How to escape one’s theoretical baggage in four pages

A while ago now, a long while indeed, I submitted an article somewhere and it came back with three more-or-less positive reviews and a request from the editor that I send it somewhere else. Giving up on that journal at least, I nonetheless wanted to place the thing somewhere and consequently looked over the reviews in detail. One of the reviewers, whom I’m pretty sure I can identify, was enthusing about the theories of the state they saw implicit in what I was expounding and wanted them made explicit. There was no doubt in my mind that this would make the article better, even though those ideas had been so implicit I hadn’t realised I had them; this is what a good critical review can do for one’s work… Anyway, the result of this has been that for the last quite-a-while I have been working my way through a Vienna volume called Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, edited by Walter Pohl and Veronika Wieser. This was the proceedings of a conference that was itself a follow-up to a previous conference and volume, with more people talking shorter than the first time round.1 There is an awful lot of arguing, largely in German, about concepts of the state, about whether these even apply to medieval polities or whether the concepts are too restrictive and should do,2 and especially a lot of wrangling about the German word ‘Staatlichkeit’, which has no English equivalent. If it were to be given one it would be something like ‘statishness’, the qualities by which one characterises an organisation as a state, and by extension ‘the manner in which a state behaves’. At least, I think that’s fair.3

King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

How does one picture Staatlichkeit? I Googled images for it and I’ve been reading the book so long, and had it in my sidebar here all the while, that almost all the images are from here… Thus, a reused one, King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes reviewing royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior and looking a lot like state administration to me

There is a problem here that’s more than simply translation. I tend to be surprised and not a little put off when encountering much German scholarship by its wish to categorise the data of our sources according to ideal types, as if that tells us something about it that is greater than mere description would be. You’ve seen me complain about this when the categories are those of feudalism, but you can imagine a similar set of arguments around categories of state action and so forth. There is, of course, a counter-argument that says that my atheoretical positivist background leaves me doing this categorisation unconsciously, picking things that I think are important or interesting according to structures of thought I don’t acknowledge,4 and that therefore the model I’m characterising as German is more honest and correct, and I’m sympathetic to that whilst still thinking that going no further than categorisation and classification is a mistaken carry-over from the natural sciences that doesn’t advance our understanding. What I suppose this shows is that even when we’re conscious there’s a problem, it’s hard to entirely escape the preconceptions with which we were first equipped by our nazional-akademische Bildungscharakter, or whatever.

Max Weber aged 30

Here’s a national-academic character portrait all right! This man is probably partly to blame, this being of course Max Weber, here aged 30, and some years before inventing the ideal type as a tool of social analysis. “Max Weber 1894” This file is lacking source information. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In this volume there is a piece by Steffen Patzold, oft lauded here of course, that I think performs this escape.5 It’s rather stylish. The simplest way to demonstrate it may be to type up my notes on his first section. They go like this:

“How staatlich is Karolingia? is it a state in any modern sense? It lacks, for some, a clear legal order or state monopoly on force, but some would argue over most states if Weber sets criteria, and Charlemagne and Louis the Pious etc. clearly have some conception of a state or polity, so their categories probably more important; it certainly can’t be called stateless. Our categories still wrong ones, though, not least as barely admit several UN member states now, and there are bits of Berlin or Paris where state doesn’t reach… while at other end of scale international organisations beyond and outside states now affect most of them. Political theorists now dodge the issue with term ‘governance’, and question becomes ‘what forms of social practice are institutionalised in a given collectivity’? At that point, opposition of medieval and modern state harder to see, and this question can be asked of C8th and C9th Francia without problems….”

I imagine that some of my choices of words there for his carefully-chosen German will make Steffen blanch, and it could probably be argued that I still haven’t really understood the full subtlety of it, but it’s still fairly powerful, I think; he starts well within the intellectual tradition people expect, with Weber and indeed by talking theoretical approaches for the first four pages of a thirteen-page chapter without using the first noun in his title once. Quickly, however, he goes for the obvious weak points in the old approach to break a door open, and assembles various newer work into a fresh approach that looks as if it could mean more or less the same thing but which has the great advantage of transportability. This goes, to me, to show the extraordinary value of being willing to adapt others’ theories. I’m not entirely sure who couldn’t use that question of their area of study, if they wanted, which puts it a long long way ahead of ‘Gab es Staatlichkeit oder Urstaatlichkeit in dieser Volksgruppe, und wie viel?’ or similar. I’ve learnt something I can apply to my article from most of the chapters in this volume but this is one I shall be able to take away and cite and think with. Thankyou, Professor Doktor Patzold!

1. W. Pohl & V. Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – Europäische Perspektiven, Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 386, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009); Stuart Airlie, Pohl & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Der Staat im frühen Mittelalter, Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 334, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 11 (Wien 2006).

2. A debate exemplified in English usefully by Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies”, ibid. pp. 550-555.

3. Walter Pohl, “Staat und Herrschaft im Frühmittelalter: Überlegungen zum Forschungsstand” in Airlie, Pohl & Reimitz, Staat im Frühmittelalter, pp. 9-38.

4. Carl Łotus Becker, “Detachment and the Writing of History” in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 106 (Washington 1910), pp. 524-536, repr. in idem, Detachment and the Writing of History: essays and letters of Carl Ł. Becker, ed. Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca 1958), pp. 3-28.

5. Steffen Patzold, “Bischöfe als Träger der politischen Ordnung des Frankenreichs im 8./9. Jahrhundert” in Pohl & Wieser, Frühmittelalterliche Staat, pp. 255-268, section abstracted here pp. 255-259.

7 responses to “How to escape one’s theoretical baggage in four pages

  1. Natural sciences moved on from mere classification long ago: in physics since the sixties the emphasis has been on understanding the interactions more than classifying the particles; in mathematics, set theory has been subsumed, beginning in the forties, by the study of dynamic relationships as expressed in category theory.

    Concept maps are a simple example of this, but a proper category theory approach would look at the dynamic paths (successions of links) between concepts, persons, or other items of interest, to invesigate how they work together. Enormously complex in its entirety, but amenable to any temporary focus that takes your fancy.

    In the study of medieval history, one might look at known individuals – whether a person is a king or a peasant is not a fundamental separation – and how they interacted: when and where were they seen together, what did each do there, what did either one say about the other, in what ways was this event connected to others of this or other kinds, who’s related commercially, socially or genetically to whom and how, what reasons did they give for the things they did and the people they associated with, and so on.

    Of course our information is very incomplete, and some connections are tenuous, but all of that can be expressed in category theory models – an important point is that in category theory many incomplete models can, and usually do, co-exist.

    • Natural sciences moved on from mere classification long ago: in physics since the sixties the emphasis has been on understanding the interactions more than classifying the particles; in mathematics, set theory has been subsumed, beginning in the forties, by the study of dynamic relationships as expressed in category theory.

      It would perhaps be cruel to suggest that most medieval history is borrowing theory laid down in the 1960s anyway, of course, but not completely without truth. The 1970s might be nearer the mark…

      But more seriously, your third paragraph sounds a lot like what I already do, which gives me the same reaction on a smaller scale as my initial reaction on discovering that there was in fact such a thing as ‘social network theory’ and I hadn’t just picked the term up out of nowhere: on the one hand, a sense of relief that there might be some kind of instruction manual and on the other a sudden worry that I had been doing it wrong all along and would get found out now that the real stuff was making its way to where I, and therefore other historians, could use it. (And of course they had been for ages, just in the later Middle Ages where there’s enough demographic data to make it possible.)

      This also makes me reflect, therefore, that I am probably more guilty of the category sorting than the above should imply. Quite a lot of my thesis and book work is about examining what looks like one category (property-owners in the documents) and finding more subtle ways to grade them, in terms of wealth, range and connection etc. I have certainly established a couple of ‘types’ in my mind whom I recognise when their peers turn up. That said, it’s not quite the same game I think; there is slippage between categories, they’re not quite distinct, and the different scales of measurement don’t run in parallel; someone can be wealthy but not well-known or well-travelled (local chieftains), well-connected and therefore powerful but not (yet) wealthy (comital officials or followers), vagrant over a wide range but powerless (renegade preachers, not that I have many of those), poor but powerful (non-renegade monastics) and so on. So I don’t know whether this would be accommodated in one model or if what i am really looking at, in your terms, is the interaction of the models. But at some level, most historiography is that, as has been said here before, because we pick and choose from theory so much that we must wind up saying “here Marx but there Weber” or similar…

      Thankyou, this is being good to think with. Is there something like a Dummies’ Guide to Category Theory you would suggest for novices?

  2. Category theory resembles a good story: it can be simple or complex, all that’s required of each story is a consistency of its internal logic.

  3. That is, each category theory model resembles a good story. And of course a tale can be told from different viewpoints: each person’s account is a different model. It’s by comparing notes that a detective discovers a larger picture of events and is able to improve their understanding.

  4. I’m a natural scientist/archaeologist working in Germany after training in the UK. In my experience, “categorisation and classification” is definitely not characteristic of natural scientific approaches per se, but is symptomatic of quite a lot of German archaeological scholarship, though I can’t speak for other humanistic/scientific disciplines here. Description of an assemblage, or a reanalysis of an assemblage according to a hitherto-unused principle, is still a sufficient research end in itself. This leads to a certain amount of frustration for my non-German-trained research colleagues, who find that asking “Yes, but what’s your research question?” palls with repetition…

    • As far as the natural scientific comparison goes, I suppose I was thinking mainly of taxonomy, but yes, that’s hardly the whole of science, a fair point! Thankyou for the input.

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