Category Archives: Michael McKeon

Michael McKeon says Goodbye to the Long Eighteenth

[Here’s Michael’s final statement–DM]

Now that the “collective reading” of The Secret History of Domesticity is over I’d like to thank both participants and silent readers for their interest–of the former, especially Dave, Carrie S., and Laura, who’ve given me a great deal to ponder. It’s a unique experience, at least for me–a running “review” that’s really more like a virtual workshop held on the occasion of a recently published book.

I hope the discussion has generated interest in the book that will outlive the occasion. And I’d welcome and respond to ( any thoughts that didn’t get aired in the past few days. I’m new to blogging (and had some technical difficulties here, as Dave in his patience can testify), and I see what a remarkable difference it can make in helping subcultures like our own to cohere. Thanks again to everyone involved. Now go out and buy the paperback!


McKeon on the Difference between Post-Structuralist and Marxist Attitudes towards the Hermeneutic Circle

[Once again, half of Michael’s posted comments in our exchange were consumed by cyber-gremlins today, so I have reunited them and put them up here for easier reading–DM]


Although I can see there may be some basic disagreements between us about historical method, I’ll first try to be clearer about what my method aims to do.

By the distinction between seeing the past in its own terms and seeing it in terms other than its own I mean something simpler–more methodological or structural and less epistemologically-“truth” oriented–than you take me to mean. For me the distinction doesn’t entail opposing determinate contents–the initial categories are epistemologically-speaking arbitrary–but is rather the engine that sets in motion the process of understanding by which the discovery of determinate contents will be achieved. That motion is dialectical in the sense that the nature of the “internal” and “external” viewpoints it works with is defined by an interaction, like that between particular facts or bits of evidence and a general hypothesis, whereby the two enter into a back-and-forth process of reciprocal revision until a point is reached at which what seems a satisfactory correspondence between the two has been found–i.e., at which the hypothesis seems adequately responsive to the data and the data seem adequately contained by the hypothesis.

This isn’t to “idealize” the act of historical understanding but to acknowledge its possibility, and to suggest a “realistic” way of going about it. By the criteria of the “satisfactory” and the “adequate” I mean the sorts of probabilistic standards that govern empirical analysis, although the “rules of evidence” that apply in this sort of study are more like those that operate in a court of law than like those involved in scientific method. The problem I have with poststructuralism in this regard is that the absoluteness of its epistemological skepticism, at least on paper, makes this kind of judgment impossible. If the choice is between either the accessibility or the inaccessibility of the past, the choice becomes a dichotomous opposition between absolutes for neither of which methodological decisions about the adequacy of evidence to a particular hypothesis have any interest. This is the choice between the positivism of “a privileged access to the past” and “some fixed point of historical truth” on the one hand and the relativism or aestheticism of “valuable insights” on the other. If the value of insights is assessed rhetorically, i.e., by the degree to which they speak to or satisfy the needs or expectations of a contemporary audience, there’s no way of judging between the value of insights that, relatively speaking, are equally attuned to their respective publics. (Nor, to return to the defense of a “master narrative,” is there any middle ground where the epistemological value of taking into account a little evidence or a lot, or of doing it “well” or “badly,” might be assessed.)

If these were really the principles on which literary critics and historians operated, their investment in either activity would seem inexplicable. I include criticism here because I think reading a text is liable to the same sorts of epistemological caveats as is “reading” the past. Adducing a text’s “own” terms is no less problematic than adducing those of the past, yet the ambition to do this probabilistically–“privileged” not a priori but by virtue of the way one construes the meaning(s) of a text on the evidentiary basis of the language in which it’s written–is one we’re happy to shoulder, as teachers and writers, on a daily basis.

As I understand it, the difference between poststructuralist and Marxist method, at least on the theoretical level, can be expressed as the difference between two distinct attitudes toward the hermeneutic circle. To analyze the nature of the parts on the basis of our knowledge of the whole presupposes a knowledge of the parts as that which gives the whole its wholeness; to begin at the level of the parts presupposes a knowledge of the whole on the basis of which their partial nature is predicated. For poststructuralist theory, this is a contradiction that precludes knowledge. For Marxist theory it’s a contradiction–between parts and whole, between own terms and other terms, between interpretation and explanation–that inaugurates the process of coming to knowledge.

Michael McKeon

McKeon Responds to Dave and Laura on Presentism (from Comments)

[Since this response ran through three consecutive Comment posts, I thought it would be easier to read, follow, and respond to if I pasted it into a single new post. Laura, if you’d like, perhaps you could respond here? And, please, if others are interested, join us–DM]

Dave and Laura,

I agree entirely that “interpretation” and “explanation” form a dialectical doublet, in their interrelation defining what historical method should aim to achieve. I emphasize the former only because I feel as though “our” attentiveness to the self-conceptions of the past in recent years has been overbalanced by methods and perspectives that derive from modern experience. By this I meant something very imprecise, and the term “presentist” is probably misleading except in so far as it, too, means simply “what postdates the portion of the past that’s under study.” I think “explanation” is crucial to historical study, but perhaps only once (a schematic temporalization) “interpretation” has defined a sense of the past’s self-understanding on the basis of which the claim to “explain” by *other* means can become intelligible.

So in these terms, the presentism I sought to rebalance in Secret History is the tendency to read the period in which modernity first seems to emerge (which I take at least to include the 18th century) from the viewpoint of the failures of modernity, paradigmatically, capitalism, the bourgeoisie, class conflict, liberalism, the public sphere, separate spheres, “The Enlightenment.” To study these things from the viewpoint of “the past” is, as I’ve already quoted, “to view the past not only as the prelude to our present but also as a response to its own past” (xxvii), a formulation that suggests that the distinction between interp. and explan. can also name the difference between attending to the intentional *motives* with which past activities, etc. were undertaken and elaborating a theoretical or *causal* understanding whose possibility depends on taking a certain distance from the aims of the past culture in question. In 1690 capitalism meant not commodity fetishism, alienated labor, and the extraction of surplus labor but freedom from hierarchical political and economic control. The bourgeoisie was not a self-conscious class whose ideology sought to universalize its own interests. Indeed, whether it even existed is a definitional rather than an empirical question–hence my objection (74) to the translation of Habermas’s burgerlich as bourgeois rather than civil. What people *experienced* in 1690 was not class conflict but a conflict between status-based assumptions about the coextension of birth and worth and emergent class-based assumptions that worth was a function of labor discipline within one’s calling, or simply one’s industrious accomplishments and the upward mobility that attended them.

Except for a few thoughtful “Tory feminists,” “liberalism” wasn’t an ideology of human rights and negative freedom that nonetheless silently drew the line at women and indigent men but a revolutionary alternative to the tacit belief in monarchal legitimacy. Similarly, the public sphere wasn’t a hypocritical claim to inclusiveness and equality but a revolutionary intuition that the determination of public affairs should be the work of others besides the king and his ministers. Separate spheres was not simply the modern, more ruthlessly efficient instantiation of patriarchal inequality but one result of reconceiving gender relations no longer as a matter of better vs. worse but instead as a matter of equality in difference. And the Enlightenment was not the dogmatic adherence to rational and instrumental “objectivity” but a dialectical effort to make sense of the difference between the object and the subject, science and the humanities that had been bequeathed by the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. This is not to fashion an apology for modernity but to fill in its other side (as it seems these days necessary to do) so as to come closer to an understanding of the past as, like the present, historical process.This sort of presentism can’t be laid at the door of any single recent critical movement: the post-structuralist demystification of “history,” utopian Marxist contempt for the achievements of modernization, new historicist efforts to “do” history outside the protocols of empiricism–i.e., without abandoning the poststructuralist belief that “history” is epistemologically inaccessible–all these have contributed to the haze of “negative hermeneutics” (Ricoeur) of our times. To recur to one of your points, Dave, although I see what you mean about the comparable vulnerability of “presentism” and “historicism” to partiality, I’d rather reorient these terms, partly on the precedent of previous usage. I take presentism itself to be a mode of “historicism” in the now very general sense of historicism as entailing any commitment to historical understanding. But as I see it, “historicism” came into usage to name what I’ve been calling “interpretation,” the aim to study the past in its own terms, as opposed to the aim to elaborate general laws of historical formation and development that can “explain” history in a more trans-historical fashion, i.e., the attempt to apply the model of scientific “natural laws” to sociohistorical experience.(I associate this meaning of historicism with, e.g., Troeltsch and Dilthey; but ironically Popper and others later adopted the term to describe and discredit what I’m calling “explanation”.)

And I agree that to conceive interpretation as the study of the past in its own terms begs the question of what, or even more *whose*, past we’re talking about. Thinking of inter./explan. as methodologically a dialectical doublet, however, suggests that this is the necessary next step in interpretation: dividing interpretation–a whole vis a vis its opposition to explanation–into its own parts once that preceding division has been accomplished. This can be both diachronic and synchronic: the former in so far as “the past” we seek to understand is a chronology that needs diachronic subdivision if we’re to sort out different viewpoints and perspectives; certainly the latter once we recognize that any diachronic period is defined apart from others according to a synchronic perception of what makes it, as a unit, different from surrounding periods. I.e., synchronic study isn’t the opposite of diachronic study, it presupposes it as the means by which any slice of diachrony becomes susceptible, by bracketing adjacent chronologies, to synchronic understanding. In this respect I don’t think cultural studies devotes itself to synchronic rather than diachronic study; it brackets the problem of diachrony–and thereby takes a position on diachrony–by conceiving a period (or a decade or a day) as susceptible to its “own” analysis. And I think we owe synchronic study not to any recent thinking but to the Scottish Enlightenment historians and then, soon after, to the full elaboration of Marx, for whom the synchronic relationship between infrastructure and superstructure became as indispensable to “historical” study as is the relationship between one event or period and others. (The attribution of the discovery of synchrony to cultural studies might even be seen as an example of “presentism,” like the case of looking to Said [as Dave points out]for the origins of what Selden already practiced.) And I think that when people castigate “master narratives” they’re not thinking of diachronic totalizations alone. The strong meaning of “teleology” as positing “at the outset a result purported to emerge only as the result of inquiry” (xxv) doesn’t require a linear narrative in which to operate. After all, Marx’s synchronic relation of ideology/material base has been accused (although I think wrongly)of teleology, as well as of “abstraction” and “reduction.” On the other hand, the ambition to hunt out teleology has led some to conflate teleology with linear succession or temporality, which seems to me a mistake. (If this were true, then chronological readings would be ipso facto “evolutionary” readings, whereas in fact they also can be, and can be criticized as, “devolutionary.”)For a discussion of interp./explan. that very interestingly argues the subtlety with which that distinction can be made when applied to micro-questions of whether individual actions are the result of “internal” motive or “external” cause see Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Idea of a Social Science,” in Against the Self-Images of the Age (Notre Dame, 1984), 211-29.

Michael McKeon

Michael McKeon Responds, part II (Questions for us)

[this is the second part of the email that Michael sent me–DM]


In order to take full advantage of this remarkable opportunity to talk to others at some length about my work, I’d like now to list a number of topics that haven’t yet received attention in this discussion. Some of these are arguments, others are ideas or formulations; some are obvious, at least in outline, some I’ve learned from others, some I’ve developed myself; but all I’ve found peculiarly illuminating in the thinking that went into writing this book. I’d be most grateful for any reflections readers might have on these things, either pro or contra, either their interest and utility in themselves or the way I’ve employed them in Secret History.

1.) The effort to coordinate thinking about the division of knowledge at the most general and the most particular of levels with thinking about the division of labor in a similar fashion (see, most explicitly, 324-27).

2.) The distinction between positive and negative freedom, especially as I’ve conceived it in tandem with the difference between the traditional and the modern.

3.) My attempt to juxtapose literary and graphic means of treating form and structure in the representation of spatial relations. Although my ample use of illustrations in Secret History is of course broadly relevant to this topic, it becomes most explicit in my discussion of genre painting in chapter 8, 423-35.

4.) My characterization of what’s new about “the public” in the modern world as the virtuality of an imagined social totality whose indefinite inclusiveness is able to admit all of those private, actual individuals who pre-exist and determine the nature of that whole. I speak most directly about this conceptualization at 106-9 and 324, where it’s exemplified not only by the public sphere, the market, and representative democracy but also by the realm of aesthetic experience.

5.) The theory that the transition from traditional to modern notions of “personality’ is marked by a shift in the location of “the natural” from the social to the sexual register: see 274-77.

Thanks in advance. And for those readers who haven’t purchased a copy of Secret History, the paperback edition is scheduled to be available by the end of October at about half the price of the hardbound.

Michael McKeon

[Since Michael has been so generous in his responses to our queries, I’d like to keep the McKeon collective reading going for at least another day or so. Feel free to use the comments or to do your own posts to respond.–DM]

Michael McKeon Responds, part I

[Michael McKeon has asked me to post these comments on his behalf–DM]

In the last couple of days I’ve been using the comments buttons to enter into discussion on specific issues. Today I’d like to post a few responses to recent comments, as well as raise some more general issues about Secret History that may deserve more discussion.


Laura has added to her earlier remarks on the liability of the claim that civic humanism dominates sociopolitical thought around the turn of the 18th century and generates liberal discourse and capitalist ideology as a response to it. As she points out, this claim discourages recognition of the degree and depth of various efforts to confront the effects of emergent capitalist practices that occur well before civic humanism is supposed to have seized the reins of debate in the last two decades of the 17th century. I agree: the diverse range of negative speculation on emergent capitalism is thereby reduced to the ideology of a single posture, that of civic humanism, whose meaning and implications we’re supposed already to know. As for positive speculation about capitalist practices, let alone capitalist ideology, the civic-humanism-as-dominant thesis would deny its very existence until the ch critique has generated a positive defense of it. This thesis isn’t supported by the evidence (see pp. 24-33; those interested in a fuller critique of the ch thesis on both substantive and methodological grounds may want to read my essay “Civic Humanism and the Logic of Historical Interpretation,” which will appear in a collection of essays on JGA Pocock edited by DeAnn DeLuna). Moreover the ch thesis imperialistically lays claim to defining the perspective of anyone who uses ideas or words (“corruption,” “luxury,” apprehension regarding the virtuality of credit, etc.) that the proponents of that thesis identify as the intellectual property of ch.


So the ch thesis is in my view a good example of what’s wrong with master narratives (another topic Laura addresses): that is, not with form itself but the form when practiced badly. Master narratives are simply large versions of what all of us necessarily do whenever we generalize broadly about the meaning of the particular phenomena we’re treating. The real question in all such cases is: how persuasive is the fit between particular instances and overarching generalization? How open is the generalization to particular instances that would seem on the face of it to contradict it? How supple is the generalization in adjusting to the presence of particulars that clearly *do* challenge it? Some master narratives–I think Margaret Doody’s True Story is a good example–posit a vast thesis that never is subjected to this sort of questioning; “the novel” is simply asserted to have existed in classical antiquity and to be accessible to us over time as the history of the influence of (what conventional usage calls) “the Greek romance.” Both Dave–“pulling things together”–and Laura–the “accumulation of evidence”–speak of the virtues of a master narrative that throws its net very wide so as to be able to generalize about a very broad range of evidence; and this is what I’ve tried to do in Secret History. But the most important feature of a master narrative that does its job is its capacity to put particulars and generals in dialectical relation and ongoing reciprocity. My greatest ambition in Secret History was to construct an argument of great breadth but, at the most abstract level, also of relative simplicity, one whose broad plausibility might be confirmed by reference to the different kinds of evidence it mobilizes at several levels of particularity. The virtue of simplicity is not that it sums up everything with full adequacy to all it refers to, but that it provides a heuristic key by which to discover similarities between phenomena that at levels of increasing particularity are quite different from each other. This is what I hoped to do with formulaic lines of thought that run throughout the book, like distinction-separation-conflation, tacit-explicit, division-dialectical recapitulation, the devolution of absolutism, from domestication to domesticity. In the Introduction (xx) I approach this generalizing aim from another direction, one that specifies the variety of spheres of human experience that may be brought together under the generalization that “the division of one term into two … has played an important part in substantiating the notion that the modern relation of the public and the private has entailed a splitting of a former tacit whole into oppositional and self-sufficient parts.” The singular categories by which I then exemplify this generalization are estate, status, gender, honor, propriety, religion, subjecthood, knowledge, romance, and individual. In one of my comments the other day I used one of these categories–the splitting of “knowledge” into “external sense impressions” and “internal creative imagination”–as a kind of shorthand, a way of using the emergence of empirical epistemology and scientific method in particular to summarize the entire historical transformation that’s the subject of Secret History. But this is to make epistemology the favored means by which to summarize all other bodies of thought and practice, a risky and potentially biased move if made unconditionally since one might say that it’s precisely the epistemologization of knowledge–its disembedding from social practice–that defines the modern viewpoint. So again, the point is not to reduce each of these developments to the status of all others, but to offer a way of toggling back and forth between the sheer multiplicity of experience in a given historical context and the generalizations by which we may find order in diversity.


One reason I’m hard put to compare my method with that of other literary historians like Gallagher and William Warner, as Dave has asked me to do, is that my aim in this book is to generalize about historical change by using literary history as only one example among several that profit from being understood in terms of the public-private relationship. That’s why I remark that the movement I describe from secret history to domestic novel is meant to offer not a genetic account of the origins of the latter form so much as a “peculiarly persuasive, because structurally eloquent, example of the historical trajectory … from relations of distinction to relations of separation” (xxi-xxiii). Of course the argument I make in this book grows out of a career of reading both literature and literary criticism focused on the 18th century. But to characterize my method I think I need to have recourse to readings in historiography and historical method, especially the distinction between interpretation and explanation–to simplify, the difference between understanding the past in its own terms and understanding it in terms not available to it. I think historical method needs to pursue both of these approaches. But it seems to me that the major tendency of theory and criticism in the past several decades (often enough with positive results) has been toward a presentist strategy by which the past has been made intelligible according to modern standards of understanding. Over the years I’ve been more troubled than informed by the results of this tendency, and so in many respects I’ve aimed here “to view the past not only as a prelude to our present but also as a response to its own past” (xxvii).