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Charitable, Skeptical, and Critical Readings February 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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I would like to consider the methodological problem of how historians read sources in terms of a tripartite taxonomy of reading attitudes: charitable, skeptical, and critical.  I take a critical reading to be a combined form of charitable and skeptical readings.  For some background, see the brief conversation that developed over at Time to Eat the Dogs.

The prerogative of the historian is to offer a critique of past events, which should be distinguished from criticism.  A critique offers an articulation and analysis of events; it may be accompanied by a criticism, but its primary concern is with arriving at an interpretation which renders the past coherent.  History is a science and not literature insofar as some critiques can render history more coherent than others.  Interpretations of coherence are subject to agreement based on an assessment of:

  1. the physical reality of events of the past;
  2. the psychological motivations of actors; and, most provisionally…
  3. an account of the prerequisites and causes of events.

I take (1) to be reasonably unproblematic, and (3) to be extremely problematic—if ultimately most rewarding—requiring an extensive, complicated, and highly debatable taxonomy of historical “trends” as well as some physical, economic, and sociological theory of how “trends” unfold.

Concerning the possibility of agreement concerning either (1) or (3), historians must deal with the historical record, the interpretation of which almost always passes through an assessment of (2).

(1) can be discerned, if (absent non-textual physical evidence) historians are able to safely assume A) the ability of actors to observe and report an event (itself a version of (1)), and B) the sincerity of the actor reporting the event (itself a version of (2)).

The more corroborating accounts are available, the better assessments of (1) historians are able to make, given the difficulties presented by the recursive relationship between (2) and (1).  However, if historians have no reason to doubt either A or B, then a charitable reading may be applied without further corroboration.  In this case, a charitable reading assumes a report was both (1) possible, and (2) sincere.  Often to move forward constructively, fairly charitable readings must be applied.

Concerning (3), historians may benefit substantially from historical actors’ own assessments, particularly if (3) concerns that actors’ own actions or the actions of people they knew well.  Historians may also benefit from actors’ contemporary assessments of more general events and trends, though this of course hinges on an assessment of actors’ own abilities to articulate those things they witnessed, or of which they heard a report, as well as their good-faith effort to report without dissemblance.  Even given these conditions, reports will still be shaped by the ideas actors had at their disposal to articulate their report.  Naturally, historians must read such reports skeptically and not, if at all possible, assume any of the above.

Some issues:

The relationship between skeptical, charitable, and critical readings is more complex than historians may assume.  Notably, a historian may be skeptical of a historical actor’s motivation, but be charitable concerning that actor’s ability to articulate, when, in fact, quite the opposite is what is called for.

Specifically, a historian’s “skeptical” reading may simply be the inversion or moral shading of that rhetoric.  For example, if a historical actor offers a sunny appraisal of something, we historians might exercise our critical prerogative by suggesting that that thing might have been “not so sunny after all” or that there were “limits to the sunniness” or that “sunniness was not a universal or objective quality”, or we might suggest that the actor had ulterior motives for suggesting that it was sunny.  If the actor made money off the fact that it was sunny, we might even assume the actor didn’t even really think it was sunny in the first place, even though we have no reason to suppose otherwise.

Ironically—and this is very important—historians’ use of inversion or shading so as to exercise their critical prerogative often leads them to accept unquestioned the actor’s articulation of events.  The historian accepts as significant what the actors accepted as significant.  The historian assumes what was at stake was what the actors said was at stake.  The historian articulates the issue in the same language in which the actors articulated the issue.  The historian may question the final outcome of the assessment or the motivation underlying the assessment, but makes an absurdly charitable reading of the structure of the assessment.

(This, incidentally, is a huge issue in the history and historiography of operations research, which I wrote up in other language in BJHS back in 2007; it is also the basis of Simon Schaffer’s critique of the history of discovery c. 1840.)

The flip side of this issue is that it also assumes a facile relationship between what actors said and what actors meant.  If one merely inverts or shades historical rhetoric, rather than offer a full critique of it, one is no closer to understanding that rhetoric’s meaning than if one had offered a clearly Whiggish interpretation.

For example, if an actor said some situation was “sunny” and we say “it wasn’t sunny for everyone” we implicitly deny that the actor knew full well it “wasn’t sunny for everyone” but decided to say “it was sunny” anyway—the actor did not feel obliged to future historians to divulge their entire state of mind.  Our assumption that the actor didn’t know full well it wasn’t sunny for everyone poisons our critique of not only the actor’s knowledge and motivations, but, by extension, the actor’s other words and deeds as well.  We must make as full as possible an analysis of context to ascertain state of mind, lest we implicitly assume a state of mind.

Seeking out rhetorical patterns, tracking down rhetorical references, reconciling rhetoric with alternative patterns of rhetoric, reconciling rhetoric with actions or recommendations for action, is to offer a skeptical but charitable, i.e. a critical reading of rhetoric, which is to get at the ideas motivating both rhetoric and action, which is to unlock the problem of (2), which in turn leads to better understandings of (1) and (3).

Ultimately, though, (3) cannot really be achieved without a basis in philosophy, sociology, as well as psychology, and the sciences, which are issues I would like to address at a future date.

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Comments»

1. Michael Robinson - February 15, 2009

“For example, if an actor said some situation was “sunny” and we say “it wasn’t sunny for everyone” we implicitly deny that the actor knew full well it “wasn’t sunny for everyone” but decided to say “it was sunny” anyway—the actor did not feel obliged to future historians to divulge their entire state of mind. Our assumption that the actor didn’t know full well it wasn’t sunny for everyone poisons our critique of not only the actor’s knowledge and motivations, but, by extension, the actor’s other words and deeds as well.”

Good point Will. Academic historians have this autonomic nervous response to their actors’ statements “Not so fast!” I’ve done it myself. Sometimes I think that we do it less because there is good data to suggest wariness of the actor’s statement and more because it identifies us as skeptical historians who go into these subjects with eyes wide open. It also identifies us as part of the kinship group of academic historians that is different from the boosterish tribe of historians who sell so many books.

2. terrence bucker - February 17, 2009

There is an excellent and thorough discussion of some of these issues in chapter 1 of Jorge Gracia’s Philosophy and its History (1991, SUNY press). His focus is on the history of philosophy, but there’s obviously a lot of overlap for historians of science. Even if one doesn’t agree with the results of his analysis, it is nevertheless extremely rigorous and comprehensive, and thus quite helpful in working out important distinctions when doing history generally.

3. Will Thomas - February 17, 2009

I don’t know Gracia’s work, but will have to check it out. Christopher and I have talked quite a bit about the relationship between the history of philosophy (where he has a lot of background) and history of science, and the different styles involved in each. Coming back to these issues in that context sounds like a good idea.

4. darin - February 18, 2009

How might this discussion change if we bracket two issues:
1) an effort to identify the physical reality of events in the past (at least in a strong sense);
2) the effort to recover/construct psychological motivations for historical actors.

How are our readings and critiques enhanced by positing these as desiderata?

How do you deal with cases that don’t seem to lend themselves either to a physical reality (at least, not one we would accept) or states of mind that seem untenable? For example, claims that witchcraft worked? Or claims, corroborated by numerous texts, of the intervention of demons?

Trying to find either the physical reality behind these events or the psychological states of the actors reporting them seems beset with difficulties or inclined toward condescension (in the E.P. Thompson sense).

Perhaps what concerns me is a desire to see historical artifacts as records of some reality that can be used to evaluate those documents and the related desire to reduce meaning to a form of intentionality to do or say something (ideas motivating action).

I am skeptical that we can “get at the ideas motivating both rhetoric and action.” It seems we have only the rhetoric, which sometimes entombs actions for us. If that is the case, attempts to recover an intention to do something is problematic at best and perhaps misguided. Perhaps a better approach would be to see meaning as intention in doing something, which we can recover through the vestiges of the past left to us in the rhetorical artifacts we use as evidence. This form of intentionality might relieve us of the burden of looking through the rhetoric for something behind it, and focus our attention on how the rhetoric functions.

5. Will Thomas - February 18, 2009

I think that the supposed abandonment of evaluation of motivation or physical reality simply denies that an attempt is being made to replace one set of motivations with another. After all, when we are talking about how “rhetoric functions” we are making a series of implicit sociological and thus psychological claims.

Re: physical reality, agnosticism also surely has its limits. If we’re talking about demons, for example, we need not discuss the physical presence of demons to agree on events like:

1) Someone said that someone else was possessed by demons on such and such a date.
2) An exorcism was performed on such and such a date.
3) The possessed was declared free of demons.

We might also say that (2) and indeed (3) was motivated by the “idea” that exorcism was capable of expelling demons. We might further make the political-philosophical claim that priests had a high position in society on account of the idea that they were imbued with the power to expel demons via exorcism (in addition to performing other spiritual functions). This in turn makes motivational assumptions about a willingness to accept (or psychological lack of choice in accepting) these ideas and authority.

We can also, of course, as historians, legitimately defer judgment on details where inadequate information is available, such as whether or not this-or-that case was a cynical exploitation of demonology or sincere belief.

Theoretically, I suppose, it is possible to reduce history to some form of textual data analysis, but I don’t see the point unless one wants to use strict ontology to stop debate concerning interpretations of history—and I thought reopening debate was the whole point of the work of people like Thompson. Plus, it just becomes absurd to work that way when one starts doing things like discussing what happened at Fairchild Semiconductor in 1959.

6. darin - February 18, 2009

First, thanks for taking the time to respond. I am rather enjoying this. Here are my initial thoughts:
“I think that the supposed abandonment of evaluation of motivation or physical reality simply denies that an attempt is being made to replace one set of motivations with another. After all, when we are talking about how “rhetoric functions” we are making a series of implicit sociological and thus psychological claims.”

How so? Rhetorical analysis, as you outline in the original post, can be conducted at the level of utterances actually made: What was said? What tropes were deployed in saying that? What context gave those tropes meaning? What other rhetorical tools were at the speaker’s disposal, tools that the speaker did not use? etc. Such an analysis seems to promise a rich understanding of meaning.

“Re: physical reality, agnosticism also surely has its limits. If we’re talking about demons, for example, we need not discuss the physical presence of demons to agree on events like:”

I’m not sure I follow your point here. Are you saying that we can be agnostics about physical reality? Your example certainly brackets reality, focusing initially on reports rather than on some physical reality that might motivate those reports (e.g., a demon possessing somebody). But then why do you treat statements 1, 2, and 3 differently:
1) Someone said that …. (indirect speech reporting a state of affairs)
2) An exorcism was performed (direct speech reporting a state of affairs)
3) The possessed was declared (another periphrastic analogous to indirect speech)

To make them similar, wouldn’t we need to rephrase these as:
1) Someone was possessed by demons on such and such a date
2) An exorcism was performed …
3) The possessed was free of demons

Or put them all in the category of indirect speech. I guess my question is: what is gained by privileging the performance of an exorcism here (as having occurred on such and such a date), while bracketing the possession and the relief from possession?

I would say that all three statements were ‘motivated by the “idea” that exorcism was capable of expelling demons,’ but why do you here qualify idea and limit it only to performing an exorcism? The entire series of events is ‘motivated by the “idea” that’ demons exist and interact with humans in this world. But in what sense are we using motivated here? If we are using motivated to mean, made meaningful, then I agree. If we are using motivated as some shorthand for access to psychological states, I remain skeptical.

I certainly don’t want to reduce history to some “textual data analysis,” but I equally don’t want history to become an effort to recover past states of mind. Motivations are slippery and difficult to defend (or easy to assail). Focusing on rhetorical patters, as you outline at the end of your initial post, seems more defensible and fruitful, and seems to offer access to historical meaning.

7. Will Thomas - February 18, 2009

Thanks for the replies and clarifications, Darin. Based on them, I think our issues are mostly ones of terminology rather than actual disagreement. I think you’re taking me to mean something very specific by “psychological motivation”, such as a behaviorist reflex or a Freudian compulsion or some such (i.e. an “irrational” mental state), when really I mean more something like trying to get at “what did the actor want to accomplish”, which I think is at least similar to what you mean by being “made meaningful”. Motivations along these or any lines can be difficult to recover, but I think most historical problems will need to suppose a motivation of some sort or another in order to allow historical understanding.

In other words, if this is an a discussion about whether past behavior exhibits rational characteristics regardless of whether we would consider the discussion rational based on an understanding “what happened”, then I think we’re on the same side of historiographical history here.

On the demon-detection/exorcism point, it might be useful to clarify the sequence as I imagined it:

1) RECORD says: “someone identified the presence of a demon in someone else”; the physical action of declaring the presence of a demon occurred.
2) RECORD says: “a priest performed an exorcism”; the priest undertook actions identifiable as an exorcism
3) RECORD says: “the priest declared the demon gone and everyone agreed”; just as it says.

Now, of course, it may well be (and is probably more likely, now that you mention it) that:
1) RECORD says: “so-and-so was possessed by a demon”
2) RECORD says: “the priest performed an exorcism”
3) RECORD says: “the demon was gone”

Here is where historians, I would argue, are permitted to impute the differences between declarations and actions. An “exorcism” exists just as “doing the robot” exists regardless of any subsidiary effects it might have, so we can say it happened; but we can’t say that 1) or 3) happened. Responsible historians will, however, take seriously the power of ideas in motivating actions, and recognize that everyone believing the demon existed, and that the exorcism removed it are very important to understanding how history worked.

I think it’s important to make distinctions between what did happened and what people thought happened, though. Economic historians, for example, would argue that it is worth understanding the dissonance between historical understanding and a modern understanding of what happened in the past. If we make an effort to understand both current ideas and past ideas we can understand, for example, A) why the Spanish thought it was a good idea to flood the market with gold in the 1500s, and so did; as well as B) why Spain had severe economic problems thereafter; as well as C) how Spain reacted to those problems.


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