17 August 2007

Superman has left the building (2)

A number of people wrote back to me about my Superman has left the building yesterday. Many of them wrote to question the dating of The Great Man Theory in general, and its attribution to Carlyle in particular. This is my own fault - I passed the question, and my own view of it, off with a too casual "(debatable, but not crucial here)", because I wanted to get on with other aspects. To clarify my own position: I see the essence of this world view as probably having been around from prehistoric times; certainly the evidence of the record shows that it has been prevalent throughout history.

Dubner's attribution of the specific term to Carlyle is a common one which I am too lazy to check out thoroughly. It seems not impossible on the face of it, given his assertion that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men", and was certainly academically popular around his period, but it was in any case simply a labeling exercise for a preexisting condition.

One of those who wrote in on the subject was Ray Girvan, to whom I always listen with respect and who has been expanding my thinking for a couple of decades. In his words, the Great Man Theory was "the dominant assumption behind historical accounts, right from antiquity (history as a chronology of a string of kings and heroes) that didn't get questioned until Marx". His doubts about Carlyle were an aside, however; his reason for writing was to offer me a "pleasant contrast" to the view of science as a string of great men, in the form of A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks" by Clifford D Conner. Ray has written his own review of the book, which is worth reading in its own right and provides other links off into further fascinating material.

The book is available on Amazon and I've immediately put it in my shopping basket there.

  • Conner, C.D., A people's history of science : miners, midwives, and "low mechanicks". 2005, New York, Nation books. 1560257482 (pbk).

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