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Polemic and History

Polemic and History

A number of critics of Anthroposophy have acknowledged that they are writing polemical history when they attack Rudolf Steiner. Some even seem puzzled as to why that is considered a ‘bad’ thing. And certainly, from one point of view there is nothing ‘bad’ about polemic; it is what it is, after all. I have further argued that polemic history has important differences from standard, or what I even might call “ideal” history. Should someone attempt to point out that all history is necessarily polemical, I beg to differ. Whether something is or is not polemical has to do with the intention of the author, not the effect of the work.

Examining the etymology of the word, as shown in the dictionary entry at the end of this essay, the word polemic is derived from the Greek “war” and was originally used in theological contexts. To indulge in polemic is to wage war against an idea and those holding the idea. Originally, it was theological (religious) ideas that were so attacked, but in the present, polemic is an attack on any sort of idea. So while in on narrower sense the word also means “argument”, perhaps even in the sense of “to formulate a case against” it clearly has stronger connotations, as a glance at the list synonyms (also listed below) makes clear. A polemical argument is not one that is necessarily couched on reason, nor is reason the only tool at the disposal of the polemicist. And a polemical argument is certainly not one that will consider all sides of an issue in an attempt to find truth. That is, a polemical argument is by definition not objective. Being objective (or fair) is not the objective of polemical writing.

History is an examination of the past, done from the present. History goes beyond merely cataloging details of events, and involves an attempt to put these events into a meaningful context, and answer questions involving “Why?” If (big if) you subscribe to a philosophical realist or idealist position, then there will be some answers that are more correct, and others less correct. The relativist historian, on the other hand, sees the past a collection of raw material to be assembled into whatever order pleases him or her and/or suits his or her conscious or unconscious agenda. No explanation is any more right or wrong than any other, they are merely more or less effective. All is merely a matter of how you choose to look at things. If, on the other hand, some versions of history are correct, and others incorrect, then this implies that those who care about truth are seeking a more correct version. Pursuing the goal of truth for its own sake, the more objective and fair you can be, the closer you are likely to come.

That is worth repeating. If you believe in truth and pursuing truth for its own sake, then the more objective and fair you can be, the closer you are likely to come. How does polemic fit into this? With polemic you are waging war against an idea, and probably for some reason. Any and all tools, tricks, and methods are at your disposal, including selective presentation and even outright and deliberate distortion, even the extremes of fabricating of charges against those you are attacking. While all polemical writers do not necessarily employ these less savory methods – some may even eschew all of them – there is a long history of such tactics within the genre. Nor is objectivity and fairness a helpful in to the goals of polemical writings. They may appear inadvertently in some polemical pieces, but they don’t help the effectiveness of such a piece as polemical writing (on the other hand, the appearance of objectivity and fairness, is just another trick in the bag of the polemical writer – call it camouflaged polemic, or polemic masquerading as objective presentation). And even if no deliberate distortion or even selective presentation is employed (in which case the piece is arguably no longer polemical) there is still the question of the writer’s intention.

A polemical writer has the intention of convincing, of changing the opinion of their readers on some subject or other. While they may hope to convince by force of reason rather than intellectual subterfuge, if in the end either method is considered valid in pursuit of the goal (a variation of “the ends justifies the means” morality) then the goal is no longer truth, but power. Or put another way, if winning is more important than how you play the game, you desire victory over sportsmanship, or power over truth. When does writing cross the line from elucidating to polemical? When the author crosses the lines of sportsmanship and resorts to dirty tricks to win the point, whether in such mild a manner as selective quotation that alters the original author’s intent only slightly, or as strong as outright fabrication.

We can discern two opposing attitudes on the part of an author. The author may be offering the results of their research for consideration, fully respecting the freedom and integrity of their readers, or an author may be determined to convince the reader, sway them to a certain viewpoint and away from another viewpoint. The second is the source of polemical writing, the first of objective, or elucidating writing. Consider further the consequences of error in the two types of authors. A writer who is honestly seeking truth for its own sake, and sharing the results of their struggle as an offering to their fellow human beings may in some instances be wrong, but their intention is not coercive. A writer who is seeking only to convince, to marshal an argument, may also be wrong, however the moral quality of such a coercive untruth is quantitatively different.

In my estimation, a true historian is someone interested in the past who offers results of their research for consideration, no strings attached, in a spirit of openness and desire for truth. In such true historical research, contrary viewpoints would be first and foremost interesting, and therefore included, rather than distained and dismissed. The polemical historian, on the other hand, is fighting for a cause, against another cause, and is simply abusing history as the raw material in support the argument. Beyond the moral quality of the attempted coercion, the polemical historian has every reason to mislead the reader by ignoring additional perspectives or distorting them to blunt their effectiveness. For this reason alone a polemical historian is not to be trusted.

Daniel Hindes
March 13th, 2004


The NEW OXFORD Dictionary of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

noun a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something: his polemic against the cultural relativism of the Sixties | [MASS NOUN] a writer of feminist polemic.
(usu. polemics) the art or practice of engaging in controversial debate or dispute: the history of science has become embroiled in religious polemics.
adjective another term for POLEMICAL.
polemicist noun
polemicize (also -ise) verb.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek polemikos, from polemos β€˜war’.

The NEW OXFORD Thesaurus of ENGLISH (2003 Edition)

Polemic (noun)
1 this is not just a polemic against injustice
DIATRIBE, invective, denunciation, denouncement, rant, tirade, broadside, attack, harangue, verbal onslaught; reviling, railing, decrying, condemnation, brickbats, flak, criticism, censure, lecture, berating, admonishment, admonition, abuse, stream of abuse, battering, stricture, tongue-lashing, vilification, vituperation, obloquy, fulmination, castigation, reprimand, rebuke, reproof, reproval, upbraiding; informal knocking, blast; Brit. informal slating; rare philippic.
2 (polemics) skilled in polemics
ARGUMENTATION, argument, debate, contention, dispute, disputation, discussion, controversy, altercation, faction, wrangling; formal contestation.

Polemical (adjective)
Brunner published a polemical tract against Barth
CRITICAL, hostile, bitter, polemic, virulent, vitriolic, venomous, waspish, corrosive, biting, caustic, trenchant, cutting, acerbic, sardonic, sarcastic, scathing, acid, sharp, keen, tart, pungent, stinging, astringent, incisive, devastating, piercing; rare acidulous, mordacious.

March 13th, 2004

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