Charles A. Beard, an Intellectual Biography

By Ellen Nore | Go to book overview

12

Science, Relativity,
and Faith

Many who wrote during the 1950s and 1960s about Beard's relativism dismissed his writings on this subject as full of contradictions, as displaying an ignorance of the German writers he cited, and as, somehow, an early warning of what many liberal historians then regarded as unjustified criticism of Franklin Roosevelt in Beard's last books. Beard was called a gadfly who had shouldered a "historiographical chip." 1 Richard Hofstadter found no reason in 1968 to disagree with "most of the philosophers and historians who have written about his work on the problem of historical knowledge" and who had "judged it to be not only derivative but fragmentary, obscure, and sometimes contradictory." Summarizing the judgment of the profession, Hofstadter wrote that, in the first place, Beard "in the early and middle 1930s" had undergone an "intellectual conversion from a firm adherence to the economic interpretation of history to a form of historical relativism that proved impossible to square with his earlier views," and second, that at the time Beard wrote on the subject, "the belief in scientific history had not yet been closely re-examined." 2

On the contrary, when the context as well as the content of Beard's relativism is examined, it is obvious that he was not philosophically unsophisticated. Beard wrote at a time of great controversy, when the philosophical foundations of positivism in both natural and social science had been reduced to unintelligible rubble and when the sociology of knowledge was just emerging as a solution to the limitations of people's ability to think

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