Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Archives: Some Introductory Principles of History

Updated 27 August 2014

On September 9th, we'll spend some of our seminar time talking about introductory principles to the study and practice of history. A good place to start is with two working definitions, both of which are old-fashioned but still very useful. The first is from David Hackett Fischer — one of the crankiest historians I’ve ever read, but also one of the most engaging.

In Historians' Fallacies, Fischer stated, "A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open-ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm." Fischer was certainly naive in his belief that there is somehow a body of unproblematic facts that can be simply arranged to make history, but he makes some points worth pondering: anyone can write history; history starts with questions; and historians select evidence to explain what happened in the past.

The second definition is from E.H. Carr. In What is History, Carr asserted, "history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his [sic] facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past." If we overlook Carr’s sexism and his simplistic notion of facts, his insight remains as relevant today as it was two generations ago: historiography — the writing of history — is a never-ending process, a dialogue between the living and the dead. As one writer once put it, life is a near-death experience.

As we'll discuss during the semester, reading and developing an effective research project requires a balance of flexibility and structure. You need to maintain a cohesive organization while remaining open to how new evidence (either from primary or secondary research) may force you to alter your hypothesis and your research plan. This can entail a delicate balance of trial-and-error and cost/benefits analysis.

As you sift through evidence, develop questions, and tackle problems, you will be forced to make decisions at every stage of your research and writing. Some of these decisions will be so minor that you'll hardly be aware that you're making them, while others may produce gut-wrenching moments as you face a contradiction between your evidence and your theory. This unpredictability invariably produces stress and anxiety, particularly during the early and late stages of a project; but it can also produce wonderful moments of exhilaration. Making surprising discoveries may force you to dump your initial plan, but these moments can be the most enjoyable (and the most important) part of a historian's work.

The importance of keeping an open mind doesn't end there, however. Keeping an open mind is important also because you need to be keenly aware of the role of chance, contingency, and accident in history. At the heart of many historians' fallacies is the problem of determinism. Whether it's technological determinism, as Jill Lepore has discussed, for example, or some other type of reductionism, the core error remains basically the same: the fallacy of imposing an inappropriate explanatory model that oversimplifies a historical phenomenon. Keep in mind that this error involves oversimplification, not simplification per se.

David Hackett Fischer offers 7 rules of thumb for historians that might help you as you develop your research project. Here is a precis (they appear on pp. 62-63 of Historians' Fallacies):

1) Sound evidence consists in the establishment of a satisfactory relationship between the factum probandum, i.e., the proposition to the proved, and the factum probans, i.e., the material which is offered as proof. "A historian must not merely get the facts right. He [sic] must get the right facts right. From this simple rule of relevance may be deduced: historical evidence must be a direct answer to the question asked and not to some other question."

2) An historian must provide the best relevant evidence. "And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is the evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself....We shall call this the rule of immediacy."

3) Evidence must always be affirmative. "Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms -- it is no evidence at all."

4) The burden of positive proof always rests upon the historian. Not critics, readers, or anyone else. "Let us call this the rule of responsibility."

5) All inferences from empirical evidence are probabilistic. It is not enough to demonstrate that A was possible. A historian must determine the probability of A in relation to the probability of alternatives. "This is the rule of probability."

6) The meaning of any empirical statement depends on the context from which it is taken. "No historical statement-in-evidence floats freely outside time and space. None applies abstractly and universally." I would call this the rule of context.

7) An empirical statement must be no more precise than its evidence warrants. "We shall call this the rule of precision."

If the law of selection is the first law of history, then the burden of interpreting that law -- the task of deciding what to select -- is entirely yours. How well you make those decisions will shape how well you write your research essay. Those decisions should be made as part of a dialogue between yourself, your evidence, and the historiography -- or, put another way, between you, what your research turns up about a topic, and what other historians have said about that topic. As Fischer points out, the real danger that you face is not that you'll delude your readers but that you will delude yourself.

Historians tend to approach a topic by targetting the "conventional wisdom" (a term popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith, by the way) and the attendant mythology. Then they systematically debunk the myth, which Levy calls false memory, and replace it with an historical analysis. Myth-busting is a useful way for tackling large topics because it helps historians to select an entry-point through which to introduce their arguments.

Anyone who deals with the past in any way has to confront a basic reality: even if we could study everything, we simply couldn’t manage all the information. A history that explains everything explains nothing. Recognizing the basic reality of selection is the easy part; the hard part is trying to make sound judgements about what to include and what to leave out. We often forget that the process of selection involves exclusion as much as inclusion: what gets left unsaid – the silence of a culture – is often the most importation part of history.

From a legal perspective, historians do not work in the realm of the criminal law, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. On the contrary, doubt is the historian’s best friend: you can tell if you are talking with a poor historian if they never admit to having any doubts about what they’re doing. And if they start talking about the truth, chances are you're speaking with a philosopher, not an historian.

If you listen carefully to what historians say when they get together, you will hear them discuss whether they buy a particular argument. They are not referring to whether they believe that it reflects some ultimate truth, but rather whether it persuaded them. In legal terms, this means that historians speak more like lawyers in civil litigation, where the person bringing the action needs merely to prove the case on the balance of probabilities. The plaintiff must convince the court that the position they are advocating is more likely to be true than that of the defendant. The threshold in civil cases is based on the preponderance of the evidence.

In other words, historians work within the realm of probability, not certainty. They try to be as objective as possible, but no historian worth their salt would actually claim to be completely unbiased. They try to be as accurate as possible, but they acknowledge that the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence means that they can never have a complete view of the past. They try to be as careful and cautious as possible, but they know that good history requires imagination and occasional guess-work. The trick is to be honest with yourself and your readers about what you're doing.

In setting out this rather ecumenical framework, I don't mean to suggest that the historian’s gaze is limitless. It isn't. As we'll talk about in class, there are two terms that you'll hear historians use to describe bad history: one is presentism; the other is source-driven.

1) Presentism, which is also known as the hindsight bias or the fallacy of nunc pro tunc, is used to describe history that imposes some present-day perspective, standard, or social norm on the past. It is a form of anachronism. Presentism is often used to criticize historians who fail to appreciate, as we'll discuss in class, Lowenthal's dictum that the past is a foreign country. That doesn’t mean that you cannot visit it, but you need a passport of imagination: you cannot assume that the people you meet in the past will think or act like you do.

2) Source-driven, which is also called antiquarianism, is used to describe history without questions. It's almost the opposite of presentism, because it entails a marked disengagement with current issues and problems. It refers to studies of the past that simply describe what's in the archives without applying critical insights. It is, in other words, history drained of its analytical vitality.

There are two other popular terms that you'll hear historians use when they criticize each other. The first is determinism, which gets associated with a priori, teleological, or tautological reasoning. Determinism often gets conflated with the term Whig history, which has become something of a canard in historical scholarship. The second is essentialism, which often gets called reductionism, and refers to scholarship that imposes a falsely static and unitary explanation of historical phenomenon, or fails to be sufficiently sensitive to agency, contingency, and diversity.

Yet, for all the emphasis on complexity and contingency in history, the past is knowable. The people we will be studying were without question different from us culturally (depending on which period & place you study), but they were still people all the same. If we pay close attention to the evidence and to the historical contexts, we can discover clear patterns across time and place. The trick is to research deeply, read broadly, and think creatively.