Monday, April 20, 2009

Historians in the Philosophy Department: a Response (Part III)

(Part I, II)

I see the field of history as consisting of three parts. First, there is the collection and editing of primary source material. Then there is the analysis of the primary source material, creating secondary source material, in order to see in what directions the primary sources point. Finally, there is the creation of a narrative, which puts together the conclusions of the secondary sources into some consensus. The history familiar to the general public is really this last stage. For the most part, academic historians devote themselves to the second stage and it is this stage that forms the real heart and soul of the study of history. It has actually very little to do with narrative.

The issue of narrative is a sore spot for historians. It is the part of history that is the furthest from objective truth and the closest to personal opinion. If historians cannot be scientists they still wish to be better than artists or literature professionals. Again, considering the tight job market, this is not an academic question; real careers are on the line. I recommend Hayden White’s Metahistory, where he subversively treats history as a form of literature. What is important to note about White is that he only deals with issues of historical narrative. I suspect that most historians would gladly do away with narrative as at best a distraction and at worst an illusion that undermines "real" history.

Narrative remains in place largely because it is necessary to make one's work relevant, first to fellow historians, then to scholars in the humanities and finally to the general public at large. One of the ways that this is done is by showing how one’s work fits into someone else’s narrative. For example, Dr. Goldish has a particular expertise in early modern Jewish thought and how it fits in with what we see with European Christians. He wrote his dissertation on Isaac Newton and his use of rabbinic sources. Similarly, his recent book, Sabbatean Prophets takes sixteenth and early seventeenth century Jews and show how it is similar to, for example, Phyllis Mack’s discussion of mid seventeenth century Quaker women in England. I see almost a caricature of this type of thinking at conferences where presenters rush to list off names of theorists just to force some greater “context.” With Dr. Goldish it never sounds forced; this speaks both to his talents as a historian and as a writer.

Working with Dr. Goldish has been very beneficial to me because of this and has given me far greater range as a historian. I came to Ohio State with very strong skills in terms of textual analysis. I grew up studying Talmud, plus I have Asperger syndrome so I am naturally very comfortable with texts. (I was not actually officially diagnosed with Asperger syndrome until after I came to Ohio State.) When I came Dr. Goldish told me point blank that the other students do not have my text skills; he did this in order to soften the culture shock for me coming to a secular university and, for the first time in my life, having to deal, on a daily basis, with people not trained on Talmud. What Dr. Goldish then went to work on me was narrative, telling a larger story.

At the end of the day, narrative does have an important role to play in history. If narrative is necessary in order to show some higher relevancy and get a job it is because it is important to do something that is actually relevant. Kenneth Miller has a line: “biology without evolution is stamp collecting.” Evolution serves to take all the bits of information that we have about organic life and puts it together in one coherent “narrative.” Similarly with history; the Civil War buff, like my adolescent self, who can throw out lots of random facts about the Civil War, is not engaging in history. First, he needs to be able to analyze primary and secondary source material through the lens of the historical method. Next, he needs to be able to put everything together into some narrative. Without this, all that we have is a cute factoid machine that is of no practical use to anyone.

(To be continued …)

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