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By William H. Benson
Columnist 

Feelings in history

 


Scientists want to quantify. First, they observe a phenomenon, record their observations, arrive at a set of numbers, and then build a hypothesis. This procedure — the scientific method — works well in the sciences, such as in chemistry, biology and physics, but is less certain in the arts, such as in history.

A writer who wishes to quantify events from the past calls herself or himself a “social scientist,” rather than a historian. This type of scientist observes a population’s demographics, or he or she counts immigration numbers, casualties in a battle, dollars spent, racial percentages, rates of inflation, a disease’s victims, land prices or effects of a cold winter upon food production. The social scientist feels a frantic desire to number, discover a pattern, and reach a conclusion.

Ramsay McMullen, a Yale historian, observed this wish to quantify in his remarkable book, “Feelings in History.” He pointed out, “Even matters quite of the spirit can be counted at least indirectly: religiosity, through bequests to pay for remembrance in masses.”

McMullen argues that history built around the scientific procedure excludes the more essential elements in history: the human interest stories, the motivations behind people’s choices, and the force of people’s feelings when they experienced them.

How does one measure another person’s feelings? How does one build a scale to weigh grief, curiosity, anger, envy, ambition, boredom, love, disgust, contentment, loyalty, appreciation, religious devotion, pain, competitiveness or inspiration? The answer is, “By only by the most general of terms.” People say, “That person has some anger issues,” or “she is jealous,” or “he has very little ambition.”

McMullen said that we fail to quantify the emotions because often we do not know. “The cause lies in the very thing that confronts us in our daily lives: the difficulty, not to call it impossibility, of knowing what goes on in the recesses of another person’s mind, or even of our own,” he said.

For an example, Marc Bloch wrote, “Accustomed to danger, the knight found in war yet another attraction: it offered a remedy for boredom. [E]veryday life [had] easily slipped into a grey monotony. Thus was born an appetite for diversions, . . . [and they] sought satisfaction in distant lands.”

McMullen points out that Bloch’s “interpretation sounds perfectly acceptable. It helps to explain things. But just how does the writer know what he tells us? In arriving at what may be judged a valuable insight, he uses no science, only imagination.”

One wonders, “what were that knight’s true feelings and motivation?” Perhaps the knight may have fought in a foreign war because he was drafted, or he was promised land or money, or he was starving and was given food. Boredom many not have motivated him at all, but how would anyone know?

Human beings can act in rational and reasonable ways, but they can act in irrational and unreasonable ways, in ways that the social scientists cannot measure or predict.

It is convenient to separate the mind from the feelings and to focus only upon the mind, and yet to be a human is to experience both the intellect and the emotions together, at the same time. The heart and the head are co-joined, and they work in tandem. This is especially true in the young. Remember our junior high days, when our emotions were raw and exposed, and easily bruised.

McMullen said, “The materials of mind, intellect, [and] reason are wrapped in...feelings; and necessarily so, for the survival of the species.”

What motivated the French citizens to act with as much unregulated passion as they did during the French Revolution, when both men and women marched in Paris’s streets carrying pitchforks and shovels, and when they soaked the guillotine in their victims’ blood? One historian stated, “The history of the [French] Revolution cannot be understood without an adequate theory of emotions.”

In our own country’s history, we can read John C. Calhoun’s reasonable and intellectual words, his formidable defense of slavery, but when we see and feel the enflamed passion that the abolitionists exhibited, we feel shocked. Someone asked the abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, “Why are you all on fire?” He replied, “I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”

Such human interest stories cause people to stop and think, and then act, for they are a fundamental engine of motivation. Ever since humanity began in a remote corner in Africa, stories, rumors, and even gossip have propelled people forward, to act in irrational and unpredictable ways. Today’s readers will read those historians who can disentangle people’s emotions from their actions.

McMullen said, “History is feeling. It is feelings that make us do what we do; and feelings can in fact be read. But the reading of them requires writers and readers to join their minds in ways that have long been out of fashion among students of history.”   

 

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