natural-science types and engineers have completely different intellectual worldviews: the first are empiricists while the second are rationalists. As a biochemist, reading Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex has me screaming at my laptop; not a pretty sight.
rms, comment on “Lawyers Guns and Money” blog, 8 July 2020
C.P. Snow’s two cultures are very English and a bit old-fashioned. I come from a country where most people learn physics and chemistry for 10 to 12 years, and I know both calculus and Latin. This is not so unusual in North America, L. Sprague de Camp was an amateur classicist, a poet, and an aeronatical engineer. So this week, I would like to describe three intellectual cultures which I see.
Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.
All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.
Michael Edelson, Cutting with the Medieval Sword: Theory and Application (CreateSpace, 2017) ISBN-13 978-0999290385 (hardcover) 978-1979910972 (softcover)
A sharp sword in a skilled hand is a fearsome cutting weapon. When the sword or the swordsman is inadequate, fighters can find themselves helplessly slapping their opponent’s hat or clothing. There is now a book for the historical fencing movement on how to cut through things effectively. This one is by an instructor who teaches at a school in New York City, competes in cutting and fencing tournaments, and used to be quite active and aggressive on forums. In the historical fencing world, his main interest is the art from Central Europe associated with a poem which circulated under the name of Meister Liechtenauer, the Kunst des Fechtens. This art probably emerged in the late 14th century and flourished until there was a ‘martial arts craze’ for Italian fencing in 17th century Germany.
A practical book on the use of weapons raises three basic questions. Can I understand it? Are its teachings something I want to commit to trying? After a substantial period of training, have these teachings made me more effective? When reconstructing historical and prehistorical martial arts like 18th century backsword play or the use of bronze swords, there is a fourth question: how does the book support its claim to describe how things were done back in the day? My first impression is that this book is clear and that probably 80-90% of the theory describes one good way of doing things. The most controversial teaching is the insistence on stepping into range (measure) and then cutting. How to do this without walking into a cut or thrust is “beyond the scope of this book” (p. 57). I don’t have a sharp longsword with me, or money to spend on things to chop up (and my sharp longsword is the long stiff poky kind not the broad flexible choppy kind). So this review will focus on how this book justifies its claims. I am a professional at analyzing arguments, but only a dabbler at fencing.
As human beings and as scientists in the early 21st century, we have a crisis of epistemology and misinformation. Science is a system for distributed, verified trust and as the rate of publications increases, and new discoveries lead to conclusions which threaten more and more wealthy actors, that system has been breaking down. There is lots of talk about blame, but I don’t find that is helpful. Often, what seem to be two opposed factions lean on each other like tired wrestlers, and use the commotion of their fighting to keep their supporters too busy to ask awkward questions about the gap between the policies that their representatives say they support and the policies they enact. Instead of laying blame, I would like to talk about one of the things we are doing to solve this.
“Idiot! All you have to do is stop wearing that silly robe and get rid of that daft hat and no one will even know you’re a wizard! … Just get rid of them. It’s easy enough, isn’t it? Just drop them somewhere and then you could be a, a, well, whatever. Something that isn’t a wizard.” …
Rincewind nodded gloomily. “I don’t think you understand. A wizard isn’t what you do, it’s what you are. If I wasn’t a wizard, I wouldn’t be anything.” He took off his hat and twiddled nervously with the loose star on its point, causing a few more cheap sequins to part company.
Terry Pratchet, Sourcery (Corgi Books: London, 1988) pp. 147-148 the first visit to the tower of sourcery
A Haida filmmaker is pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who pretend to be Indigenous in order to access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people. Tamara Bell said she wants those who misrepresent their identity to face fines and even prison time.
Angela Sterritt, “Indigenous filmmaker wants fines, jail time for ‘pretendians’ who misrepresent their identity” CBC News, 2021-Jan-19 (link)
If you follow the news or corporate social media, you will see how often the gap between identities as internal self-belief and identities as external attributes leads to conflict. Most people are reluctant to explain what is at issue or how the word “identity” is used in different ways, and they are even more reluctant to talk about why we started talking about the first kind of identity. I am not an intellectual historian, but as a military historian I will tell the bloody story as well as I can. This is a tale of genocide and oppression and the cycles between different ways of thinking about complicated areas of life.
A few years ago I drafted a post about two different approaches to the study of the ancient world. I put it aside but then my mother, Stefano Costa, and Dimitri Nakassis started to talk about a recent New York Times piece on Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his argument that “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” I think it is time to pull those ideas out and give my perspective as an ancient historian and orientalist who is not American or British.
A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.
For a long time I have been meaning to find the original citations for the great debate between sociologist Max Weber and historian and orientalist Eduard Meyer about the significance of the first two Persian invasions of Attica (the Athenians didn’t like to talk about the third Persian army and fleet which arrived a hundred years later and was welcomed with open arms). Jona Lendering mentioned it in his article on the significance of Marathon but when he was creating his site he was bullied into leaving out citations by teachers who were worried that their students would crib from it. I finally have the passage: Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, 4th edition (Därmstadt, 1965), Bd. IV.2.3 p. 420 http://www.zeno.org/nid/20002751402 Meyer had just noted that Delos and many other sacred sites in Greece seemed to have a working relationship with the Persian kings by the beginning of the fifth century BCE. I will give the original German and then my translation.