Letter to the Editor: On the "Future of the Discipline"

David Lindenfeld, February 2013

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To the Editor:

It is interesting to read the December section on the future of the discipline [Perspectives, December 2012] as representing a kind of map of its current concerns and preoccupations, though that was doubtless not its intent. In so doing, several striking features emerge. First, the label "transnational" appears to have eclipsed "world history" as the preferred description for the interconnectedness that many of us sense. But do we want to include transnational relationships between, say, France and Germany, or Togo and Benin, under this rubric? Frederick Cooper critiques the term "global" as being too broad, claiming to cover the entire planet. To my mind, "world history," as developed by William McNeill and others, captures something intermediate that the other two labels do not, namely what happens when such interconnections occur across profound cultural divides. This is and should be a matter of concern to historians today.

Second is the virtual absence of reference to the spiritual. Yet most people on the planet live by a set of beliefs, moral codes, and practices commonly called "religious," which obviously have their histories; a minority, including probably many of us historians, live by an overlapping set commonly called "secular." The treatment of the latter has customarily been the province of intellectual history, and Joan Wallach Scott's call for a return to theory is also an expression of it. Many societies do not draw a sharp dividing line between the two. I think it's time to combine religious and intellectual history into a "history of orientations," i.e., of how people have made sense of the invisible and intangible aspects of their existence, which empirical evidence, whether sensory, experimental, or statistical, can only partially describe or explain.

—David Lindenfeld, Louisiana State University