Consider a few examples of historians, examples of varying range in specificity and generality: the Subaltern Studies group, the British Communist Party Historians Group, those historians in the milieu around the journal Race Traitor, civil rights historians who participated in the civil rights movement, women’s historians who participated in the mid-to-late 20th century women’s movement, and Cold War diplomatic historians. There are no doubt other examples. I would like to suggest that each of these is an example of historianly communities of conviction. By “community of conviction” I mean a group of people who share a common normative framework or at least strong overlaps among their normative frameworks. To put it another way, a community conviction shares a moral economy.
Each of these historianly communities of conviction is contained within a community of conviction not limited to historians. Indeed, if anything, each of the above historianly communities of conviction has, in terms of moral economy, as much in common with a particular community containing non-historians as they do with their fellow historians. That is, a historianly community of conviction forms, based on convictions, a subset relatively distinct from their historian colleague and forms, based on their being historians, a subset relatively distinct from the rest of their community of conviction. This is no surprise – people tend to have multiple relationships and to belong to a range of groupings.
I am not equipped at present to argue what defines a community of conviction or to explain their origins – in general or for any particular community, historianly or otherwise. I will only say that such communities exist, and, given the above examples, they include some very good historians.
I should also say, of course, that all human beings have some kind of convictions – there are probably no humans who do not believe in some kind of normative framework. As far back as Aristotle people have generally recognized that humans exist in linguistic and political communities; linguistic and political being means that humans are normative animals. Still, while all historians haven normative commitments, not all historians relate to their normative commitments in the same way. That is to say: it is an apparently obvious truth that while all historians have normative commitments not all historians have the same normative commitments. Yet, despite the obviousness, “historians have different normative commitments” is worth pausing over momentarily. That phrase is true in two ways. Historians have different content to the their normative frameworks. This is the obvious part. Perhaps less obvious is that and historians are committed in different ways to their normative frameworks. That is, historians normative frameworks appear in different ways and to different degrees in their work. A simplistic and schematic examplie: feminist historians are not the only historians who are feminists (ie, who hold a given normative framework), but they are the only historians whose historical scholarship reflects feminist convictions (ie, whose work reflects a particular orientation toward having that normative framework appear within their scholarship). This is a methodological or metanormative difference, a difference with regard to how historians orient toward and bring to bear their normative commitments. Historianly communities of conviction this share not only a moral economy but a metanormative structure of feeling. Thus, for my purposes here, conviction is both normative framework and orientation toward that normative framework.
I would like to suggest that the examples I began with demonstrate that historianly communities of conviction have enhanced the field of history. Some very fine historians who have made serious contributions to history belong to those communities. It’s debatable what role their convictions played in their contributions to scholarship – perhaps their being historians of those particular communities of conviction was extraneous to their excellence as scholars. That’s plausible, but I suspect that many of the historians I’ve alluded to would say that their convictions were central to their work, perhaps in two ways. On the one hand, their convictions helped supply some of their drive to create excellent scholarship. In that case, conviction has a relatively tenuous or accidental relationship to the importance of those scholars. Sure, their convictions helped them be driven to excel, but they could have found other reasons to be so driven and thus produced excellent scholarship without their convictions. After all, not all excellent scholarship is part of a community of conviction, at least not in the same way – not all groups of historians are like those examples. On the other hand, I can imagine those historians suggesting that their normative convictions and their orientations toward those convictions formed not only part of their drive to excel but part of why their work mattered. To put it another way, they might say that part of their contribution to scholarship was a normative contribution: they contributed to, or at least sought to contribute to, moral change within the field of history.
I suspect that this line of reflection can’t help but confirm what may be a sort of postmodern truism – there are no neutral positions and criteria of evaluation. That is, the degree to which a normative framework may be consider a contribution is dependent in part upon whether or not one has conviction in it – that is, on whether or not agrees with that framework and whether or not one has metanormative orientation toward that framework such that one thinks it ought to be reflected in scholarship. Again this touches on issues that I am not equipped to deal with, raising questions that spill into the jurisdiction of moral philosophy.
I would like to end with a few speculations or hypotheses. History as a discipline tends to be made up of people of conviction. As such, the discipline tends to have a wealth of normative frameworks. At the same time, history as a discipline has a difficult time addressing normative frameworks directly: it is hard to find institutionally designated spaces and common vocabularies for talking about what people’s normative commitments are, let alone talking about what they ought to be. I suspect, for example, that the sort of writing I am doing here is difficult to recognize as disciplinarily history. At best, I am a historian doing some theory for a moment. The difficulties in talking directly about normative frameworks means that historianly communities of conviction tend to get an important part of how they think about, justify, and maintain their convictions from the non-historianly parts of the community of conviction the belong to. (This is different, I think, from moral philosophy.)
History as a discipline strikes me as strongly animated by normative commitments. Furthermore history makes or can make an important contribution to normative frameworks and can transform them – as E.P. Thompson once wrote, history reconstructs theory. To use a spatial metaphor, though, where does this reconstruction take place? Within history? Or outside of history? To again be schematic, it strikes me at least some of the time that convictions cross a border into history, play an important animating role in some historical work, then that historical work crosses a border out of history where the historical work plays a role in reflection upon convictions. This is not a bad thing, it may also explain why historianly communities of conviction, at least those that I mentioned, have a tendency toward interdisciplinarity to some degree. A potential downside, perhaps, though is that when historians play a role in reconstructing conviction and reflect upon these matters, they are acting in ways that are an exception toward typical types of historianly behavior. As I said, I am unsure (or simply pessimistic) about how much I am writing like (ie, writing recognizable as) a historian at the moment. I also wonder if perhaps there is here a disconnect for historians. Historians tend to believe that history and historical cognition matters. Thinking historically is more accurate than thinking ahistorically, to make a general and ahistorical claim that most historians would I think nonetheless believe true. If thinking historically enhances thought, then to the degree that conviction matters in history, historians should think historically about conviction: a moral and prescriptive history of normative and metanormative reasoning.