isis 88.3), perhaps more than
a few, and not trivial ones, apparently is one of many exceptions,
though as a quick trawl through JSTOR shows the reviews are a mixed lot.
The most interesting comment I found was Roger Hart's "The Great
Explanandum", in The American Historical Review 105.2, which concludes
as follows:

> The shortcomings of Crosby's Measure of Reality are representative of
> the problems of an entire genre of historiography written in the
> twentieth century.... with the Great Explanandum--the known
> uniqueness of the West--as the given starting point.... One task for
> critical history, then, must be to analyze the rhetorics, ideologies,
> and academic disciplines that authorized this particular genre of
>  world history....

Why spend more time on this book here? The chief reason I can see is to
focus on one of the obvious dangers in interdisciplinary explorations:
taking work in a field out of the critical context of that field. I would
not want to think that poetic language and vertiginous scope are danger
signals, that only sober caution is to be trusted. After all Lloyd's many
books have such scope, and I can think of other fine books whose language
thrills. In this case, however, there is a prominent danger-signal (which I
should not have glossed over): Crosby's use of the term mentalité. But
again it helps enormously to know how this word has been used esp in
anthropology since Lévy-Bruhl and in historiography. Here Lloyd has been
very effective, esp in Demystifying Mentalities (1990).

Book reviews are an obvious way to go, though of course a strong negative
vote across the discipline(s) concerned is not necessarily definitive. 
Disciplines do tend to be very conservative. Then, too, depending on the 
use one makes of work borrowed from another discipline, a book may have 
considerable value in its new context. Two examples of this that come to 
mind are G. R. Levy's The Gate of Horn: A study of the religious conceptions 
of the stone age, and their influence upon European thought (1963) and 
Robert Graves' The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth 
(1948), both most valuable in the context of literary criticism, esp as 
Northrop Frye practiced it.  But one does have to be aware of what one is 
taking on and where it might lead into what sort of thickets. 



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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