Two Border-Crossers

Consider two writers and thinkers who are in the news at the moment, one because he’s just died and the other because he has a new book out. The New York Times said of Hugh Trevor-Roper that:

His approach to history was essentially belletrist – based not so much on original research as on wide reading and an ability to bring to bear insights derived from other disciplines on his subjects. He sought to appeal to a wide cultivated audience. In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor, he defended this approach, saying modern history would have “dried up and perished long ago” without the contribution of economists, sociologists, philosophers, art historians and even anthropologists and psychologists.

Surely his approach is indeed defensible. Research is essential too, of course, but the house of history presumably has many mansions, or at least, room for both specialists and generalists, original researchers and synthesizers, depth and breadth. It’s not as if the borders around history are all that sharp anyway, or as if economics or sociology or philosophy seem exactly irrelevant. And if the goal of inquiry is better understanding, surely the way things tie together rather than fall apart is one of the subjects we want to understand.

Richard Sennett is another who draws on many disciplines, as this review of his new book in the Guardian says:

But he doesn’t really write academic sociology, and is often criticised for it, from within academia and outside it…His material is an elegant mix of interview, anecdote and wide, deep book-research. His key terms have to do with common personal predicaments, understood as socio-historic formations: love and power, dignity and humiliation, impersonality and self-absorption, self-worth and self-blame.

Trevor-Roper drew on sociology to write history and Sennett draws on history to write sociology, and both produce a rich thick brew for the general reader.

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