Speaking “Plainly”

In response to John Andrews’ reflections upon my most recent article “The ‘People’s Thesis’ in Environmental History the History of Ideas, and its Relevance to Cultural Studies”, it is apparent that Mr. Andrews did not comprehend the meaning of the people’s thesis but also asserted that the people’s thesis was a construction on my part. The term “people’s thesis” is a construction, not unlike when one names a group of objects that are equilateral, isosceles, and obtuse, “triangles”. Not all constructions are bad (more on that in a moment) and what “the people’s thesis” refers to, the specific interpretive or philosophical frameworks in which history, philosophy, and cultural studies are done, is not an opaque concept. Under the category of “people’s thesis” in the historical disciplines and social sciences is “social history”, which seeks to provide narratives of history from the point of view of “the people”: meaning people who generally are not of the aristocratic class and/or political classes. Historians have done this out of a sense of respect for the poor and working classes but to also provide an illustration of how those classes are conscious agents in the production of their local and/or national cultures, and not automatons whose actions are wholly dictated by the aristocratic/politically dominant classes. By providing a social history of a culture or people, says the social historian, we render a much fuller version of history (as opposed to one that is “top down” or “trickle down”) that recognizes the contributions of “ordinary” peoples to their society (or to the construction of their own culture), but also see how they view their own history, reality, and their place within them.1

While I think that this is perhaps a noble goal among social historians, I believe my objection to this approach to history was academic, simply because the notion of there being “the people” was unclear since it would suggest that people who belonged to a particular socio-economic, racial, or ethnic class all had the very same aspirations, experiences, and/ or social goals. I discussed for example the people’s interpretation of the Great Migration as a uniform movement of African Americans from South to North for economic reasons: in particular the cotton boll weevil infestation that destroyed southern cotton crops in the early 1900s. To round out that interpretation, when I discuss historian Arvarh Strickland’s rendering of it, the infestation had biblical overtones: that this was an insect affliction brought on by God to destroy the stranglehold of King Cotton and its economic support for Jim Crow. I surmised that if this is how African Americans at that time saw themselves and their place in the universe and in history, it would be a very generalizing position to take: as if it were a narrative of history that all African Americans would not only uniformly endorse but a narrative in which African Americans would express a unanimous explanation of the causes and/or motivations of migration at that time. If such an explanation is uniform and unanimous, then why did thousands of African Americans during the cotton infestation move to Texas which was the first state to fall in the march of the cotton boll weevil?2 Why did they move to New Mexico and Arizona during the cotton blight when both states already had Jim Crow societies? The standard migration narrative, a south to north movement, does not seem to encapsulate the east to west narrative, but also even if we say that African Americans left the South for the North to primarily escape racial discrimination, the east to west migratory trail terminated in areas engulfed in Jim Crow.3 African Americans thus who left during the Great Migration for the southwest would perhaps have a different story to tell about the Great Migration that their peers who left for the northern industrial cities (or maybe not at all).4 But perhaps most important is that the people’s thesis or people’s interpretation of the Great Migration in this case is a teleologically driven, divine narrative in which African Americans in the early 1900s are led to freedom by God’s workings in nature. This is problematic if we have science to contend with: a science that when applied to history only wants to study what is worldly and observable in history, and has no capacity for or willingness to study that which is otherworldly and unobservable.

On the speculative or philosophical side, I see pragmatism as a philosophical expression or promotion of the people’s thesis: an expression of some uniform, commonsensical epistemology about knowledge and a uniform, commonsensical ontology of nature. Endowed with the people’s point of view, pragmatists believe that they can dissolve all philosophical disputes by claiming that philosophers seek to employ an abstract language that seeks to transcend the boundaries of their everyday, plain language. Yet here we go again: erecting a “plain person’s” language or a “plain person’s” point of view: as if this was something uniform and had a fixed referent in nature. This concept of a “plain person” is so relative as to not have a fixed meaning. How you define “plain” or how you even define “commonsensical” ultimately depends upon your criteria, interests, and/or cultural predilections. But given that people, being as diverse as they are, have different criteria and interests, their definition of “plain” or “plain person” will vary. This is the fundamental problem when academics seek to elucidate or define a “people’s point of view”: given that people, even within a particular social category, vary in terms of their life experiences or personal histories, how is it possible to identify a belief or set of beliefs which they all share but also—and here is the important point—hold that if there are beliefs that they share, those beliefs belong to an internally coherent system of beliefs? A pragmatist need not invoke a mythic “common sense view” held by every day or plain people to dissolve philosophical arguments, largely because it is presumptuous to believe that “everyday” or “plain people” (if we can that there are such people) would actually be concerned about philosophical arguments.

In his response to my essay, Mr. Andrews says the following:

(1) “However, reading the article gave me a sense that although much of the piece is relatively objective and academic in tone, the writer was possibly being a little patronizing to the vast majority of humanity, who possibly haven’t had the same opportunities in life as Mr. Whitney.”

and

(2) “I suspect also that most of those who supported the Occupy Movement would have a different opinion to Mr. Whitney, because the very essence of the Occupy Movement is that 99% of us are basically the same, and are therefore ordinary; and that it’s only 1% of us who see themselves as something special.”

It is unclear in (1) why Mr. Andrews would think that I was possibly patronizing to the vast majority of humanity; as I said above and in the original article that a people’s thesis could be problematic in stipulating a uniform “plain” or uniformly “commonsensical”, fixed set of beliefs, simply because of varying beliefs, backgrounds, or experiences which constitute the world views of members of a people (or group). It is also unclear as to why the opportunities I have had in life or the opportunities (or lack thereof) others have had in life would also matter in relation to my case. In relation to (2), that my case would be dismissed by the 99%. This is an appeal to the crowd, argumentum ad populum.

I understand that some people might think my article might have some ramifications for social justice movements and I am clearly aware of that as a longtime activist for contingent/adjunct faculty and contingent workers in all occupations. I seem to suggest that we cannot make hay of “the people” as a unified entity that has the same experiences, same history, and same goals and aspirations. Empirically that is the case. I’ve known of adjunct faculty and temporary workers who want to have nothing to do with dissent about their working conditions and how poorly they are treated and paid. So if I cannot convince them to join the cause, I move on with those who may happen to support the cause. But there can still exist disagreement even among those who agree in the same principles and beliefs: namely, disagreement in how to express those beliefs and disagreement in how to accomplish shared goals.

While I point out disagreement and diversity within a group here and in my previous article, I do not think that I spoke of the virtues of building consensus. This is the goal of Occupy: to build consensus for its views and therefore effect social, political, economic, and legal change. I do not see where my article rejects or dismisses what Occupy does, and nor should my article address that because that is not what the article is concerned with. Instead, the article tries to put to rest the idea that people who belong to a particular social or economic class can be said to have the same point of view about their lives and history, and that social histories and pragmatist philosophies that try to give form to “the people’s point of view” are really only using their own political and social values to construct what is in essence an idol: that upon which to base or justify belief. I am making an academic point here and not a point about Occupy, the 99%, and/or anyone who has suffered from the recklessness and greed of Wall Street and a government bent upon continuing to give free passes and get out of jail free cards to unscrupulous, financial industry executives.

Mr. Andrews is somewhat dismissive of an idea or concept as a “construction”, and that ideas or concepts which are not “constructed” are genuine: perhaps “plain” so to speak. Perhaps “freedom” or “equality” are some of those genuine ideas to which he refers: the words he used were “commonly understood expression”. I think I have in my original article and response to his criticisms given as much flesh to the skeleton as I could have on what the “people’s thesis” is.

We shouldn’t be dismissive of “constructions”. At distant points in our history for example, “marriage equality” was not a commonly understood expression: now it is. But it emerged as a new linguistic construction, one which captured the aspirations of gays and lesbians who wanted equal treatment under the law in matters of marriage. All “commonly understood expressions” all started out as “constructions” and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

It may be objected that I am simply overstating my case and that empirically, there are beliefs that “the people” share, such as the Golden Rule, which Mr. Andrews contends:

“… is very ancient and has been practised in one form or another in most societies in most parts of the world, and which holds that people should treat others in the same way they would expect others to treat them in the same circumstances. If I considered myself not ordinary or plain it’s most likely that I would not obey the Golden Rule, for almost by definition I would see and treat others as inferior to me and expect them to see and treat me as their superior.”

The operative word here is “most” as in “most societies in most parts of the world” have practiced the Golden Rule. “Most” is not equivalent to “all” and certainly within particular societies, there are people who do not observe the Golden Rule, which either lands them in jail, or perhaps, in the case of latter day America, catapults them to the top of a hedge fund. To say that most people or most societies subscribe to a belief does not make that belief universal, and if the Golden Rule is qualified as something “plain” people believe in, “plain” simply must be defined and it must be shown how certain people necessarily belong to that category or exemplify that attribute. Still, to call something “plain” is a matter of taste or subjective criteria that might not be universally shared. I’m certain that there are relativists who practice the Golden Rule who nevertheless reject the idea that there are absolute moral rules such as the Golden Rule: meaning that on any given day, humanity could allow the observance of that rule to take a holiday.

  1. I refer the reader to this article by Marxist historian Raphael Samuel, republished by History Today, in which he defines social history:

    “As a pedagogic enthusiasm, and latterly as an academic practice, social history derives its vitality from its oppositional character. It prides itself on being concerned with ‘real life’ rather than abstractions, with ‘ordinary’ people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events… The plebeian subject matter favoured by the new social history, corresponds to other cultural manifestations of the 1960s, as for instance ‘new wave’ British cinema, with its cockney and provincial heroes, ‘pop art’ with its use of everyday artefacts, or the transformation of a ‘ghetto’ beat (Liverpool sound) into a national music. Similarly, the anti-institutional bias of the new social history – the renewed determination to write the history of ‘ordinary’ people as against that of statecraft, could be said to echo, or even, in some small part to be a constituent element in, a much more widespread collapse of social deference, and a questioning of authority figures of all kinds.”

    Also, look at what Richard Rorty has said about a pragmatist (or in his terms, “post-philosophical”) culture would look like:

    “I began by saying that the pragmatist refused to accept the Philosophical distinction between first-rate truth-by-correspondence-to reality and second-rate truth-as-what-it-is-good-to-believe. I said that this raised the question of whether a culture could get along without Philosophy, without the Platonic attempt to sift out the merely contingent and conventional truths from the Truths which were something more than that.”

    Samuel’s defines social history as favoring “real life”, what ordinary people are doing, over “abstractions”: what traditional historians use to organize or tell history, abstract concepts such as “human nature” or the “goal of history” which are a part of universalist historical narratives which generalize over the differences and diversity within historical societies. I am not sure I like his use of the term “plebeian”, not because of the class element of social history that he introduces here (he should have just said the non-aristocratic classes or non-economic elites) simply because modern usage of the term “plebeian” has distorted its meaning. Roman plebeians as a class contained paupers as well as merchants or craftsmen who lived very comfortably in great wealth: these merchants or craftsmen however could not be patricians since they were not descended from any of the original paterfamilias, the old families of Rome. In essence for Samuel, social history is concerned with “the people“: their view of life and what they do to endure ordinary life. Rorty, in rejecting the philosophical demarcation between “truth by correspondence” and truth as what is good to believe, opts for “conventional” or “contingent” truths: that which our peers, the people, let us get away with saying. Social history and pragmatism are thus united in the belief that it is the people’s point of view or the people’s interpretation of history and reality that really matter. In subsuming social history and pragmatism under the term “the people’s thesis,” I have done nothing more than claim that both academic approaches are united in their respect for a people’s point of view about life, history, and their place within both. []

  2. Go here for a map (page 3) to see the boll weevil’s point of origin, Mexico, the first state it attacked, Texas, and the southeastern states to which it proceeded.

    Also, review Bernadette Pruitt’s The Other Great Migration which explores African American migrations to Texas during the period of the Great Migration (south to north). []

  3. Matthew Whitaker’s article in The Journal of Negro History, “The Rise of the Black Phoenix: African American Migration, Settlement and Community Development in Maricopa County, Arizona 1868-1930”, has noted that Phoenix’s population tripled from 1920-1940, but also pointed out that Jim Crow social conditions—segregation, limits on political participation, to say the least—were barriers that African American residents faced there. The important thing to remember about Whitaker’s paper is that contrary to the push hypothesis which claims that African Americans vacated the South because of Jim Crow conditions, they knowingly migrated to an area of the country that maintained Jim Crow conditions. []
  4. The North was not exactly a racial paradise from 1900-1920 with the race riots breaking out in northern cities such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. []

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.