Sunday, February 20, 2005

One way to win an argument

One way to win an argument ...

is, apparently, to ignore, or in the case of blogging, delete the comments of people who question you. Fair Warning Notice: this gets a bit rant-y, but I find myself unusually upset by this whole thing and am trying to work it out of my system. Most of you will have read and perhaps participated in the dual one-sided conversations that have occured regarding this post and its follow-ups. I say dual one-sided because it seems to me that the questions posed by myself and other historians were never answered by Mr Holbling/Newall directly, and I still feel, regarding the comments at Siris, where I was chastised for not realising that I had been discussiong the work of one person and his pseudonymous self, that the responses were not meant to contribute to a better understanding of what Mr. H/N was getting at, but simply to reiterate why he was correct. I did mention this at Siris and at a couple of places at Studi Galileani, but those comments have been deleted.

To his credit, Mr. H/N has tried to explain here, here, and and here. It's just that none of these explanations address the question of whether one of his basic premises, i.e., that historians are somehow trying to find (or claiming to try to find) objective truth. Even in the essay on verisimilitude, there is an implicit assumption about what we are trying to do and how we are failing. In my comments (again deleted), I repeatedly asked Mr. H/N to just stop for a moment and explain why he thought that his initial premise was a valid one. I also asked him to speak plainly and without resorting to the jargon so typical of his (and philosophers'?) writing.

Frankly, I'm not sure why I'm so annoyed by all of this. I said at the outset that philosophy and history were different fields and we clearly had different approaches. The comments to my posts and over at Cliopatria certainly show that my opinions are pretty mainstream, and that people I respect and admire think along the same lines. I'm sure it does have something to do with ego, in that I don't like being summarily dismissed and treated as if I am unworthy of conversation. But there's also something in my gut that tells me that people who refuse to consider other viewpoints or try to see things in a different way, to the extent that they will erase those viewpoints and only leave comments that support and flatter, to be at best insufferably arrogant, and at worst, intellectually dishonest. I grant that this might be unintentional. The blogworld does have different norms, and I think sometimes people don't consider how their actions might appear. For example, I really do believe that Mr H/N really doesn't get the whole pseudonym thing, and so did not realize that people might see his writings as belonging to two people who were mutually supportive and egging each other on. Unfortunately, there are lots of trolls, etc., out there who deliberately create alternate personae specifically to tilt an argument in their favor by making it appear that theirs is a popular opinion. And certainly he has the right to delete comments. But I'm just saying, if someone questioned something I'd written, I'd want them to understand why I thought the way I did at that point. And I'd give them the courtesy of a considered answer to the question they asked.

So, if you're still reading, thanks. I left one more comment at Studi Galileani last night. It is, of course, gone. My commenting at Siris seems to have convinced Brandon to block comments there, too, although he has kindly left up the previous bunch, including the ones by eb. But anyway, here's what I posted, I think in response to the Verisimilitude post:
Er ... again, Paul, nothing you are saying is "true" either. Instead, you merely provide me with the impression that you would rather talk about theory absent actual knowledge of a subject than actually try to understand that subject. All of your suppositions about history and verisimiltude and what it is we historians do, believe, and are supposed to be doing ring as false as if you were sitting in your study telling a war veteran how his last battle should have been fought. It may be very nice, but bears no relationship to the real world where historians pretty much agree that there is no one truth. But since that isn't the point of what we do, your entire argument matters not a whit. It's intellectually dishonest to act as though the field is in some way a failure when most of us implicitly accept that we can never know precisely how correct we are. Moreover, you are merely demonstrating your poverty of knowledge of what working historians do and a singular narrowmindedness in refusing to go beyond your comfortable theories, or your ego, and find out. But then, I look at things from a practival point of view. I know that what my colleagues and I do, and what we teach, is valuable both in terms of passing on ideas of what happened, but more importantly for teaching the critical thinking and communication skills that go far beyond simply the study of history. Our students may even leave with a broader understanding of the richness of human experience, whereas there is little I have seen here that would enrich any life other than that of a intellect barren of emotion or human connection. For that type of person, I'm sure it will reinforce feelings of moral superiority and even perhaps a bit of schadenfreude at us poor little historians who don't understand how worthless we are without the big, bright philosophers of history to tell us how to do our jobs, but I bet they're a whole lot lonelier at the end of the day.

I admit it's less than pleasant, but damn. And you know, as far as Philosophy of History goes, this stuff could be really good. But that was never my point. I just wanted to know why he thought his underlying premises were valid (and they seem to be in terms of the theorists he quotes) when they seem to bear little or no resemblance to what it is we think we're doing. Oh, and maybe I was looking for some recognition that maybe we know what history is as well as, or, dare I say it? Better than he does, because we are, like, you know ... Historians?
I think I just realised the why this issue is so damned important to me. It's pedagogical. A lot of our time teaching is spent helping students to divest themselves of preconceived notions about what history is so that they can actually engage in the richness that is "doing History." It would be great if H/N had given me answers I could use in teaching, but instead all I could see was the prospect of a whole bunch of little philosophy types telling me that what I do is meaningless. On the up-side, I suppose I now have a topic for the next History Carnival ;-)

This just in:
Hugo Holbling/Paul Newall lets us know what he really thinks.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Wait, Holbling and Newall are the same person? I'm so completely confused by all of this.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yeah, if you read his comments at Sirs, he says i should have been able to tell. I just don't think he groks the whole pseudonymity thing.

mosaic said...

Where in any of Hugo's writing is it suggested that what you do is meaningless, Adm? I do not understand your anger at his essay, nor many of your criticism to the position. At the first link, it is asked, "what is "as close as possible to how things really were"? What kind of measure of verismilitiude is used to determine how close we are?"

The question is important considering that there is no history from which to simply check our constructs from. Hence, how do we determine when we're as close as possible. If you rely on the "coherence" of your theories then you're vulnerable to later critcisms that I dont think you've responded to. Instead, you insist on repeating how you practice history which is irrelevant. You accuses Hugo if saying you do not aim for "objective truth" [where was this?} but then maintain, that you try to get as close as possible to truth without discerning in anyway a way to do this. How do you get as close as possible? If the evidences of the past are theory laden?
Have you taken a look at the link to the Jenkins interview?

Here is an excerpt of some importance:

"The conclusions I reached about history in RH were (a) that history was an aesthetic/literary genre such that it could not be an epistemology and that, therefore, the questions historians normally considered—the relationship of facts to values, of interpretation, of objectivity, truth, etc., were not much to the point if the object of their concern was not one capable of being reduced to epistemological (knowledge) claims. I thought and still think—that debates about 'history' are debates about meaning (i.e. ontological debates) and, of course, meaning (of the 'facts'; of this or that interpretation, etc.) escape facticity and interpretation. (b) That all historical discourse is positioned—is ideological/political, and that, rather than avoid this obvious conclusion, one should make explicit one's own position... that is to say, there was a call for 'reflexivity' going 'all the way down'. (c) Finally, I wanted students of history to be aware of the ideas of postmodernity and postmodernism and to encourage them to read 'postmodernists' (Lyotard et al) "

This particular passage is relvent to your cliam of "trying to get as close as possible" since if history cannot be an epistemology, how do you propose you're getting as possible? This is not the bear, and unintresting claim that "objective truth" cannot be reached.

Michael Tinkler said...

Well, in re: philosophy of history. Make yourself feel better, ADM -- pick up one of the books on philosophy of art or aesthetics. Notice how much "art" appears in the book. Understand that philosophers really aren't talking about doing, they're talking to each other about what they MIGHT do if there were to do.

Sorry, but I've been attending the College Art Association, where the divide between people with slides and people with quotations from well-known philopshers is ever more apparent.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Michael.
Mosaic, as I said in several places, I'm not angry at Hugo's essay per se, I'm annoyed that he never could be bothered to address my initial post and the fact that historians might argue that he's operating from a bunch of bogus assumptions. Moreover, I'm vastly irritated that every one of Hugo's so-called answers was written only in obfuscatory (to a non-theory person, at least) jargon, and that, when I asked him to speak in a way that was conducive to a useful dialogue, nothing was forthcoming. If you read New Ked and Jonathan's posts, both here and at Cliopatria, you'll see that, for a historian, much of the conversation on verisimilitude is pretty irrelevant, and even seems like a straw man to us, because we are trained to accept that there can be many different 'truths' (as a simple example, people on either side of a battle might see it differently). In fact, it's rare that you'll see historians talking about truth, except in a very limited fashion, e.g., "It is true that in this letter, so-and-so states that x happened." And actually, I believe I said Hugo claimed we were, or were supposed to be, searching for some objective truth. I disagreed, and that's the one of the basic premises that I question. Brandon's comments at Siris explain this better than I could in terms more acceptable to the philosopher, I think. NK and Jonathan already pretty mcuh point out that what you call theory-laden we call a questioning of sources that is so much a part of our training that we seldom stop to think about it. It's an automatic thing that is more of a practical check-list. Use the sources, note where they might be problematic, note probably author bias, note where there is corroboration, etc.
In terms of Keith Jenkins, yes, I did read it. He's entitled to his opinion but that's all it is. From what I understand, there are even philosophers and other theorists who don't accept what he says in full. I'm also under the impression that postmodern theory is itself somewhat passee even in theorist circles. As a historian, I certainly see no need to incorporate his ideas or, in fact, postmodern theory, into my work. It isn't what I'm supposed to be doing. Moreover, if anything, such theory takes us even far from any kind of historic reality or approximation thereof. I recently went to a talk of this kind, and was amazed at the kinds of theoretical extrapolations that could be attributed to a single court case from 1394 London. The scholars at the discussion were so busy talking theory that they never realized, or seemed to care, that their conclusions were sometimes entirely contrary to what the one document they had, said. It might be good theory, but it wasn't good history.

I don't understand your last sentences, unfortunately.

Jonathan Dresner said...

ADM: you beat me to a reply to mosaic by just a bit (your replay didn't show up when I first looked at this, but did show up when I hit the "post" view), and since you've already referenced me, there's not much left for me to say but "Yeah! What she said!"

Seriously, though, the short version is this: just because a philosopher says something isn't, doesn't mean it isn't.

mosaic said...

Again, you've only talked pass the issue Adm, and contradicting yourself.

This is a quote in one of your posts to Hugo Adm:

"No, we can't know wie es eigentlich gewesen. But nowadays, we are trained to try and recognize and remove our own biases and to rely on the evidence, to the point that we have to offer alternate interpretations and say when we can't be conclusive. We try to get as close as possible to how things really were, and we are familiar with the historiography so that we can critique it when necessary. We also tell our students to look for biases in all their sources, primary and secondary."

Again, I ask, without an historical epistemology, how can you get as close as possible to how things really were? What is considered "bias" is not in of itself so clear as to give anyone clairvoyance. The rigorous checking of sources will itself be informed by theory.

That is, your attempt to discover "author bias" does what exactly? [I'm not questioning doing this. I questioning what you can achieve with it] Does this get you as close as possible to how things really were? If so, how? If not, then the question, as Hugo himself as pointed is what these histories are for.

In any case, you cannot both maintain that 1)the issue of truthlikeness is irrelevant while you've ostensibly stated that you trying to get as close as possible to how things really were. This is contradiction--if I'm trying to get as close as possible to how things really were then I'm considered with truthlikeness. What, then, is the epistemology that informs your attempt to get as close as possible to how things really were?

I would suggest reading Hugo's introductory essay to "postmodernism" before making any comments about "postmodern theory," ADM.

From what I understand Jenkins makes arguments, some of them illustrated in Hugo's introduction not "opinion." It can be so easily dismissed. What specifically are your objections? If history is not literary/aesthetic, what is it? Empirical?

Note that recognizing that history is more like literature would not mean it loses its ontological referent--the past. That could be their distinction if you fear that you that the claim mean that they're exactly the same.

mosaic said...


I edited some grammatical errors and spelling mistakes from the last part I what I just wrote.

In any case, you cannot both maintain that (1)the issue of truthlikeness is irrelevant while you've ostensibly stated that (2)you are trying to get as close as possible to how things really were. This is contradiction--if I'm trying to get as close as possible to how things really were then I'm concerned with truthlikeness. What, then, is the epistemology that informs your attempt to get as close as possible to how things really were?

I would suggest reading Hugo's introductory essay to "postmodernism" before making any comments about "postmodern theory," ADM.

From what I understand Jenkins makes arguments, some of them illustrated in Hugo's introduction not "opinion." It cannnot be so easily dismissed. What specifically are your objections? If history is not literary/aesthetic, what is it? Empirical?

Ancarett said...

It's rather disingenous to suggest that historians don't engage with theory or that they cling to some sort of objectivist view of the past. Neither of those fit very well in with the history that I've seen practiced in higher education for the last quarter century (oh, now I feel old!).

I'm teaching a graduate seminar in Historical Methods and we've been using two pretty approachable texts to anchor the course -- Fairburn's "Social History" and Burke's edited collection, "New Perspectives in Historical Writing."

Fairburn's a bit tendentious in his prose, but he offers some well-organized, well-exemplified walk-throughs of common errors and shortfalls in historical practice as well as praise for good practice and consistent thought. The Burke collection's rather uneven, but has a few moments of sheer brilliance and covers some fields which I'd otherwise not have much to say about, myself.

The important matter here, though, is that none of this is coming across as a novelty to my students. They've been reading postmodernist criticisms of history since their second year in the major. But rather than spend our entire time bogged down in talking about conceptualizing the practice of history, I work to have them apply these insights to their own work with documents, archives and materials.

And I know that I'm hardly unique in turning out students who are well-versed in the historiography and philosophy of history as well as having students who understand that all of that intellectualizing about process should be subordinated to a respectful approach to the sources.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

mosaic -- as far as I can tell, Jenkins' arguments are largely opinion, since they are based almost entirely on theory. They can be considered theory, but where is the factual evidence. And please do not talk about what I mean by facts. I mean what a historian means.
While there is a literary aspect to history, it is, as far as I understand it, also empirical, as far as we use hard evidence.
What, then, is the epistemology that informs your attempt to get as close as possible to how things really were?
Does inductive reasoning count?

Recognizing bias is exactly that. I'm not sure how much clearer I can be than in what you quoted. We try to get as close as we can. New evidence or the same evidence in a different context may change what we thought. I also don't think that you've read the comments by Jonathan and NK. We take what we do with a fairly big grain of salt. Verisimilitude as understood by Hugo, Paul, and apparently you (who I hope are a different person and not a pseudonym) isn't something that we worry about that much. We know we can be wrong, but can still draw educated conclusions from the evidence available to us about how things were and what people thought and did in the past. And I don't know that any of us has said that there is no epistemology at all, only that it is very different in the practice of history than it is in the theory of history.

Anonymous said...

history is inherently interpretive. Yup. can we really know with absolute certainty what happened in the past and why? Nope.

I think the way forward for a historian is to stay grounded in the evidence.


Jonathan Dresner said...

ADM: regarding your lost comments, you may have run afoul of the Statutes of the Galilean project, which strike me as.... well I haven't figured out yet what I think of them, except that they make disagreement on issues of import challenging.

Sharon said...

Well, regrettably, Hugo thinks that criticising the philosophical positions that he happens to hold (which even I know are open to contest and debate amongst philosophers) is 'antiphilosophy', and that writing critical comments on his blog is 'spamming' him. As, indeed, Keith Jenkins cannot tell the difference between hostility to his ideas and contempt for his third-rate abilities.

mosaic: why do you think that there's a dichotomous opposition between 'literary' and 'empirical'? That seems a very crude binary to me.

History is written like literature; it's often based on, ie constructed from, sources that have their own narrative conventions/constructions. But it is nonetheless built up from those sources, which have real relationships of some kind to past actions and events. That is to say, they were not randomly generated (whatever the problems of randomness in survival). In a way, perhaps I'm coming to disagree with ADM on certain points; we're not really trying to get as close as possible to how things really were, we're first of all trying to understand how those sources *say* things really were (often ambiguous), seeing and building coherent patterns in different sources (a source of much controversy) and we're then attempting evaluations of possible-probable-likely relationships between what they say and the lost past that they refer to (a source of huge controversy). Our referent is not the past. It is the evidences surviving from the past, made by people who were trying to understand the world they lived in.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Oh dear.

First, anyone writing in one place as one person, and in another place as another person, who then uses one pseudonym to comment on the other, is really pushing it, I think, unless the whole "two pieces of my head talking to each other" is made really clear. Which, in this case, it's not. It ends up looking like N/R is making up a shill to support his arguments. I'm willing to believe that's not his intent, but that's what it looks like from the outside.

Second, a quote of a quote:
The conclusions I reached about history in RH were (a) that history was an aesthetic/literary genre such that it could not be an epistemology and that, therefore, the questions historians normally considered—the relationship of facts to values, of interpretation, of objectivity, truth, etc., were not much to the point if the object of their concern was not one capable of being reduced to epistemological (knowledge) claims. I thought and still think—that debates about 'history' are debates about meaning (i.e. ontological debates) and, of course, meaning (of the 'facts'; of this or that interpretation, etc.) escape facticity and interpretation. (b) That all historical discourse is positioned—is ideological/political, and that, rather than avoid this obvious conclusion, one should make explicit one's own position...For historians, history is NOT an "aesthetic/literary genre", NOR is it "an epistemology." History is HISTORY: it's a practice, developed to understand something about the past. Historians might (and do) disagree about what exactly we can understand about the past, but it's something we do, not something we read about. I recognize - and agree - that "all historical discourse is positioned" - of course it is, mine as much as the next person's. I think that READING WHAT HISTORIANS WRITE would reveal that in fact, many historians DO make explicit their own position (to the extent anyone positioned in their own discourse can. And since you, the reader, are equally positioned in your own discourse, how are you able to get outside your own discourse to evaluate the effect of my own discourse on me?).

NO ONE HAS SAID THAT HISTORIANS CONSIDER THE ISSUE OF TRUTH IRRELEVANT. It's just that historians do NOT think about truth in the same disciplinary ways that philosophers do. And that is not a failure on historians' part.

Mosaic is right that the identification of biases depends upon some kind of theoretical underpinnings. But those underpinnings are not philosophical definitions of knowledge; they are more likely to come from sociology and anthropology - to help us think about how humans behave under certain circumstances, and to what extent we can (and can't) trace aspects of human nature across societies - or from literary study - to help us think about how people use language and how that can change over time; perhaps economics or political science or art history as well, depending on what we're interested in. Moreover, our ability to identify biases comes from immersion into the culture of the past through intense reading of sources, so that we can recognize what was important to individuals of the 12th or 14th ot 17th or whatever century, RATHER THAN WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO US.

Personally, I am quite willing to say that we never actually get anywhere close to what it was really like, and that everything historians produce is produced through the filter of our own "discourses." Maybe we are never going to be able to get outside those discourses; that's okay with me. Because the knowledge that we produce has meaning for us, inside those discourses. In the end, that's what I think history is for (since mosaic seemed concerned about that).

And perhaps unlike ADM, I don't have a problem with the pure theory. You can spin theory out of a 1394 court case all you like. Writing theory is another separate discipline, one with its own rules. Some of that theory will be useful to me; some of it won't. But since it's not my job to write theory, I will leave it to others.

Sorry for all the shouting, it's just that I do get frustrated at philosophers telling historians they don't know how to think about truth.

(And those Statutes...hmmm, defensive much? We can see where the desire to set the terms of the debate comes from...)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the term Mr Dresner is looking for is "ironic", given Mr Newall's characterisation of opposition as "knownothingness". Hopefully Newall is not characteristic of anti-representationalists, though it seems his position has changed somewhat from the following, given his attack now on coherence that he defended before ( writing as "Hugo Holbling").

Taht aside, the anti-representationalist position is not exact, but I also get the feeling that some of those criticizing Newall has not entirely grasped the argument (and Newall goes too far), because it does not (or need not) deny traces exist, but critiques the way in which these are constructed. The anti-rep critique operates not at the level of evidence or empircal data, but on the linguistic and social-cultural-political levels. Another noted anti-rep, Alun Munslow is very careful on this point, as I believe Jenkins is, so its ironic indeed when they quote an interview they have with him as if it were authoritative. Rather than Jenkins' or Newall's attacks on old historicism (I'm not sure how much "Mosaic" has read Jenkins), perhaps it would be better to consider Hunt, Appleby & Jacob's "Telling the Truth about History", which attempts to tread a cautious middle ground, conceding many of Hayden White's good points, while keeping history on course as a useful practice. When we do confont them, first we find Newall's straw man does not hold up... It is not about "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (though Richard Evans or Perez Zagorin can speak for themselves), and consequently versimilitude is not seen as black and white, as their critique needs it to be. What we see instead is a marshalling of sources, evidence, and theories, and seeing what is the best fit for the social project (theory) we are working on. Correspondence fails at a linguistic level and should be discraded as Newall correctly points out, but he forgets that correlation does not (see C.B. McCullagh). It concedes the linguistic point, but instead appeals to reference via other forms of observation that are not linguistic (visual, tactile, archival, etc.). Unfortunately, the postmodernist replies to this rely on the assumptions and insistance that all there is are texts. We can grant the anti-reps their points on the narrative structure of history, but they fail on the other forms of reference (and any successful critique is self-defeating, if for example, they manage to read _this_ text). Historians should all know by now that their theories will be considered obsolete within 50 years in any dynamic school of history. Just look at Callinicos' attacks on his old mentors. Like Jenkins has written, awareness of bias is also empowering so as to permit feminist, ethnic, and other reconstructive histories to be written. And then Alun Munslow adds to this stating that history is historiography. That is the positive agenda of anti-representationalists, and desrves to be considered seriously.

Hugo Holbling said...

Thanks for this excellent criticism, anonymous. You're quite correct that I defended coherence before and now I am trying to oppose it; I find it's a good way to learn, especially the challenge of trying to advocate something I don't necessarily agree with. Going "too far" with an idea is something I picked up from Feyerabend, again because it represents a challenge instead of repeating an argument in different words. I certainly hope I am not "characteristic of anti-representationalists", since that would suggest I should switch sides again and see what can be done.

On another matter, it is anti-philosophy that I have described negatively, not objections. Blogging is relatively new to me but the statutes I wrote up for the site are based on time spent at discussion forums and seeing far too many conversations degenerate into abuse. They may be anti-thetical to some but I'm sure time will tell if they work or not.

Thanks again for the interesting critique.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks again to my much more articulate colleagues! If nothing else, this has proven that I might want to compose off-line a bit more to keep up ;_

Sharon -- I don't think we're really that much in disagreement. I agree with you pretty much on all counts. What I was trying to get across was that, with clear reference to our reservations, we do try to come up with pictures, say, of "Life in the Middle Ages" based on the evidence we have on hand. For example, if I were to assign students to write a letter from the perspective of a merchant or sailor during the Price Revolution, I'd expect her to talk about inflation, tariffs, debasement of coinage, but also people coming into London because of enclosures (if visiting England), interesting trinkets from the Americas (if in Spain) and the consternation of the priets at dealing with these new people. In the sense that we often try to see history from the POV of the people who were there -- especially if we're trying to understand and identify possible biases in the sources, I do think we try to come up with an approximation of how things really were. At the level of proof, I absolutely agree that we can only rely on what people say happened (except where we have physical evidence).

NK -- just so you know, I don't have a problem with theory as a field, but do find it suspect more than occasionally. Maybe because I've seen theory people argue about and then agree on a subject when it's pretty clear that neither has understood the other. But as a field, no problem. It would be like having a problem with philosophy as a field. And I think you and Ancarett are right -- there is definitely trickle-down that can be informative. What does bother me about theory is that it's often so far removed from the original subject -- which is usually far more interesting to me. Moreover, in my (somewhat limited) experience, I've seen theorists arguing points that can't be supported by the document (literary or historical). I have to admit I find that irritating. In the case of the 1395 document (off by a year ...), the discussion was interesting, but it was very difficult for me to sit quitly when the theorists started to extrapolate from each other on what it said about being alternately gendered in the 14th c. Because, you know, it's one document and there is nothing else like it extant, as far as we know.

Hugo/Paul -- nice to know you're still willing to talk to people who agree with you.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Urgh. Must not type before finishing morning cuppa. spling vary bad.

Priests and quietly, I think.

Sharon said...

Anonymous, I really like what you're saying. You mention someone called CB McCullagh talking about correlation - ar e there any particular works you'd recommend to get started on that? And I should definitely read _Telling the truth..._ again...

Anonymous said...

C.Behan McCullagh 1998, "The Truth of History" Cambridge U. Press and 1984, "Justifying Historical Descriptions" Routledge. Munslow's annotated bibliography at the back of "A New History" 2003 Pearsons is a useful start, as is Frank Ankersmit and Mark Bevir's debate, "Exchanging Ideas" in "Rethinking History" 2000, 4(3) (the journal, not Jenkins' book). Ankersmit in my opinoin is just as influential as White.

Elya Gelb said...

"Anonymous" is me. I was thinking that perhaps there is some way forward in all this, by dispensing with the "philosophy"/"historian"/"antiphilosophy" dichotomy. As I mentioned earlier, Munslow's assertion that history is historiogrpahy is correct. Contrary to what is said above, there is no epistemology of history - history _is_ an epistemology. The philosophy, methods and practice _are_ as integral to history as the final product (which is why I wondered about the person quoting Jenkins). As such, a historian is a philosopher as much as philosophers become historians (of ideas) in the course of their work. What a historian does cannot ignore philosophy (as it relates to epistemology), and what philosophers come up with cannot ignore the practice of those whom they're reliant upon.

It is useless to talk about, say, modern conceptions of "God" without considering Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, and so on (and we should probably go earlier, if the Hebraists could just work out their Bible), and the historical contexts about them and their work that historians have created. Look at how much philosophers were influenced by Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" leading to rather quaint ideas that date very fast. Or a better example, almost everything that Nietzsche said about Jews is irrelevant to an understanding of early Judaism (and consequently theology) today, because he was employing simplistic historiographic assumptions - his views are quite antithetical to those of the major historians just before his time, Heinrich Graetz or I.M. Jost, suggesting either that he never read them (though he must have heard of them), or that he was reacting to them (on what basis?). They in turn were thoroughly Hegelian and Rankean (for those not in the know, Ranke is the one from which "wie es eigentlich gewesen" comes from, and it's IMO a trap to adopt it so that you can be labelled an "empiricist"). Yet if he read them, Nietzsche never considered their historical assumptions (not his fault to be fair) but embarked on a similar simplistic paraphrasing of the Bible as his "method". And if his context is thoroughly wrong, then so are the aspects of his philosophy that follow from it.

Recognizing (plausible, subjective) historical contexts in which ideas sit is a necessary part of philosophy, which I think many philosophers are as resistant to (or ignorant of) as historians are to philosophers. When I read my more militant feminist colleagues talking about patriarchy in practically universal terms, I wish they'd consider the fluctuations of power held by women throughout history or anthropological surveys in the Pacific more carefully. We are not entirely products of the nineteenth century, even if that's when modern women's movements began. Translating a feminist course to a non-Western country must also switch its methods, readings, and examples considerably or be doomed to irrelevance (or worse, creating gendered dichotomies that weren't there before). The early feminists were just reacting to historical conditions of their times - there is nothing universal about their statements. Perhaps it's historians and anthropologists who understand this best. Certainly the anthropologists were among the first overt relativists for a good reason - their encounters with variation in human space. We on the other hand deal with variation in human time, though unfortunately, too few historians work on the historiography of tribal peoples, leaving it to anthropologists (a fascinating subject).

I also see little value in a linguistic/empirical dichotomy as suggested above, showing ignorance of a historian's practice as ADM is trying to say. Similarly, a trenchant critique of narratives fails to hit the mark with historians because narratives are not all they're working on. Let me give a simplistic example: An index of names of prisoners in prisoner-of-war camps does attest to there really being prisoners there. Questioning whether in fact prisoner X was there or not is open to debate, but the method of investigation will remain a wholly empirical affair, relating to the quality of evidence, external corroboration, and so on. If for instance, we find a letter saying the prisoner was there, he may really have been there, or may have been mistaken, or may have been using a code, and so on - this sort of evidence is a text, and as such a completely human invention and must be treated with care. The authenticity of the letter is an empirical investigation. When we find a photograph of him in the camp, or with others in the camp, then we do have additional proof of him being there. We might question the authenticity of the photograph, but that again will be an empirical investigation. Maybe a documentary crew came in and filmed him in the camp as well (the film as a whole may be narrative-like, but the images themselves are not since the filmmaker - at least before now - cannot control the way light behaves) - again, questioning the authenticity of the images will be an empirical matter. Perhaps this prisoner became the poster-boy of how wonderful camp conditions were and everyone was talking about him. At this point we can be fairly certain prisoner X really was there.

The semantic questions of what we mean by "X", "was" and "there" we can safely leave to the linguists - we don't need to consider truthlikeness at this very basic level (as I believe is NK's point), for to do so is to employ the sort of reductionism of trying to understand biology in terms of protons and electrons. This I believe is a key point--when anti-reps try to reduce anything we can actually say to Rorty's truth propositions, historical work will become impossible (fortunately, Munslow balks at the right moment, even if you get the impression that he's reluctant to do so). But just as one doesn't need to know how electrons cloud around protons to form an atom in order to study DNA, we don't need to consider semantic truth at this fundamental level in order to work on history, because narratives are not all there is (biology has emergence, we have artifacts). We don't consider sociology or anthropology merely "literature" for the same reasons (on the other hand, what about philosophy?).

On the other hand, describing conditions in the POW camp, whether or not the commandant was harsh or sympathetic, or what was the cultural tension/power relations between guards and prisoners, reasons for an escape attempt, however, is relative. This is just as integral to history as figuring out who was in the camp. So of course for me, history is both narrative (in its writing), and empirical (in its sources). What is the dichotomy? Conversely, when I see historians reacting against critiques of epistemology, I wish they'd become familiar with the arguments before reacting because there is a _lot_ of material on this subejct already (some of which I've quoted above).

We remember that everything sprung from philosophy. Unfortunately, when methods became so large as to require specialization, the various schools began to break apart. There is no going back though we can learn from each other. Perhaps it's time we allowed less mischaracterisation of each other, and remember the best work is usually done by those engaged in _reflexive_ practice.

Elya said...

...and my apologies for any rambling and stridency above!

Sharon said...

Elya, I don't think that was strident or rambling at all. And thank you for the references. (Not that I have the faintest idea when I'll have time to read them, as opposed to getting them and adding them to the existing pile.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Wow -- Elya, that was great. Thanks so much for that. I think that you went a step beyond the others in putting what some of my gut reactions were into a form that is both clear and addresses the issue in philosophical terms.

Elya said...

Thanks for the compliment ADM, but nothing I've said is really mine (my peers in one particular seminar a few years ago must take all the credit - I was sort of at the back watching, not having done my reading!).

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