Just what the hell is history anyway?Posted: September 19, 2008
Ok. As some of you may (or may not?) know, I’m currently enrolled in graduate school in history (history grad school?). This involves a lot of reading (obviously), writing (duh), and thinking (uh-oh).
It is, of course, the thinking that is the real danger of my graduate school experience; especially any philosophical thinking. Trying to parse things philosophically is really quite the quagmire for me. It usually starts out okay but quickly things denigrate into a bunch of unclear contradictions before finally collapsing into a epistemologically pathetic muddle.
My basic point: philosophizing makes me look like an idiot. And like a fool (what’s the definition of insanity again?) I keep trying to do it. The worse of it is when someone actually encourages this nonsense!
So, of course (again), one of my classes encourages the sort of epistemological muddle I degrade into. The class in question is a “historical methods” (read: the philosophy of history) class and thus is forces me into thinking about such deep questions as “what is the nature of historical investigation? and how exactly does one go about it?”.
Now in just a few short days I have to get up in front of the class and articulate my position (sort of) on many of those sort of questions. That is bad enough but I have to do this in front of a bunch of people who are:
- Smarter than me
- Older than me
- Quite likely to disregard my thoughts due to (1) and/or (2)
So, in desperation to not look like a complete idiot, I have been trying to find some way to marshal my thoughts. And I’ve come up with a metaphor (really a thought experiment) that gets at some of my opinions on the nature of historical knowledge and historical inquiry.
As noted above, in my need to not look like an idiot on Monday, I need to come up with some way to “test” (try out?) this metaphor/thought experiment/ramble before I unleash it on my unsuspecting classmates. But how to do this without boring my girlfriend to death?
And then it came to me – in a flash of insight – don’t I have a blog?
Isn’t that what the internets is for?
Anyway, the above was a long (over 300 words!) prologue to what exactly this post is going to be about. Below will be a “working” version of the thought experiment that has been bouncing around in my brain for a week. I welcome any and all opinions on how effective (or ineffective) the below experiment (philosophic muddle?) is and how well I manage to articulate my thoughts.
Here it goes:
He Said/She Said: A Bad Breakup as a Case Study in Historical Inquiry:
by Smith Michaels
Now lets say that two of your good friends (for clarity’s sake referred to from here out as John and Jane) had sudden – at least to you- and very bad break up after dating for a good period. Understandably, you go to your friends and ask them: how exactly did such a sudden turn of events come about? Now here’s where the trouble starts; Jane and John both give narratives of the last weeks of their love affair that don’t add up to one another and contradict each other.
To wit, Jane claims things were going great until she discovered that John had cheated on her with someone else! John, on the other hand, claims that there was no cheating and that things had been going poorly for awhile and that Jane was distant, inattentive, and emotionally abusive. Such treatment, inevitably, led to the break up.
Now – concerned as you are to figure out exactly what happened between your two friends – how is one supposed to reconcile these two conflicting accounts and come at the truth? To put things more a bit more (*cough*) clearly, how are we to create a historical account of the break up of Jane and John?
What would be the most obvious sources for such a history? The most obvious is the accounts, or memories, of both John and Jane. But such sources are – to be blunt – “compromised” by their very nature. That is to say, such accounts are not completely reliable.
John and Jane could easily by lying to you or – to be more generous – they could be misremembering exactly what happened. Human beings – both consciously and unconsciously – tend reshape their memories to make themselves look better. Even if some is admitting to something they often make their account – again this can be an unconscious effort – as flattering as possible to themselves. 
Additionally, memory is shaped by experience. Memory is not a snapshot of the past. Instead, all memories – even very recent ones – are shaped by the events immediately following them. For example, perhaps a few days before the break up Jane made some snide comment to John, which he now takes to be a sign of the their – later – break up. If Jane and John had not broken up would John have thought that his memory of the comment as a sign of an event that didn’t happen? Obviously not. 
This is not to say that history should not take memory into account. But it is part of only one of two sorts of evidence a historian should use. Historical evidence is, generally, either – as Alan Megill explains – “historical sources” or “historical traces”. “Sources” are accounts of past intentionally left behind or recounted by historical actors (i.e. journals, letters, and memories). “Traces” are unintentional remains of historical actors; the detritus of historical experience – Megill’s clearest example is that of train schedules. There is, of course, over lap between the two (is a letter unintentionally left behind a source or a trace?). 
Returning to our thought experiment: the “sources” for the break up of John and Jane would, of course, start with the accounts of our primary actors. But it would also include accounts of other “witnesses” – friends of John and Jane – and their accounts. (For our purposes lets call these friends James and Julie). “Traces” for their break up would be things like their class/work schedules and credit card/bank records (these are just off the top of my head).
Ok. So let’s say that we’ve collected all of the evidence on John and Jane’s break up. Do we now just arrange the various evidence in a “he said/she said” manner and call it history?
Is the following a historical account?
“On September 10th John and Jane ended their 11 month relationship. Jane states that the break up resulted from John’s actions – namely his taking up with another sexual partner – while John denies such allegations. John claims the break up was precipitated by Jane’s poor treatment of him; including emotional abuse. James – a friend John – states that over the last few weeks he had repeatedly seen Jane belittled James in public. While Julie – a friend of Jane’s – says that she saw John emerge from a motel early one morning, shortly before the break up.”
I would argue that the above is not a historical account but just a recounting of the historical evidence related to John and Jane’s break up. History requires a critical treatment of the evidence. It requires judgment as to what evidence is most likely to be true.
It – that is history – requires judgment as to what evidence is most likely to be true. That’s an important statement and requires some unpacking. The most important word in that sentence is “likely”. It is my contention that the past is incredibly difficult to know as absolute truth – that is to say historical truth is subjective or (horror) relative. Our ability to know the “truth” about the past is curtained at every corner; not only by the historical evidence but by the historian’s own intellect, biology, and psychology.
That is not to say that the past is “unknowable” but “knowing” the past – i.e. history – requires a great deal of humility on the part of the historian. Namely it requires that historian acknowledge contingent nature of historical knowledge; contingent on the evidence, contingent on the faculties of the historian.
To go at this a different way: there are a couple of main characteristics of good history (beside what was just discussed above):
- The historian has treated the evidence critically; that is to say not taken various pieces of evidence at face value
- The historian has shown a “detached commitment”. That commitment can be political, personal or whatever for such commitment is what drives a historian to write history; from it comes the questions a historian seeks to answer. To return to our thought experiment, why would you care about why Jane and John broke up if you didn’t care about them? By detachment I mean a willingness to allow the evidence. Conclusions should be supported by evidence not just by one’s various commitments. One’s evidence should not be suppressed because of one’s commitments. 
- The historian shows “sympathy” towards the historian actors involved; by “sympathy” I mean treating historical actors as fellow human beings (obviously existing in the past) and not as caricatures.
Now let’s apply these criteria to our thought experiment, particularly (1) and (2).
As for (1) let’s say from examining John’s bank and credit card records – from right before the break up – you uncover the following:
- A twenty dollar charge at Regal Cinema (roughly the cost for tickets for two) on a night when Jane was working
- A 200 dollar charge at a fancy French restaurant that same night
- A charge at a local Best Western late that night
Now what can we tell from this evidence and the evidence shown previously. Clearly the bank record’s provide support for Jane’s assertion that John cheated on her (who spends money on a movie, diner, and a hotel room for just themselves?). This evidence, taken along with the account of Julie, makes it likely that John cheated on Julie, unless other evidence emerges.
What I just exercised was historical judgment and a critical treatment of the sources. I weighed the various pieces of evidence in light of the evidence as a whole. If John’s bank records had not shown those purchases than their would be much less support for the claim that he cheated on Jane.
Now if I was, for example, better friends with John than Jane and discovered the above evidence and sought to cover it up or disregard it (VISA lies, honey) I would be violating the spirit of (2). My commitment to my friend is fine and is likely driving me to figuring how how he broke up with his girlfriend. But my suppression of evidence in favor of my commitment to my friend shows a lack of “detachment” and thus my conclusions would not be history.
Ok. Now what would a history of John and Jane’s break up, actually look like? It might look something like this:
On September 10th, Jane and John ended a 11 month romantic entanglement. Jane asserts that the relationship ended because of John’s lack of fidelity while John points to emotional estrangement and abuse. Evidence – from eye witness accounts to dinner and hotel expenses – points to the likelihood of John’s infidelity.
Ok. Now there are several problems with this thought experiment.
- It is very crude
- No one would have that much interest in their friends’ break up
- Even if one did have that much interest in a friends’ romantic ups and downs they would never have access to bank records.
I’m sure the philosophically and historically inclined will find further problems with the thought experiment above and with the arguments presented there in. I am, of course, open to suggestion and criticism. 
An alternative title to this post could be “In which I show that I am only as smart as the last book I read…”; the arguments above are heavily influenced by the arguments of Alan Megill in his book Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The talk I have to give on Monday centers around issues raised by that book. My general of impression of it is very positive (clearly). Especially useful was the chapter on objectivity (Chapter Six), provided clarity to issues I’ve been thinking about since I was 16 (pretentious?).
 This is drawn from, Alan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago, 2007); p. 24, 52-5 and Chapter 1 more generally.
 An (better?) example of this is in Ibid, p. 49-50
 Megil recounts the types of historical evidence in: Ibid, p. 25-26
 This understanding is drawn from Ibid, p. 109-112 & Chapter Six more generally.
 This is likely the longest piece I have written for this version of Blurred Productions. I have listened to the Doctor Horrible soundtrack at least 12 times (on repeat) while composing it. I tried to avoid my usual spelling & grammar mistakes through frequent editing throughout. I’m sure my efforts mostly went to waste.