In this section, I will see how the speculative realist hypothesis stacks up when trained on a real historical problem. I've only done serious archival work on one historical area—eighteenth-century New York, and the phenomenon of Loyalism in particular—so this will be something of a return to the subject matter of several of my other posts.
The problem of (elite) Loyalism is essentially this: how could a group of people that in 1768 was largely homogeneous, both socially and ideologically, be so fundamentally divided by 1775 that a significant number of them would choose to leave for Canada rather than become Americans after the end of the war? Take this passage from the correspondence of William Smith, Jr., a Loyalist who would later become the first Chief Justice of Canada:
I think the present the Moment in which the greatest Blessings may be secured to our Country ... They have no Way of preventing it but by a Change of Measures. Could you wish for a better Opportunity to negotiate. You have the Ball at your Feet. For Heavens Sake don't slip so fair a Prospect of gaining what you run the greatest risk of losing upon a Change of Men. I heard of Dr. F[ranklin]'s Arrival with extreme Anguish He has connected himself with Ld Chatham [William Pitt the Elder]. I dread this Event and his Influence upon your Councils if he aims only as the great Orator I fear does at the Destruction of the Favorite and the Support of our Cause largely as the Instrument to effect it – If that Lord was first Minister have you Reason to believe that he means more than to exempt you from internal Taxation ... It never can be Franklin's Wish to preserve a Sett of Men in Office who have deplumed him and who detest him – But what is it to our Country whose Ambition is flattered if we are saved?
(Smith to Philip Schuyler, May 16, 1775)
In other words, Smith is concerned that Benjamin Franklin won't do enough to effect substantial reforms in the imperial administrative system, choosing to play the game of court politics instead. And this letter was written a few weeks after the battles of Lexington and Concord! It's clear that reified ideological categories like “Whig” and “Tory” are simply too simplistic to map neatly onto the Patriot/Loyalist distinction.
Here, I'll pit SR against a quantitative psychohistorical approach that was popular several decades ago (it's easier to see the differences this way; more contemporary approaches tend to be more diffuse and pluralistic). I should say that the comparison is not quite fair, since this approach is more strictly methodological than I am trying to be; nonetheless, it's apparent that it implies broader claims than that, and it's on that level that I hope to examine it.
Kvond has raised some worthwhile questions and objections in the comments to the previous piece. As I mentioned in my response, I don't think my hypothesis is capable of producing immediate tangible benefits for the practicing historian. If it is to be successful at all, it will be as a way of thinking about historical problems and evaluating our responses to them. When I put my nose to the grindstone and do actual research and analysis, it's very easy sometimes to drown myself in pamphlets and newspapers and lose any sense of the linkage between the internal dynamics of these texts and the broader arc of the argument I'm trying to construct (I become too afraid of imposing a teleology on the text and my coherence suffers). The SR hypothesis helps adjudicate the claims of contemporaries, as well as those of historians, about a particular historical object.
The opposite approach (a version of which may also be seen in Edward Countryman's classic A People in Revolution) is perhaps best represented by Peter Hoffer, N.E.H. Hull, and Steven Allen's article “Choosing Sides: A Quantitative Study of the Personality Determinants of Loyalist and Revolutionary Political Affiliation in New York,” published in the Journal of American History in 1978. The authors (who subsequently became major figures in the field) propose a personality assessment of New Yorkers which is then examined to see what personality features could have governed their position on the Revolution. The axes used are: “(1) need for order; (2) intolerance of dissonance; (3) intolerance of ambiguity; (4) submission to authority; (5) power orientation; (6) hierarchical thinking and authoritarian aggression; (7) traditionalism; (8) conformity; and (9) stereotyped thinking.”
If you think there's something tendentious and predictable about the scale being used, you're right. (The authors seem to espouse the old Frankfurt School method, in which one uses psychological assessments to ridicule entire categories of people under the pretense of scientificity.) What's more, the rankings are done by the authors themselves on the basis of the surviving documents of eighty New Yorkers. Here's an example of how this was done: “Intolerance for ambiguity, item three, is the tendency to see events and issues in black and white terms, to make mechanical judgments, and to be rigid in their application. Charles Inglis' delight that 'A perfect harmony has hitherto subsisted between me and my people. Many reigning vices are checked, some quite suppressed' shows an intolerance for ambiguity repeated much later in his castigation of Paine's Common Sense as 'one of the most virulent, artful, and pernicious pamphlets I ever met with, and perhaps the wit of man could not devise one better calculated to do mischief.'”
The authors do make some attempts to acknowledge that not all Loyalists were intolerant of ambiguity. Nonetheless, the problem with the method is clear. It attempts to lift the data into a separate and privileged analytical domain from the explicandum. That is to say, it follows a two-step process: first, it distills from the manuscripts an abstract quantitative essence which is supposed to have no specific ideological content, then it uses this essence to analyze an ideological problem. As we see, however, the supposedly privileged analytical realm cannot escape being contaminated by ideology: the reason Inglis was so inveterate about Paine's pamphlet was that it represented an existential threat to his worldview, not necessarily because he was intolerant of ambiguity. In the end, we are presented with something approaching a tautology—Inglis was Loyalist because his reactions were Loyalist.
Another way of putting it would be that the personality-assessment method takes particular properties expressed by the historical object and transmutes them into non-causal features of the object itself. But in fact we gain access only to statements made by Inglis in a particular context of interaction with another object, not to his personal interiority. By ignoring the fissure between these “interactive” features of Inglis and the inaccessible Inglis himself, we mislead ourselves into thinking that we've arrived at a deeper level of understanding.
The speculative realist hypothesis, on the other hand, would begin from the presupposition that no context of interaction cuts more deeply than another (which is a position that would be shared by a Latourian approach as well, as kvond has pointed out). How does looking at it this way help us think about the problem of Loyalism? Above all, it means that the problem must be revised: instead of looking for the teleological seed of a historical figure's future commitment to Loyalism, we look at the changing contexts of interaction that this figure would participate in. In William Smith, Jr.'s case, the decisive moment appears to have been the inability of the Patriot authorities to accept a neutral or conciliationist stance: as the initial years of the war wore on, Smith's interactions with the Patriots became more and more characterized by the latter's refusal to compromise with him. Yet, as a 1780 pamphlet (The Candid Retrospect; or, the American War Examined by Whig Principles) suggests, Smith did not change his tune to a reactionary one. “Loyalism,” in his case, refers to the antagonistic relationship between himself and the authorities—it was not an inalienable property of Smith himself. Other Loyalists, like Inglis, certainly manifested unambiguous pro-British opinions early on; yet others, like Judge Thomas Jones, professed fealty to the King but angrily attacked the British army. In all of these cases, Loyalism emerged as a feature of particular kinds of interactions, not as a type of personality--and this means that in a sense, the Patriots were as responsible for its construction as were the Loyalists themselves.
As I said before, this approach cannot magically yield the key to any historical puzzle. But it can certainly clarify the location of a phenomenon or a topic of study. If we persist in trying to place this location at the inaccessible heart of a historical object, we guarantee that we will be unable to achieve what we seek. To distinguish somewhat between this formulation and the typical Latourian one (the object is the sum of its interactions), we might say: “the historical object exists apart from its interactions, which is why historians should not confuse the interactions for the object itself.”
Next time, some concluding thoughts.