Friday, September 16, 2011

Guidelines for Studying History

Clarissa recently put up some pointers for the study of history, things to remember and questions to ask:

Things to remember when reading, watching or researching history:

a. There can never be a fully objective account of history
b. Don’t read accounts of history to find out what happened. Read them to discover what their author says happened
c. Only by accessing and contrasting different accounts can we figure out what took place
d. Every account of history is always ideological
e. There is always a hidden reason for why a person writes about history

Questions to ask:

  1. Who is the author?
  2. What do I know about this author? Country of origin, political affiliation, profession, etc.
  3. How does this knowledge about the author change my understanding of his or her text?
  4. What is the goal the author is trying to achieve with this text?
  5. What kind of data is used to support the author’s conclusions?
  6. What kind of attitude does the author have towards the readers of the text?
  7. What are the central concepts that organize the author’s thinking about this subject?

My criticism: While one should initially focus on what the author says happened, the long term goal has to be to come to certain conclusions as to what really happened. All historical accounts are ideological only if you use ideology in its most general sense. Yes there is such a thing as responsible historiography even if the author is a capitalist, a communist, Jew, Christian or a goddess worshiping feminist. This is important as it gives us a standard from which to judge historians of all ideological persuasions and removes ideology as a fig leaf for poorly written history.

I think these are great points to make to students, where I would slightly differ with Clarissa is in the emphasis on the subjectivity. To be clear, we really can never actually reconstruct history "as it was" or make any claims with absolute certainty. That being said we have a historical method that allows us to recreate the past with a reasonable degree of accuracy. While moving students away from a model of "Gospel Truth," it is important not to overstate the subjectivity of historical study. Miguel Cervantes fighting at the Battle of Lepanto was real in ways his Don Quixote fighting windmills is not. To downplay the very real possibility of historical truth (lower case letters) only serves to leave the field open to the Gospel Truth crowd, which I know is the last thing that Clarissa wants. Perhaps part of the difference is one of history versus literature. With all due respect to Clarissa, as a historian it is important for me to be able to look down at literature scholars like her and thumb my nose; my field deals with objective reality and yours does not. Of course I imagine that science people thumb their noses at us historians for our lack objectivity and they in turn can be mocked by continental philosophers and analytic philosophers can feel superior to everyone.    

I would add: 

1. Figure out your source's agenda. Cross out anything that supports it and highlight everything that goes against it.
2.  Treat your sources as a police officer would a witness. You are going to wade through a lot of self serving nonsense,  but every once in a while you are going to strike gold. But even when you do not you can always count on a liar to tell the truth every once in a while if by accident. 
3. At the end of the day reasonable people are going to disagree about events and that is ok.      

Clarissa is teaching about Bartolome de Las Cases, a sixteenth century Spanish Dominican, who wrote about the Spanish conquest of the New World. Las Cases was horrified by the Spanish treatment of Native Americans, believing that such actions stood in the way of their conversion and the Second Coming. Las Cases' genuine concern for Native Americans led him to defend their rights, most famously in the Valladolid debates with Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The fact that Las Cases was a Spaniard eviscerating the Spanish, gives him a lot of credibility and I am willing to assume, based on Las Cases, that massacres of natives and their enslavement really did take place. The discovery of the New World was not just an exciting adventure in expanding human horizons. That being said I would also use Las Cases himself to paint a more nuanced picture of the Spanish. They were not all a bunch of greedy hypocritical religious bigots. Furthermore I would point to the example of Las Cases and other sixteenth century Spanish thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Juan de Mariana and Domingo de Soto. These were all in their own ways very "liberal" thinkers, who had all the basic "right" ideas about human rights and that non-Europeans were human beings too. They did influence Spanish policy, at least as far as Madrid was concerned, yet they ultimately failed to create the critical revolution in human thinking of the Enlightenment. This fell to seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers in Holland, England and France. Why did all of this not happen in Spain?    



Adam Zur said...

"There can never be a fully objective account of history"." So "Hitler murdered millions of Jews"--is just my subjective opinion. It is clearly a biased value judgment. I ought to be embarrassed of myself and hide myself in some hole until I can express politically correct opinions.

Adam Zur said...

Nowadays professors justify their views, not by arguing that they are the truth, but by arguing that truth doesn't exist! Karl Marx, the father of the "power relations" theory of ideology, would have had no difficulty understanding the self-serving nature of such ideas: "The bureaucratic class thereby pursues its own self-interest."
The feminist movement just picked this up from Marx and now tries to implant in people by clever essays. I don't think this is what Clarissa is doing on purpose --after all she is a fan of Ann Rand and that is very admirable. But this attitude permeates academia--it is almost better just to go to yeshiva and learn other stuff on the side.(The old Litvak path)

Steve Hayes said...

Yes, the idea that there can be a fully objective view of history is a delusion (and precisely the kind of delusion that Hitler suffered from, believing, as he did, that his understand of the role of Jews in history was "objective").

But I too disagree with Clarissa's idea that you only read history to study the historian. It's just that one needs to be aware of the historian's biases, and, in writing history, of one's own.