Beauty can lie all too easily, while oftentimes truth is ugly on first inspection. I’ve been reading Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, and it is a beautiful book, full of style and erudition, and paragraph after paragraph of mellifluous argumentation. It is far more gossamer than Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, which is weighted down by turgid prose. But where Lieberman’s narrative is dense in unique and distinctive data, Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual circles around the same big facts. Siedentop promotes a bold, if not original, thesis, that the Hebrew-Hellenic synthesis which became Christianity was the seed for the invention of liberal individualism, which reigns ascendant today, at least in name if not reality. Lieberman makes an observation about the parallel development of societies across Eurasia, even in its isolated and far-flung regions in the protected peninsulas and archipelagos of Southeast Asia, and gropes confusedly at overarching explanations. And yet it is the “ugly duckling” of Strange Parallels that is more satisfying than the crisp and elegant theses of Inventing the Individual. The latter is a joy to read, but if you know a fair amount of history, and cross-cultural history at that (I do), a lot of it comes off as hot air and naked assertion. It’s a great read, but will only persuade the persuaded, and unfortunately is a little thinner on “dense description” than I would have liked for a work which I knew I was going to look at skeptically (that is, even if you find a work uncongenial on the whole, there are often great gains to be made in extracting nuggets of information).
The ultimate problem that confronts me when entertaining the core contention of Inventing the Individual is sentences such as the following on page 77: “But texts are facts. And the facts remain.” The question is whether they are non-trivial facts, and that is debatable. There is a school of thought that ideas are the drivers of history, and Inventing the Individual takes that position as a premise. If one is wobbly on that premise, the force of the argument falls flat.
Second, do readers have any particular papers/books on domestication that they think are particularly good? My professional research focus is in this area and I need to do a thorough survey of the literature.
Third, I am not an “adaptationist” as Larry Moran has asserted. I’m “dynamic agnostic,” and am wary of null hypotheses of what drives variation in organisms as a whole (i.e., I think neutrality may be more justified for some branches of the tree of life than others).
Fourth, I should mention again that if you are following an RSS feed for my content, http://feeds.feedburner.com/RazibKhansTotalFeed is preferred. The reason is that it bundles all my content, and I don’t like to cross-post notifications across blogs. E.g., if I write for The Guardian again or something it will show up in that feed, and I’m liable not to mention it on this blog (though it will show up in Twitter since that pushes the above feed).