John William Draper and the Art of Forgetting

John William DraperIn a unique paper on John William Draper, Bradford Vivian uses French Jesuit Michel de Certeau’s philosophy of history to understand the massive “forgetting” that gook place in the nineteenth century. Vivian argues in “The Art of Forgetting: John W. Draper and the Rhetorical Dimensions of History” (1999) that “the rhetorical dynamics of [Draper’s] History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science created a way of knowing—a highly persuasive worldview—that not only rendered hostile the relationship between religion and science but, more significantly, installed in the modern episteme a discourse that continues to shape knowledge about religion and science.” The History of Conflict “helped induce a persuasive cultural ‘forgetting’ by depicting science as the savior of Western civilization and religion as its doom.”

According to Certeau, “history is not a mimetic representation of the past, but is instead a selective process that actively creates the past.” In the reconstruction of the past, a willed forgetting occurs—and must occur, says Certeau. The “discourse of separation,” the act of dividing or breaking the past in historical “periods” is the “postulate of interpretation (which is constructed as of the present time) and its object (divisions organizing representations that must be reinterpreted). The labor designated by this breakage is self-motivated. In the past from which it is distinguished, it promotes a selection between what can be understood and what must be forgotten in order to obtain the representation of a present intelligibility.” However, those forgotten elements do not disappear, but remain as “resistances” or “survivals,” thus rendering history a “contested field, comprised of competing interpretations.” There is, then, a rhetorical nature to history; it is a way of knowing and exists as an “epistemological ideal.”

The nineteenth century was “characterized by a faith in the progressive spirit,” and history became the scientific observation of such progress. “Leopold Van Ranke and Auguste Comte articulated influential conceptions of history that operated by virtue of a scientific method and documented the laws that determined the course of human events.” In this sense, religion became the target of such historians. For instance, the “modern image of the Middle Ages as a seemingly endless night of theocratic darkness is largely the result of a fervent historical forgetting induced by the rhetorical strategies of nineteenth-century scientific historians.” Replacing theology with science did not amount to atheism, however. Indeed, according to Draper, science “has given us grander views of the universe, more awful views of God.” Theology was a false epistemology, whereas scientific law more truly disclosed God’s blueprint.

According to Vivian, “Draper embodied the distinctive qualities of nineteenth-century scientific historians.” Draper was indeed inspired by Comte’s theory that history is an “orderly phenomenon, driven forward by the machinery of scientific law and human progress.” Following Draper’s biographer, Donald Fleming, Vivian records that Draper “regarded himself as a scientific historian and even viewed history as a branch of natural science,” and by documenting the history of science, “Draper intended to demonstrate that the modernizing force of scientific progress led away from Europe and directly to America.”

In documenting his history, Draper’s work provides many examples of historical “forgettings.” If this is true, how is it that History of Conflict went through 50 American printings in 50 years, 21 printings in the United Kingdom over 15 years, and translated into dozens of languages throughout the world, thereby achieving an exceptional international popularity? According to Vivian, its popularity is primarily due to its dramatic style, “it is essentially a drama, unified by a prophetic narrative that compels readers to view science as the guardian of knowledge and religion as its most baneful enemy.” Its prophetic ethos, moreover, is optimistic, portending a bright future.

It was also a self-serving history. Draper, according to Fleming, was “hungry for recognition.” Draper’s choice to write in the popular genre, necessary for the International Scientific Series, “reflected a desire to reach a larger audience and to sway the public toward an appreciation not only of science but also Draper himself.”

According to Vivian, the second half of History of Conflict is more reflective and abstract, relaying to readers that the “conflict between science and religion is a thoroughly epistemological battle, a struggle against devotion to the ignorance induced by religion and an embrace of the power wrought by scientific knowledge.” Indeed, readers are given an ultimatum: “readers must therefore take part in this battle on behalf of science in order to preserve ‘absolute freedom of thought.'” Draper therefore successfully created an epistemic system of thought by defining science and religion as in conflict.

In the next section of the paper, Vivian debunks one particular narrative in Draper’s history, that of the Flat Earth. Here he follows closely Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth (1997).

Yet despite its many errors, Draper’s History of Conflict was perceived as an historical text. Why? According to Vivian, “history in the nineteenth century was not expected to be a strictly empirical form of knowledge.” Nineteenth-century historians modeled their writing on “nineteenth-century novelists who strove to create an impression of omniscience, of continuity, of unbroken flow”; it was the construction of an ethos, a prophetic style that exerts pressure on readers to make a choice.

But how could such a history be viewed as an example of scientific history? The tension the modern reader feels in trying to understand how nineteenth-century scientific history was “scientific” and “popular” is just that. The divisions of modern Western culture—a division between the sacred and the profane, between the spiritual and the empirical, between religion and science—is a consequence of their artificial separation in such works as Draper’s History of Conflict.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s