Last week I posted some thoughts in response to the discussions at A Historian’s Craft and Civil War Memory about history and philosophy. In that post I took some of the philosophical problems that affect history and tried to restate them in scientific terms. As Brett pointed out, this really amounted to stating the obvious in fairly uncontroversial terms, but I think that was worth doing in order to bypass the unproductive hostility between both extremes in the postmodernism wars (although the extent to which those extremes even exist is debatable). Whether the major problems we face as historians are philosophical, scientific, or a bit of both, the question remains: how much time should we spend thinking about these problems? In this post I’ll be discussing that question, but I have to warn you in advance that I can’t answer it. So there might not be much point reading any further…
First of all I have to say that I agree completely with Kevin Levin that as historians we can’t solve these problems ourselves. If cognitive scientists can’t work out what meaning is and where it comes from, then we have no chance. But while it would be naive and arrogant to attempt to find solutions to these problems, it would also be naive and arrogant to ignore them completely. I think we need to know something about the nature and extent of problems such as meaning so that we know how they affect our work. But how much is enough? Getting good at history is hard enough without also having to know about philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science or whatever. Maybe blogs can help here, because they provide an easy way to find out about unfamiliar areas. For example, I’ve relied quite heavily on Mixing Memory and Babel’s Dawn for science, and The Valve for philosophy and literary criticism. But how do we know if we can trust them if we don’t already know what they’re telling us? Could this also be a problem with peer reviewed publications which are outside our field?
Is it really worth trying to find out about problems which haven’t been solved yet and which we can’t possibly solve ourselves? The problem of meaning has major implications for history, but the jury is still out. It might stay out forever, or maybe just a lifetime. Right now we don’t even know where the answer is going to come from let alone what it will be. (If I had to make a wild speculation I’d guess that sooner or later the cognitive sciences will crack the meaning problem and that the answer will be equally uncomfortable for both empirical historians and post-structuralist theorists, but anyway…) Under these circumstances, we can’t confidently take any position, whether empirical or theoretical. We might all be wrong. Post-structuralist thought is valuable in that it reminds us that meaning is not straightforward, but that is hardly the last word. I found Elizabeth Clark’s History, Theory, Text quite disappointing because she promised that post-structuralism offered exciting new opportunities for medieval historians, but failed to deliver. Most of the book is a teleological triumphal progress towards post-structuralism in which she sneers at various historians and philosophers for not being post-structuralist enough. There’s far too little discussion of what post-structuralism can actually do for the historian. The way I see it, post-structuralism is a problem not a solution. I don’t want to ignore that problem, but I don’t want to admit defeat and stop writing on the grounds that people could just as easily find interesting meaning in words randomly generated by a computer.
(Somewhere in that paragraph I changed from first person plural to first person singular. Even I’m not sure what the significance of that is!)
So I believe that there are major problems confronting history, I realise that I can’t solve those problems, but I don’t want to ignore them either. Can I work around them in order to minimize their impact on my work? If the central problem is meaning then probably not. I used to think that digitization offered a way out of this dilemma because you could concentrate on transcribing documents without having to make any assumptions about what they mean: concentrate on information and exclude meaning. Now that I’ve tried digitizing text for myself I can see that it’s not as simple as that (see my theoretical agonizing here and here). Although meaning intrudes into every stage of the digitization process the problem is perhaps more manageable than it would be in literary criticism. Identifying the character string “Lt. R. E. W. Sandall” as a name and rank seems less problematic than interpreting the meaning of a poem (unless it’s by Jessie Pope maybe…). Once I’d established that my editing decisions were arbitrary, I had no problem getting on with it. I have a lot of sympathy for Kevin’s point that theory doesn’t seem to matter so much when you’re actually doing history. But am I deluding myself there? Or am I wasting time on unproductive thinking when I could be doing?
If you’re not convinced that what you’re doing is right, how do you motivate yourself to do the work? Historical research involves a lot of difficult and tedious work. You need a strong commitment to get through it. The possibility that my work could be proved completely worthless by new developments in a different discipline isn’t stopping me from doing history. There isn’t really anything new here. It’s always been accepted by most historians that future research could prove their own work wrong. New sources or new interpretations could easily overturn your conclusions. Historians have usually been able to carry on doing what they do rather than giving up in despair at the thought that they might be wrong.
The hypothetical extreme empiricists would be offended at the hypothetical extreme postmodernist’s suggestion that empiricism is just an arbitrary culturally constructed paradigm. I don’t have any problem with that suggestion. My “proper” work (ie my Phd thesis, my forthcoming article, and other projects that I’m working on) is mostly within the empirical paradigm. The rules and values of that paradigm are arbitrary, but that doesn’t automatically make it worthless. As Brett pointed out in response to my post last week, science is an arbitrary system constructed by human language and culture, but it’s a useful one which can predict or change the future. Empirical history can’t do that, but I still like it. Maybe that’s a lame justification, but it’s honest. I can’t make a strong case for any kind of history being really important, but I know that history is what I want to do. If I like it, and if there’s a paradigm that values my work, is that all I need? I also think that empirical research teaches valuable skills. Some of these are transferable to other careers (eg using databases, analytical thinking, project management) while others are more specialised (eg palaeography, latin). All of them are more valuable than ever in the age of digital history. We need people with these skills and familiarity with historical documents to work on digitization projects. You can only get good at these things through years of practical experience, not by reading Derrida. However, digitization projects also require familiarity with theories of text – structuralism, post-structuralism, and information theory are all highly relevant here.
Although I like working in the empirical paradigm, I also like to look outside it. Right now there still seems to be a big gap between my empirical and theoretical interests. Will I ever be able to bring them together, or are they incommensurable? If they are incommensurable, is being able to think about them both at the same time a strength or a weakness? I don’t want to get too attached to one way of doing things. I want to be as versatile as possible, but will that just make me a jack of all trades and master of none? There’s a serious danger of creating the appearance of being theoretically aware by lazily dropping the right buzzwords but not really understanding the ideas behind them. The phrase “truth effect” can create its own truth effect. In a comment to my previous post I mentioned this experiment which provides empirical proof of the truth effect: non-experts are more likely to accept bad explanations of psychological phenomena if they include irrelevant neuroscience terminology. Now I’m wondering how terminology affects perceptions of historical writing. I’d like to see more experiments here, but do psychologists consider history interesting and important enough to be the object of their study?
Thinking too much is bad, but so is not thinking enough. I don’t think there’s a single point in the middle that’s exactly right. Different amounts of thinking suit different people. Ultimately everyone needs to make their own decisions. And so I’ve written nearly 1,500 words without really saying anything. Does that make me a philosopher? No, just a blogger.
- Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text (Harvard UP: Cambridge, MA, 2004).