© 1997mr31:Alan Kimball
Table of Contents =
A DEFINITION OF HISTORY
REALMS OF HISTORICAL DISCOURSE
SECONDARY AND PRIMARY SOURCES
AN ASIDE ON TEXTBOOKS
INTERESTS AND THE VARIETY OF HUMAN GROUPS
MORE ABOUT HISTORY AND SCIENCE
HOW CAN WE ORGANIZE HISTORICAL FACTS AND JUDGMENTS?
CAUSE AND EFFECT
I do not want to conceal from you my firm conviction that the study of history is more vital and useful to human kind than any other study. By its very nature, it is the most human of the humanities. History towers over the nearest competitors in the curricula of our schools, colleges and universities. The University of Oregon divides its curriculum into three parts = the sciences, social sciences and liberal arts. It ought to divide it into two parts = history and the others. You smile as you read, I hope, and I have tongue in cheek as I write. I am, however, more serious about this point than it is prudent to be.
Just to balance out the smiles, I offer the following quotation = "As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claws" [Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian: A Novel, p. ix | PS3611.O74927h57+2]
And another quote = Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum.
[loosely translated as "He who is ignorant of history remains forever a child"]
Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum (46 BC)
A DEFINITION OF HISTORY
Let me first offer a simple definition of history. History is a story about the past that is both true and significant.
We might quibble about the word "story" and prefer "account" or "report". Some also might be cynical about the word "true". Here I take truth to mean closest possible correspondence to what actually happened. What is truth, after all? As we answer that question, I would caution against both facile dogmatism and stylish cynicism. The human experience of truth is complex but definite.
The central meaning of the simple definition above is not in any event much affected by quibbles about the absolute meaning or possibility of truth. We historians (you and I) can leave the cynics and the dogmatists to their squabbles.
History is a story about the past, and we who tell or write it, as well as we who hear or read it, accept the story if it seems true and significant. Later I will take up the question of how we can get better control over historical truth and significance. For now I just want to put in place the following thought =
Making or consuming history is a constant and even repetitive process of judgment across two spectrums = truth/falsehood and significance/triviality.
Here at the beginning I should highlight my peculiar meaning when I say "making history". We often say that great figures make history, but in truth historians make history. Great figures may shape events, but historians make the history of those events. I am a historian. If you think about the past, you too are a historian. We make history, for better or worse. And we also consume a lot of history made by others. We experience the very recent past, and we produce and consume histories of it and of a much longer duration of past experience.
I should also highlight the distinction implied just now between "history" and "the past". History is not the past, it is a story about the past. The past, even our own recent past, is immense and unrecoverable. History is but a fraction of the past, presented as coherent story. No one wants to tell the story of the whole past, and no one could. Evidence exists for no more than a small splinter of what has gone on in the past. It is impossible to recover the whole past. All disciplines, all philosophies, all systems of thought have their limitations. "All systems leak", someone said. Physics tells us a lot, but there is no physics of kindness. History, too, has its limits.
Furthermore, it is also impossible to tell more than a small part of the whole story, or to learn more than a still smaller part of the small part of the past that has been saved in documents or in histories made by historians. Try a casual stroll down the stacks of any good library in range "E" or "DK". These are the ranges in the standard Library of Congress cataloging system in which some (only some) of the publications on American (USA) and Russian (USSR, northern Eurasian) history are to be found. This will inspire a humbling appreciation of just how vast our topic "history" is, even as history captures only a little part of the "past".
There are countless histories, and they deal with only a fraction of the past. We should more often use the plural "histories" rather than "history". It follows then that we should prefer to read "A history" of any topic rather than "THE history" of that topic. I should be a member of a Department of Histories rather than a Department of History
Many might be surprised to learn that the difficulty of history does not follow from the amount you have to learn. History is difficult because historians -- professionals and history students alike -- must learn how to make do with the little that can be mastered. You must find your own way to discover or construct histories from the information about the past that you are able to assemble, remaining always conscious of the limitations of your effort. You cannot be given history, you must make your own histories.
Molly Ungar, PhD, Department of History, University of the Fraser Valley,
Abbotsford BC (Canada),
after she read this SAC essay, sent her philosophical/historiographical painting
which was in 1992 installed in the York University (Ontario Canada) History Lounge
Now, there is an age consideration here. Children, K-12 pupils, should not be strained. They have just learned how to tell what time it is, and it will still be a while before they learn what time is. As a general rule, the young should be brought into contact with interesting elementary histories presented by excellent and understanding teachers. They should memorize some big facts and learn to draw general outline maps. Of course, young folks should be challenged to their limits, but significant new vistas open as you get older. By the time of high school, certainly age eighteen, people are beginning to do adult things, like making histories. I know there are other uses of "adult" in our infantilizing commercial culture. What sort of culture works to substitute the word "adult" for the word "pornographic"? Never mind, I want to draw attention to a broader range of adult behavior, such as voting, taking charge of your own future, and making your own histories. The transition from K-12 to the university could be acknowledged as a rare rite of passage in our de-tribalized life. You will be carded at the door, but you are eventually invited in. You may now begin to make your own histories. [What do you make of this recent news item?]
Acknowledging all this, we still cannot say that histories are arbitrary or just anything we want them to be. With adulthood comes increased responsibility as well as freedom. History is not the same as belles lettres. History is not fiction. Histories are self-consciously true as well as significant in some defined way. They cannot be arbitrary or just anything we want them to be. They are made and consumed within a given culture of truth tests and in an environment of presumption about significance.
Histories are a fabulous amalgamation of subjective and objective realities and a
reflection of the dynamic factionalism of the civilization that produces and consumes
them. Histories are always an act of "communication", that is to say, they are
always a facet of some sort of community life. Remember the distinction between history
and the past. I am talking here about "history" (a story produced and consumed),
not "the past" (events). Histories are just about always public in their
production and consumption. This represents a sufficient assurance that histories cannot
be arbitrary or just anything we want them to be. We won't let others falsify; others
will work to resist us if we should try to falsify.
Truth and significance (even if eternal and objective) are defined and maintained in a public environment. Personal or family histories as well as histories of the great civilizations, and everything in between, are fabricated in a community setting. Histories can deteriorate in their relationship to truth and significance, and so can communities. It may be of some profound significance that this paired deterioration is as much political as it is technical.
REALMS OF HISTORICAL DISCOURSE
How do we come to understand history if it is such a fabulous amalgamation of subjective and objective realities? How do we approach the truth and determine the significance of human historical experience? Answers to these questions are easier if we imagine three related realms within which histories are made and consumed. Let me call them "realms of discourse" because histories are acts of communication or discourse.
(1) Subjective realm of sources =
(2) Objective realm of sources, "facts" & "judgments", primary documents [ID]= What is said?
(3) Personal realm, ourselves = Who am I to say?
The subjective realm (1) and the personal realm (3) are very similar in their mysterious fusion of both "objectivity" and "subjectivity". Those who tell us something certainly "exist", and so do we who hear it. Thus, we are all persons or personalities who are both (1) producers or sources of information, and (3) audiences or recipients of information. We make histories when we tell or write them, and we consume histories when we hear or read them. Our sources in history are nearly always persons, or the direct product of human action, for the most part humans fabricating narratives or other expressive artifacts. We who are active in realms (1) and (3) no doubt have a claim to "objective" existence, just like those facts and judgments recorded in realm (2), in primary documents.
That seems elementary enough. What follows? Realms (1) and (3) are rooted in the subjective qualities of human expression while realm (2) is rooted in the objective qualities of the surviving testimony preserved in original records, what we often call "documents". We humans with all our squirming subjectivity have sandwiched the static or finished "hard facts" between us.
Furthermore, the stone with ancient inscriptions is a very solid fact, but it was carved by a mortal human hand and is studied by the delicate human eye. It makes no sense to insist on the absolute objective or subjective qualities of the enterprise we call history. It is both.
The personal realm of discourse (3), and that's you right now, is in this fundamental way like the subjective realm (1). Think of me in this structure. "Me" (1) is writing this essay to you (3). Personal interests, personal slant, cultural background, all the particularities of my and your own time and place, status, position, gender, age, and all the peculiarities of the person and the groups of which the person is an example, all play a huge role in shaping expression and understanding of what can be said and what can be comprehended. [This could be a good time to consult the essay "Dozen Categories", then hop right back here.]
Recognizing this, we sidestep the great and fascinating philosophic debate on whether truth is absolute or not. In practical, all-too-human and experiential terms, the outcome of this debate makes no difference. Historians need not wait around for that debate to be resolved. Historians need only understand = TRUTH, whatever it may be, is defined and maintained in acts of communication between humans in all their variety and with all their strengths and weaknesses.
And these acts of communication leave a visible contrail of evidence, the second and central realm of discourse enumerated above.
SECONDARY AND PRIMARY SOURCES
The rule-of-thumb distinction between "secondary" and "primary" historical sources is important. Points (1) and (2) above parallel the distinction between (1) secondary and (2) primary historical sources. Secondary sources are those produced by historians, you or me, as we seek to make sense of the past. Most of the historical monographs in the library, the articles in historical journals, encyclopedias and other reference books, and also those things called textbooks, and finally this website, are secondary works.
The purest meaning of "primary document" is this = No document or tangible source lies behind this document. You cannot go further back to any existing source for this source. A source may be considered primary if produced within or in immediate proximity to the past we seek to form into a history.
Notice that the reliability -- the truth and significance -- of the document is not part of the definition of primary source. A primary source may err or lie or otherwise distort, just like the secondary sources, and for the same reason. A primary source may not correspond at all to what actually happened, and, even if it did, its testimony might be trivial. It is humbling and a bit disturbing to realize that the makers and the consumers of histories are obligated to certify the truth and significance of primary sources. In terms of above, (1) and (3) must verify and evaluate (2).
"Who says" is the initial question we should put to all sources, whether secondary or primary. The "Declaration of Independence", bank accounts, laws and decrees are primary sources, yet "who says" is still a useful question to put to these documents. The carved stone, the snapshot, the tape recording, and other "primary documents" still require the questions about who carved, who took the picture, who made the recording, etc. The "evidence" of the photo depends on the decision of the photographer as to just when and where to point the camera. I'll not even mention the possibilities of distortion given by modern video and photo technology.
Distortion is in any event only an example of a larger problem = Histories are human records of human experience, and humans have their little ways. Humans err as often as they lie. They blunder as often as they deceive.
Take excavations or archeological evidence as an example again. These would be primary sources in the pure sense only in the case of our personal visit to the tangible evidence or site, bringing our selves--the personal realm (3) --into direct contact with the objective realm (2). But if we are able to study excavations or archeological evidence only as described in books, we have moved into the subjective realm of "secondary" report on "primary" sources (the actual tangible site).
In a less obvious way, a manuscript document transcribed for publication also represents a small step away from true primary documentary status. Certainly a translated document, say from Russian to English, no matter how well translated, moves yet a step further from primary status.
When our sources might better be called "evidence" (e.g., excavations, archeology in general, photos, recordings, bills of sale, statistics, government documents, even diaries and other eye-witness accounts) then the distinction between the subjective realm and the objective realm blurs. The distinction between secondary and primary is not complex, but it is elusive. It is not fixed and eternal. It requires judgment on our part. Active judgment is the central skill of the historian.
The habit that the distinction between secondary and primary should promote is this = Seek the closest and most immediate original expression of what actually happened.
First we ask about ourselves "who am I to say". Then, of all informants we ask "who says". Finally, we get down to the business of making judgments about "what is said" in the second of our three realms of historical discourse. Immediate human testimony tends toward the objective when in our judgment the evidence is an immediate reflection of what plausibly took place. This quality may be described as verisimilitude.
The historian James M. McPherson (1998 March 26:NYR:8) praised the historian who worked systematically to define a set of criteria for evaluating the truth ("accuracy") and significance ("value") of historical testimony. These criteria are more like the criteria of criminal investigation than they are like laboratory experimentation.
"They include ascertaining the preponderance of evidence with respect to a given claim, and addressing the specificity of the testimony, the likelihood of its truth as measured by comparison with other evidence, the reputation and known prejudices of the informant, and whether the testimony is firsthand or hearsay."
They include also some of the criteria of the courtroom. Cross examination is not always possible, but cross checking is. I would also note the importance to historians of concepts like "to the best of my knowledge" when trying to nail down human truth.
I would caution that historians must remember a most profound difference between historical and criminal investigation or court proceedings. Historians must play the triple role of detective, prosecutor and defense attorney. Perhaps consumers of histories are asked to perform the role of jury, but there is a way in which the historian making the histories does that as well.
The biggest difference between historical and criminal investigation is this = The trial of history does not take place against the backdrop of any widely recognized laws. It takes place in the arena of factional human interrelationships, just like the events of the past themselves. We've got to work this out together.
Documentation produced by the past event or directly in connection with the past event, while not incontrovertible, may still be presumed to be the best. In the final analysis, we can controvert our sources only by reference to other more primary sources, or to standards of common sense. And common sense is a slippery slope.
As historians we should cultivate an inclination or taste for primary documentation. The taste for secondary sources can best be justified as an exercise in reference (to get someone else's helpexpert testimonyin understanding the record left by primary sources) or in that realm of intellectual history called "historiography" (the study of varieties of historical imagination).
Remember, however, that when we bring ourselves into contact with a primary source, we are ourselves introducing the subjective realm into the pattern, even if from the bottom side of the three-part realms of discourse outlined above. We cannot forget our own "personal distance" from our sources and their content. We have to think about our own chronological, physical, and personal distance. When, for example, you read the "Declaration of Independence", the question still is "who am I to say" [what this means]. This is nothing other than the personal version of the question "who says". Question Jefferson, question yourself. And drive out of your mind the thought that the verb "to question" means "to reject".
Again we see that the difficulty of history lies less in the bulk that must be learned but in the discretion that we must bring to the evidence. These habits are as important a result of studying history as are the dates, places, and names that may or may not stick in our minds.
AN ASIDE ON TEXTBOOKS
We cannot evade the practical issues embodied in all this theoretical discussion. For one thing, almost all the teaching of history is done with what are called "textbooks", but just about no one bothers to explain what these ubiquitous artifacts are. For most purposes, textbooks are secondary sources and take their place somewhere toward the back of the room in the subjective realm of discourse (1). Textbooks are to historical narrative as hearsay is to the courtroom. That is a bit harsh since the best textbooks do serve a useful purpose not unlike expert testimony at court. But without immediate eyewitness testimony, expert witnesses seldom connect with the heartbeat of actual events.
There are fine history textbooks, but they do not have the possibility of achieving the sort of verisimilitude that we might grant to an account written by an actual participant in events during or shortly after the events. (Before I complete this paragraph, let me complicate things just a bit. If we were to seek to understand a history of textbooks, then textbooks would become primary sources. Think about that.)
Most books and articles on history in libraries are secondary sources, even when they are focused on topics more limited than those of the ubiquitous textbooks. Still, they are narratives written by someone seeking to explain the meaning of the past, interpreting and citing primary documents (if they are serious historians). All teachers, as they address students, are secondary sources. For this reason, I would have to be the first to plea, in self defense, that we not get rid of all secondary sources.
I would also add that if we had to rely only on true primary sources very little history would get done. So, we have to make judgments and be practical. Again, a main difficulty of the topic history is making do with what we can master. Even as the distinction between primary and secondary sources seems to flip back and forth in our minds, we can take this universal and solid bit of wisdom from all this = Always consider the chronological, physical, and personal distance of the historical source from the actual past event Remember that closeness and distance each have advantages and dangers. And approach the past at first with the humility and caution of a stranger in a strange land. You must work to acclimate yourself to your topic, to discipline your subjectivity to the contours of your topic, its time and place. Deal consciously with your "personal distance" from your topic.
INTERESTS AND THE VARIETY OF HUMAN GROUPS
By "personal distance" I refer to more than time and space. I also refer to interests [ID]. Interests motivate and shape human testimony, and they shape the human understanding of testimony. The interests of the teller of the tale and the hearer of the tale (1 & 3 above) may or may not be in harmony with the interests that motivated and shaped the primary documentation (2 above). And consider this = The interests of (1) may also not be in harmony with the interests of (3). Be wary and skeptical of all sources, primary or secondary.
There is nearly no escaping it, we "personalities" (1 & 3) have the facts (2) surrounded, and we've got to do something about it. Different sorts of people see things differently. Bankers, Quaker ministers, retired air-force colonels, unemployed mill workers, Bashkir nomads, Lakota Sioux farmers, mothers of 18-year-old sons, defense contract industrialists, tenured professors, freshman co-eds from Sweet Home, Oregon, Chinese and African intellectuals -- the list could go on at some length -- all see things differently. You see here one reason common sense was described above as a slippery slope = "Common to whom" is the first question here. The wide inventory of different persons and groups [ID] constitutes the dynamic factionalism of any civilization. Between factions, "common sense" might not be held in common.
The very meaning of phrases like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" depends on the particularities of those who employ them. Just consider the different meanings such words had for visionary American revolutionists, who rose up, lived and died by these words, and their slaves, whose bound labor made the revolutionists' grand careers possible. In the late 20th century, the USA began to justify preemptive military attack by reference to these words, and those targeted by the attack defended themselves with the same words on their lips. Different people make different histories about the fate of widely different peoples, and these histories are consumed by yet many other different sorts of people. History is in origin and final utilization a wholly human affair reflecting the rich diversity within and among communities of people.
"BIAS" AND INTERESTS
I seem to be saying not only that bias is inevitable but that it can be appropriate, even good. This flies so directly in the face of a cultural prejudice, a light-minded colloquial negativity surrounding the word "bias", that I feel the need to add a word or two of explanation
First, we have to work to undo a colloquial confusion. The word "bias" has merged in contemporary usage with the word "deception". These are two familiar dangers common to the making and consumption of history and other narratives. Yet the two are not necessarily related at all.
Bias in a narrative is a direct expression of the natural interests of the author. And the narrative may be read or heard ("consumed") by individuals of similar or different interests and thus similar or different biases.
Deceit in a narrative is purposeful evasion of direct expression or purposeful injection of falsehoods.
Bias and deceit can be found together, sometimes in the form of deception designed to hide bias. They resemble one another at some casual level, and the two together resemble the final of the three great subjective weaknesses of historical narrative = "blunder". No matter how similar these three dangers seem -- bias, deception and blunder -- they are different. A point of view or "perception" of events does not have to be "deceit" or "error".
Bias and blunder are inevitable. However, even if we cannot or should not try to eradicate bias, we can discipline it when we make or consume history. Dealing with bias enriches our appreciation of human historical experience. With attentive care, we can detect and correct blunder. Deceit is not inescapable, and we can work to expose as well as condemn it with vigor. Always, we must distinguish among these three dangers -- bias, deceit and blunder -- when we meet them, and we do meet them at nearly every turn, in historical narrative and in our daily public lives.
However much the historian borrows the technologies of the laboratory or social sciences, history is therefore not a science, it is the core discipline within that broader endeavor we properly call the humanities, the human study of humans.
In this way, the study of history is an Operation Bootstrap. We are asked intellectually to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. Neither Archimedes nor any historian has ever found the solid place to stand and from which to lever the world. But we feel the need to do just that.
MORE ABOUT HISTORY AND SCIENCE
Accent on this sort of subjectivism would threaten disaster for physics or even for the social sciences. There cannot be a Chinese or African or Sweet Home physics, even if there are Chinese, African, and Sweet Home physicists. Authentic physics aspires to be universal and strives to eliminate all traces of subjectivism and cultural bias. There cannot be a different physics for Bashkir nomads and for Sweet Home co-eds.
Consider this difference between physics and history = It is reasonable to assume that the stars exist even if there are no astronomers. Stars are in this sense "objective". Stars do not depend on astronomers for their existence. But there would be no history without historians. This observation allows us to make another distinction between the past and history. The past is in this way like the stars. The past might be said to have existed, even without historians. But history is the creation of historians. Histories, unlike the heavens, exist only because humans make them and consume them. Histories exist only because humans tell and write them, hear and read them. There may be no higher, celestial realm for histories.
History from this point of view is thus, in essence, subjective. You might correctly think that physics too is a creation of physicists. But the distinction is still profound. History is the human study of past human experience. No matter how remote in time or space, history is self-reflexive. Stars do not study themselves, but humans do. Therefore, while physicists strive in all regards to prevent personalistic or subjective considerations from shaping their work, I would caution against the systematic effort to remove the subjective element from history. The pretense to objectivity in history is as often false or misleading as it is noble.
We do not have to become someone else or strive
to denature ourselves in order to do history. For one thing, that's impossible, for
another, it is frequently a serious deception, and finally it denies the essence of
history itself. On the contrary, we must strive to recognize the subjective element in our
sources and acknowledge it openly in ourselves. Who says? Who am I to say?
Histories are human records of human experience, and humans have their little ways. Yet no instrument other that the human intellect has been given for the task of understanding what humanity is. On God's green earth, no other instrument has been given for the task of understanding anything. And you've got one.
For most students who are in their early adulthood, the challenge is first to discover who you are before you can give any serious thought to acknowledging your own biases and interests or those of others. We all hear a lot of talk these days about "overcoming provincialism". We have created courses on race, gender, non-European peoples, "multi-culturalism", global studies, and international awareness. Our curricula have been made richer as a result. But as with many positive things, there is a negative side to this story. We may have prematurely diverted attention from the time-honored individual search for personal and group identity. What sense is there in the study of remote and foreign cultures before one has any real sense of one's own?
The irony here is that one must know one's self in order to understand others, must be able to answer somehow "who am I to say", must be to some degree at home in the present in order to understand history. Yet at the same time an understanding of others and their histories is an essential component of self knowledge and an understanding of one's own time. For this reason the study of history for the young is an especially tense version of Operation Bootstrap. The renowned Princeton moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in his little book On Bullshit [BJ1421.F73+2] wrote, "As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them".
I would like to move immediately to some practical techniques of Operation Bootstrap, but I cannot leave off the theoretical discussion quite yet. Notice back at the top of this section that the objective realm of historical discourse (2) includes judgments, along with what are called facts. Judgments here relate to essential aspects of human experience, such as "goodness" and "significance" (and their opposites). Goodness and significance cannot in any physical sense be said to exist, cannot be measured or described "scientifically". Yet human culture and civilization are impossible without them. There is no physics of goodness or significance, yet they are both central to the human experience and to the historical accounts of that experience. These sorts of judgments are frequently as much a part of our primary documentation as are what we like to call facts. At the same time, goodness and significance are components of our own secondary historical narrative, the story we want to tell. The subjective and objective are again intertwined. In this connection, Michael Lave and James March make an interesting comment in Introduction to Models in the Social Sciences (1975), "God has chosen to give the easy problems to the physicists". (Shouldn't Lave and March have written "easier problems"?)
As for that elusive but conventional concept "fact", let me only give this surprising but useful bit of advice. In histories, as in life, we find few facts. We make or find only generalizations at various levels of magnification. Often what we call facts are actually generalizations, some big, some very small. Rather than fool ourselves with an unexamined distinction of "fact" from "generalization", better that we adopt the tool-and-die maker’s doctrine of "tolerances" and "precision in context". In any story or account, one part need not be honed to within a ten-thousandth of an inch if the other components are honed only to within a thousandth of an inch. The commanding discipline is not fact but accuracy and consistency. Accuracy and consistency make fact and generalization work. In practical terms of writing historical narrative, it is easier to be accurate at the higher levels of magnification, easier to be accurate when you are "zoomed in" than when "zoomed out".
We still have to develop a taste for contingency and disputation, because differences about history will persist so long as there are differences among peoples. While physics aspires toward increasing levels of perfection in its grasp of nature, history must content itself with an eternally open-end and repetitive quest for insight and familiarity with the human experience, adjusted and renewed with our own growth in personal experience, with each generation, and in each cultural environment. Single and settled history is the product of imposition and indolence.
I do not think we need to despair about the "subjective" nature of our sources or about our own ability to understand them. All this subjectivism is, after all, under significant objective control or restraint. The distinctions between falsehood & inaccuracy, on the one hand, and truth & precision, on the other, are still mighty useful. And these distinctions are best made with reference to the middle realm of discourse [ID], the objective realm (2). One of us might be the young daughter of a banker and another of us might be an old mill worker on welfare, but we can discover and define the discord in our views of truth and significance in history only with reference to the precise "reading" of the document. The document, even a document filled with squirming judgments and opinion, is found in the fixed, objective realm of discourse (2). There it is, in the public realm, in libraries or open archives, where anyone might confirm any given historian's reading, might strive to replicate any historian's experiment with the documentary record, very much as chemists or physicists strive to achieve results that can be replicated in any lab. Sources held from public view -- secret or "off the record" -- signal their untrustworthiness even when we are forced to consider them, in the absence of anything else.
We may some day be comfortable with the thought that a large element of objectivity does exist in history, but history cannot yield single and absolute truths. Differences are seldom resolved for any length of time in the realms of historical discourse, but they can be acknowledged and occasionally reconciled. So also are big differences among people seldom resolved in any absolute way, but they can be acknowledged and often reconciled. This is where the discipline of history finds its fit less with the various sciences than with James Madison's universal doctrine of factions at the core of political democracy in the USA. The mysteries of doing history are very similar to the mysteries of public life, of civil society, and of democracy. And history fails often for the very reason democracy fails. This opens a door I do not want at this time to go through, but, if you do, be my guest = [TXT from longer essay on the Federalist Papers and immediately post-Soviet transformations | TXT of interpretive article on pre-Soviet concepts of "civil society"].
HOW CAN WE ORGANIZE HISTORICAL FACTS AND JUDGMENTS?
Coordinates of Historical Experience and
A taxonomy of the varieties of human experience
What structure should we impose on the welter of fact and judgment that press in on us from all sides? We must recognize at the outset of this taxonomic exercise that the way we organize our thoughts is an inevitable subjective intrusion into the objective realm of recorded facts and judgments. We do not want to "reify" our various systems or organizational tricks. That is, we do not want to confuse methods or theories with the historical record they help coordinate or clarify. We do not want to confuse the package for the goods within. They are different, but each is vital.
There can be as many ways to organize fact and judgment as there are searchers and finders. We're back to that crowd of Bashkirs and bankers, co-eds and cowhands we met earlier, but shapely elegance in the way facts and judgments are organized approaches the universal qualities of objectivity. Keats was not just being cute when he wrote "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" [ID]. Humans can often make do with clarity and coherence even in the absence of absolute certitude.
All this talk about "realms of discourse", "coordinates", and "taxonomies" would be terribly scholastic except that, if we want to understand something, we need tools, edged tools, to cut our way through the many superficial but entangling obstacles that await us. Truth and significance are difficult enough, in and of themselves, but add the arts of deception and the diseases of distortion and error, and everyone is well advised to have some degree of conscious system for understanding the world.
I would like to suggest some ways to organize the complex details of history. I hope you have your own, or soon construct your own. Until you do, you will either not search or, if you search, you will make no findings. Or, just as bad, if you don't have your own way of organizing facts and judgments, others will impose theirs on you.
Is it true that it is better to be wrong than to be confused? I'm not sure, but I am sure that it is better to make your own mistakes, conscious of your own purposes, than to mimic others' mistakes, in ignorance of their purposes.
Yet here I am, suggesting my system to you. Please, use it if you wish, then toss it out when you come up with your own.
What follows is a loose variation on the Cartesian graph with two standard coordinates "x" and "y", displayed on a flat, two-dimensional surface, such as a blackboard or computer console. This Cartesian graph employs also a third coordinate "z" which stretches between the viewer and that flat surface, not just a third coordinate but a third dimension out from the flat surface where coordinates "x" and "y" are displayed =
Systems like this one laid out here are only devices. I've said that they are "tools", but there is a sense in which they are also cupboards for arranging and storing what we want to know. Those valuables arranged and stored in whatever system are what we cherish first of all, not the cupboards. The historical narratives -- the stories -- are what are important and, as best we can tell, true. Thus we recapitulate our simple definition of history expressed at the beginning of this essay [ID].
Perhaps we need add only this = We historians, you and I, must persuade our audience of the coherence and importance of our story, and we must always be accountable in a public sense to prove the truth of our story by citing credible sources.
PERCEIVED INTERESTS or It's alive! It's alive!
What we have now established is an intellectual erector set of structures and outlines, like a conceptual Frankenstein monster, sutured together and with stitches still morbidly visible. The various parts might not seem too lively by themselves. What lightning sets it all in motion? GO TO this text about PERCEIVED INTERESTS
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