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The Problematics of History November 14, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Extending the general line of methodological musing I left off with in my post on “historiographical balance”, I would suggest that whether a historiography is balanced is a question that can best be addressed by considering the problematics of history.  If we view a historiography as a logical system of works, then the identification of problematic areas (contradictory or missing characterizations or explanations) should provide the best means for determining in what ways the current historiography is inadequate.

The blog-related reading I’ve been doing on natural philosophical cosmologies has made me sensitive to the argumentative power of logical systems.  Cosmologies are logical physical systems.  Chronologies are logical temporal systems.  Then there are systems of (more-or-less) causal arguments—theodicies, epistemologies, economies, social theories—that make the world intelligible.  These systems set expectations of what happens when people behave in certain ways toward the world or toward each other.  Cosmologies, chronologies, and argumentative systems are never distinct, but they can vary in relative importance to each other.

If geography is a terrestrial cosmology, then history, traditionally, is chronology, an account of change over time.  The history of science, however, has always had as strong a relationship to epistemology as to chronology.  Older chronologies of science tended toward Whig history—an accumulation of truths leading up to a present state of knowledge.  But history also served to illustrate philosophical or sociological theories of scientific advance; Kuhn’s revolutions, for example.

With the turn away from Whig histories of science and an increased emphasis on practice rather than knowledge, the epistemological problematics of history have (perhaps counterintuitively) gained ground as historians have sought to historicize a stock set of epistemological practices, among them: observation, representation, demonstration, communication, systematization, community-building, argumentation, application (e.g. healing or standardization), and pedagogy.  Each of these practices is recognized as having exhibited different characteristics in different milieus (depictions of the body in early modern Europe, precision measurement in Victorian Britain, technological application in Cold War America).  This has created a museological sort of literature that is a sort of “gallery of practices”.  (This is related to the “epistemic” or “sociological” imperative in individual works that I have been trying to articulate.)

It might seem that the creation of an epistemology is a concern for the history of science specifically, but I would suggest that it is part and parcel of the rise of social and cultural history more generally, which has emphasized economies (moral, political, and material), a close relative of the epistemology.  Such histories seek to understand the logical structure of a society: class, identity, mores, etc.  These structures change with time, but largely in slow, discursive ways.  Thus characterization and illustration are prized over inevitably amorphous accounts of change.  The influence of “great men” and specific detail is minimized for obvious reasons.  Innovation focuses on adding new social or epistemic practices requiring new depictions (presumably to verify the validity of theorizing the existence of the practice), rather than on identifying new points of significance in accounts of change.  In other words, theory, not historiography, bears the burden of problematics.

In an illustrative historiography based on epistemology or a social theory, the concern seems either to be evangelical (communicating epistemological historicity or social contingency to those who might deny it) or ornamental (proliferating detailed representations of historical social or epistemological practices).  In such historiographies, it becomes difficult to determine whether there is balance, since either the presumed audience of evangelism remains perpetually unconvinced, or the near-infinite possibilities of ornamentation remain unexhausted.  In the history of science, there are always more concepts to problematize, category negotiations to recount, representation techniques to analyze, and there are always more milieus to depict.

Chronologies—while undoubtedly out of style in the now massively problematized grand narratives of scientific progress—still thrive in localized historiographies where small circles of scholars continue to argue the ins and outs of biographies and small groups (as with the Descartes, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein industries).  At HSS I saw very encouraging signs of revival in the historiography of physics where a concentration on sub-fields, research lines, and oeuvres seems to be replacing prior microscopic focus on the various identified way stations in the traditional linear narrative of physical progress.

Discussion of epistemologies is always necessary simply because defining sets of practices allows one to define the sorts of things that can happen in history, but historians should not live on epistemology alone, if only because chronology ultimately offers a richer problematics.  To master an epistemological milieu, one need only know what form a depiction ought to take: what practices or milieus can one portray, and what historicized concerns might they reflect?  In many cases, I think, historians know what their history is going to look like before they have researched it.

It is harder to get away with these kinds of strategies in chronology, because there are too many requirements (or opportunities) for the reconciliation of perspectives.  When one begins to connect points in a chronology, the empirical details cease to be mere ornamentation and begin to problematize the narrative, thereby multiplying opportunities for historiographical innovation.  To construct a chronology, historians need to ask question such as “what is this? where did it come from? what happened to it? what, if anything, did it have to do with that other thing?”  Then, they can begin to weigh the significance of traditions and events, identify pertinent details, explain transitions in ideas between milieus, and even identify pertinent new kinds of practices.  Bumping into the territory of other scholars outside of localized historiographies presents an enormous opportunity to create as specific an account as possible about what happened at closest points of contact.

In short, chronologies demand a finer grained account than epistemologies, leading to historiographies where historians have a firm stake in each others’ work, and where it becomes easier to identify historiographical imbalances—places where reconciliation must occur or where new research is necessary even to explain where something came from or what the consequences were.  The more interconnected our chronologies are, the more opportunities for scholarship present themselves.  Happily, I get the sense that the current historiography is moving back towards a prioritization of chronological accounts.

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