Monday, November 16, 2009
Amos Funkenstein on the Modern Shift in Historical Thinking
The late Dr. Amos Funkenstein in his short book on Maimonides, Maimonides: Nature, History and Messianic Beliefs, makes an interesting observation as to the origins of modern historical thinking. As I have noted previously, one of the foundations of historical thinking is the valuation of written documents specifically at the expense of orally transmitted memories. Funkenstein admired Maimonides willingness to attempt to create a historical context for commandments by relating them to the fight against the pagan religion of the Sabians. Maimonides, relying on a medieval forgery, believed that Sabianism was some sort of universal pagan religion and interpreted specific commandments, such as the taboo on milk and meat, as countering Sabian doctrine. Funkenstein saw Maimonides as foreshadowing sixteenth and seventeenth century views on history, which attempted to look at past events through the context of that specific time with the awareness that these periods were distinct from the present. For example the fifteenth century underwent a major linguistic revolution as scholars became aware of the gap between the Medieval Latin used in their day and the classical Latin of Cicero and attempt to revive classical Latin:
This revolutionary method of understanding historical events was far removed from the spirit of the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, a historical event was considered to be self-evident, as it itself proclaimed whether it was important or unimportant. As a result, the historiography, i.e. writing of history, of ancient times and that of the Middle Ages regard eyewitnesses as the best historians, for historical events proclaim themselves to be important, and it is the eyewitness who records this in the most authentic way. In the medieval view, the ideal of writing of history is the noting down of historical events by one who saw them at first hand. …
[For moderns] Not only is there no discreet meaning to a discreet event, but it attains its meaning from the context of the other events within which it takes place. This is a view which regards the ideal historian not necessarily as the eyewitness, because often the eyewitness is not aware of the context of the event which he is relating. On the contrary, distance from a historical event enables one to see the comprehensive whole, and there is no such thing as writing history without interpretation. The historical event exist in our methodical understanding, the historical event in itself is but fiction. (pg. 48-49)
In essence the ancients saw events as having self evident meaning so for them the issue was having a reliable person to record events. Once events are recorded the process of history ends. The individual and his memory are what define history. For moderns, history is a process of critical analysis that begins once we have the information. We are interesting in precisely this act of recording history and do not take it as a given. As such the author ceases to be a positive force to be relied upon and our focus becomes the physical text and our ability to interrogate it.