Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gadamer and Collingwod on McClellan and Johnston

As to why we come to a subject with our minds already leaning one way or the other, the references are Hans Georg Gadamer who wrote Truth and Method and Philosophical Hermeneutics, and Roger Collingwood in his The Idea of History.

As we grow we learn through experience and we don't, none of us, keep a good record of the lessons that caused us to form our opinions. If we write history, or study it as we should, we make ourselves aware of our "preconceptions." Collingwood said we each have a "constellation" of them.

What this means is that when it comes time to voice an opinion, we realize that it is highly unlikely that we will be doing any original thinking. There are lessons and influences in our background that govern or "tend us" toward a particular point of view. People who insist that all their ideas are original, are just being naive.

As an example, years ago I was speaking to a new hire in, I think, KC-10 Engineering and she decided one day to give me her philosophy. After very little I recognized the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre and asked her what it was of his that she had read. She denied having read anything and had no idea, she told, me of what he believed or taught That sort of reaction is quite common. If ideas are "out there" as a "climate of opinion," then people pick them up without realizing where they came from.

In the matter of the Civil War if someone expresses a particular view of Longstreet for example and it reflects the ideas of the "Lost Causers" one must understand that this person has been influenced by them whether he realizes it or not.

Someone who admires Grant and doesn't really care about Generals who didn't win the war probably isn't going to like McClellan very much. A reader has to go way out of his way to find the arguments that support the idea that McClellan was a better-than-average general with a lot of superb qualities who was learning his craft under a critical administration who wasn't willing to give him the time to learn. As partial support for this idea we can look at what Grant and Sherman were doing while McClellan was in his military hot seat. Grant was drinking too much and Sherman was going bonkers. But they did it a long distance from the capitol and were given time to learn from their mistakes.

If there is good evidence that McClellan wasn't as bad as his chief detractor Stephen Sears argues, then what does that say about Sears as an historian? Historians as Collingwood argues need to understand and acknowledge their preconceptions. Was there something in Sears' background that made it difficult to accept McClellan as a decent general?

People reading this who haven't read Collingwood are probably going to point to this or that thing that McClellan did or didn't do, but look across the street at the Confederate side. What was an equivalent leader, Joseph Johnston doing at about the same time? The same thing. Yeah, will come the rejoinder, and Johnston doesn't have a good reputation either. That's true and it is also true that Johnston has many admirers who think he was the best general the South had. The South, they argue, should have kept Lee on Davis' staff and let Johnston learn his craft in the field. Johnston wouldn't have run the south out of men the way Lee did.

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