One of the epigraphs that punctuate Invented Knowledge is from Pascal: “It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false”. Whether it is natural or not, it would seem that the false – the extravagant, the fantastical, the grandiose – can at times be so seductive that we suspend our critical faculties in its consideration. Ronald Fritze, a historian and dean at Athens State University in Alabama, is concerned about, and clearly fascinated by, the pseudo-histories and pseudo-sciences – the stories of Atlantis, pre-Ice Age civilizations, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and cosmic catastrophes – which, as he argues, developed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and are still with us. “The delivery system for pseudohistorians and pseudoscientists of all stripes”, Fritze writes, “now encompasses a charlatan’s playground of film, television, radio, magazines, and the net.” Fritze, a committed positivist, finds them at times dangerous and always a threat to the standards of “objective” history. Recognizing how “tricky” it is to define pseudo-history, Fritze suggests we begin by asking, What is history? – “a vexed question for people living in a postmodernist age”. But apparently not for Fritze. “A simple and elegant definition for history is a true story about the human past”, he tells us, ignoring the epistemological anguish that has troubled historians from well before the arrival of the postmodernists. So, pseudo-history can easily be defined as an untrue story about the past.
more from Vincent Crapanzano at the TLS here.