And now for something completely different

Now that the second book is safely out of my hands, I've been working for the last little while on some new things: perpetual motion machines (see this earlier post for a very preliminary version), Spanish ghosts in English-conquered Jamaica, scientific projectors in Restoration England, and so on. One of these, as previous posts might … Continue reading And now for something completely different

The Best Compliment I’ve Received on My Teaching

It was not the evaluation that said I was a snappy dresser. It was the time fifteen years ago when a student in an introduction to modern history who had identified himself as conservative said that, thanks to our class's discussions of The Communist Manifesto, he wanted to read more Marx. Today, when the notion … Continue reading The Best Compliment I’ve Received on My Teaching

Enlightenment Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Coming fashionably late to the culture-war party, The Economist published a piece this week on the evils of "Critical Race Theory" (CRT), a body of scholarship associated with ideas such as "intersectionality," "white privilege," and (though so far as I am aware it did not originate the phrase, much less create the phenomenon) "systemic racism." Though I … Continue reading Enlightenment Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Men of Their Time, Standards of Ours

It's a common idea that figures of the past -- and what this really means, without exception, is heroic or widely celebrated figures of the past -- should be forgiven what look like misdeeds to us, because they were "men of their time." The claim has several variants, some more specious than others. With respect … Continue reading Men of Their Time, Standards of Ours

Can ‘Progress Studies’ Contribute to Knowledge? History Suggests Caution

By Shannon Dea, University of Waterloo and Ted McCormick, Concordia University (republished from ; original here) According to tech entrepreneur Patrick Collison and economist Tyler Cowen, academia needs a new discipline called “progress studies.” But their proposal overlooks two crucial facts: human progress has been an object of study for centuries, and innovators ignorant of that scholarship … Continue reading Can ‘Progress Studies’ Contribute to Knowledge? History Suggests Caution

History is Bad for You. Science Told Me So

When -- as Alex Rosenberg did in Salon the other day -- you publish a piece with the title "Why Most Narrative History is Wrong”, and subtitle it “Even the best histories fail to identify the real causal forces that drive events. Science explains why”, you create certain expectations in a reader. To wit: You … Continue reading History is Bad for You. Science Told Me So

Matters of Faith

Tuesday brought news of the latest self-indulgent hoaxing of academic journals by a trio of "academic exiles" intent on establishing that the academy is a at once a hothouse of left-wing ideological orthodoxy and, at the same time, a credulous fantasy-land where anything couched in the language of "theory", however nonsensical, can get published. (How … Continue reading Matters of Faith

Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Once we stop thinking of the past as a failed but noble attempt at the present, many of its inexplicable, repulsive, or ridiculous aspects take on a new colour. A good example is alchemical transmutation, an evident impossibility that nevertheless occupied -- and not just occupied, but motivated -- the likes of Newton or Boyle, … Continue reading Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History