New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things.

Academic journal cover“Socratic Courage in Plato’s Socratic Dialogues” by Shigeru Yonezawa in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy (June 2012).

Socrates is a frustrating character in Plato’s dialogues because it’s often so difficult to figure out what he really thinks or tries to achieve in any given conversation. For anyone trying to solve these Socratic puzzles, it helps to look at a particular dialogue in the context of some of the other ones. This is exactly what Yonezawa has done in his examination of the Socratic definition of courage.

Laches is the only dialogue devoted entirely to the discovery of the meaning of courage, but it ends without an explicit answer. But when Yonezawa considers conversations Socrates holds in other works — Protagoras, Apology and Gorgias — and the example of Socrates’ own life, he works out a definition of courage that seems to fit the bill. Socratic courage, according to Yonezawa, is steadfastness combined with the knowledge that we as humans are ignorant about whether death is actually an evil thing (and the confidence that no real harm can come to a good man in life or in death).

It was interesting for me to compare Yonezawa’s article to my own impression of Laches from a few years ago. In trying to define courage for myself, I focused on the act of moral choice in decisive moments rather than moral knowledge. My own definition of Socratic courage is similar to Yonezawa’s because both are characterized by an a priori confidence that the consequences of good deeds are never harmful for the soul. But while Yonezawa may have pieced together part of the puzzle, this religious axiom of the righteous soul’s invulnerability held by Socrates still remains a mystery. Is it an observable truth, a noble lie, or something else?

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  1. Loving Language said, on November 19, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    I know history professors–not a happy bunch. I think you’re right about a lack of creativity in what those in the humanities do with their education.

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