Splitting or Lumping—de gustibus non est disputandum?

David Meskill

I don’t read journal articles, especially on cultural and social history, very often. When I do, I frequently find myself not merely disappointed with particular entries, but deeply frustrated with the field of history as a whole. This is because so many historians see it as their task to be splitters, and just splitters. They try to find exceptions to others’ generalizations; they “interrogate”—in the current lingo—“grand” or “meta-narratives” they dislike. This is fine, as far as it goes. It’s the critical work necessary for any advance in knowledge. The problem is that these historians rarely add to the criticism any daring new construction, which is equally necessary for the kind of knowledge we should be producing. They don’t offer new, truer, bolder generalizations and narratives to replace the old, discredited ones. Or perhaps they do, but only by insinuation (see Foucault’s negative Whiggism: everything is getting worse). That is, these historians are not lumpers—creating bigger pictures of reality. They revel in the specificity of their interests.

I am a lumper, an outsider in my own field. So when I recently read some articles in cultural history, articles interrogating, splitting narratives in the history of emotions (it should be acknowledged that cultural history is the home turf of the splitters), I again found myself frustrated with the whole approach. But, I told myself in resignation, this was ultimately a matter of taste. Some people just like to split, others to lump.
Is that the case, however? Between splitting or lumping non est disputandum? Do we just leave it at that?

I now don’t think so. At least a couple of methodological considerations suggest we ought to encourage historians to engage in more lumping and less splitting (or perhaps less splitting merely as an end in itself).

First, the goal of any science or intellectual endeavor should be to discover the simplest possible explanations of the broadest swathe of the world. If explanation A accounts for 99 “facts” about the world and explanation B accounts for the same plus one more, B is an improvement over A. It’s what we should aim for. It may not be possible to explain more than 99 facts in that area, i.e. explanation B may be out of reach. But it would remain a heuristic goal. The same goes for simplicity: if explanations C and D both explain something equally well, but D is simpler than C, we should prefer it over C (Ockham’s Razor). The upshot of this is that, all things being equal, a simple grand narrative is better than small or complex narratives. Now, there may not be any simple grand narratives that are also true. But I have the feeling that many historians, especially cultural historians, are asserting more than this. They are not only saying there aren’t grand narratives; they are saying, or at least suggesting, that we shouldn’t even search for them, we shouldn’t even maintain the simple grand narrative as a heuristic goal. They not only ascertain the ostensible messiness of the world; they appear to revel in it as well. But as far as I can tell, they have never provided, or even attempted to provide, any cogent reasons for abandoning the aim of achieving simple explanations of as much of the world as possible.

The second reason to prefer lumping over splitting has to do with ideas drawn from fractal geometry. This field studies “self-similarity” at different scales, for example the ways in which a cloud, a coastline, or a snowflake has the same shape (puffy, jagged, intricate) regardless of how closely you look at it. Because of this, fractals are said to be infinitely complex. Applied to history, this raises significant problems for the whole splitting project. If you want to split, just where do you stop? Why deconstruct only so far as level X? Why not keep going, to level X-1, X-2, etc. ad infinitum? If the world is infinitely complex (and this is what the splitting approach can sometimes teasingly hint at—in the spirit of Clifford Geertz’ “turtles all the way down” comment) then no real knowledge is possible, and no one should be writing anything. It only makes sense to stop—and to write—if you think the world is not infinitely complex, if you think there are identifiable regularities at some level. But once a splitter admits this, he/she has given up his/her game, or at least the spirit behind it. For if we can generalize about the world, then—see the first point above—we should try to make those generalizations as broad (and elegantly simple) as possible. Then it’s right back up the stack of turtles, as far as we can go.

I’m not suggesting the profession only needs David Christians, William McNeills and Jared Diamonds. We need lots of specialists, too. But what I think we could use less of is the urge only to split without building up, without offering daring grand narratives. Splitting alone, especially when it revels in destruction, is neither intellectually coherent (point 2) nor worthy of our intellectual aims (point 1).