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Historiography versus Historical Non-Fiction August 21, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.

So, seriously, what’s up with all this methodological introspection?  What does it actually accomplish?  Is it really necessary?  Wouldn’t it all just go away and start looking like fever-dream logic if I simply relaxed and devoted myself to augmenting my own corner of the literature?

Useful cliche

To an extent, the productivity of methodological introspection is a question of faith—its value only becomes apparent once one begins to accomplish things that one could not do before.  For example, I don’t think I ever really appreciated the severity of the tensions between the philosophy and sociology of science, and its consequences for history, until recently.  It’s only been in the past month or so that it has become necessary for me to speak of the “socio-epistemic” imperative.  This was previously the “epistemic” imperative, and, before that, the “epistemological” imperative—a formulation that I can now see was totally absurd, given the bête noire view of philosophical epistemology that still motivates historians’ professional sensibilities thirty years after the Great Escape (as so neatly expressed by Iwan Rhys Morus).  But, I could never have gotten this far without laying out those initial off-target notions first.

Puzzling out these sensibilities and their changes through time allows me to understand what is going on in the literature I read, why other scholars choose the topics they do, why they treat them in the way they do, and what other people seem to think the literature accomplishes.  This allows me to evaluate for myself what it does and does not accomplish, what picture it builds up, what it ignores, and, bit by bit, what the overall picture of history looks like, what is contradictory in this picture, and what simply remains unknown.  All of which affects how I approach my own work.

Once you start peeling back the layers of this onion, your previous thinking seems so bounded.  Though you also know that your current thinking will surely appear just as naive once you peel back another layer (once you undergo another paradigm shift?), you know you’re accomplishing something, that you’re not just reformulating some overarching state of ignorance in new language, because, again, you can do more.  Most of all, you feel cheated that anyone could possibly have let you think five layers ago that you had a good appreciation of what history looked like and how to write and teach about it.

To move from layer to layer, it is necessary to operate through a problematic.  A problematic is a synthesis that generates contradictions and insufficiencies of explanation, which require focused investigation and reconceptualization for their solution.  Thus not only does it require a constant attempt at synthesis, it requires one to challenge one’s own thinking, and to challenge specific claims and language of others.  This is what I think of as the practice of historiography.

Historiography, I believe, should be thought of in contradistinction to the writing of historical non-fiction.  Where historiography is almost necessarily combative, non-fiction writing tends to be more passive in its professional engagement.  The main goal is to produce a competent (perhaps elegant) written work on a topic of personal interest.  Since ferreting out inconsistencies and insufficiencies is not a priority in this literature, one tends to read others in a more inspirational, we’re-all-in-this-crazy-profession-together mode.  The extant literature supplies possible themes that might be drawn out from the historical record, as well as facts and examples one might refer to in one’s own work.  Citation functions here more often as a courtesy than as a crucial lifeline back to essential points in an argument.

The playfulness of interpretation found in postmodern theory tends to mesh well with historical non-fiction writing, to the point where I think it is fairly easy to confuse the two (and thereby to blame postmodernism for a lack of historiographical impetus in the literature).  Postmodernism’s defusing of certainties, the disassembling of grand narratives, and the emphasis on literary theme over historical explanation all accord with non-fiction writing’s emphasis on not making the study speak beyond the boundaries of its distinctly localized representation (the new internalism), except insofar as it highlights some broader issue in a way that is fervently non-committal toward causality.

Historical non-fiction, in a rebellion against older histories of ideas, tends to eschew ideas in favor of “practice”.  Yet, for academic writers, there is still a scholarly imperative to address ideas in some way.  This means that some broader project tends to be invoked usually as preface or epilogue, with a thick slice of dry reportage sandwiched in between.  The reportage is meant to be a portrait to be hung in the scholarly gallery.  What the gallery is imagined to accomplish—whether the improvement of public education about science, the development of a sociology of knowledge, the old Marxist revelation of resonance between science and its economic and political culture—is a question always slightly beyond the pale of what the individual portrait can legitimately speak to (and we will deal with this issue in upcoming posts).

In any event, the choice of topic and the manner of presentation always imply some larger narrative—whether it is a history of Western politics and morality (generally inverted Whig in character so the history can serve as morality tale), or a professional theodicy, or, indeed, the old-school historical narratives, or some hybrid of all three.  The larger narrative is always there whether spoken or unspoken.

These narratives tend to come out in prefaces, epilogues, and revealing snippets in between, and, to my mind, are revealing of just how badly fractured our discipline has become.  This becomes clear when even simply superb feats of research and writing run into clumsy contextualization, as in Hal Cook’s assumption that speculation was on the wane by 1700 (actually the dawning of the golden age of conjectural natural philosophy), or in Deborah Harkness’ assumptions concerning Bacon’s program for natural philosophical reform and the absence of mid-1600s cultures of practical science (to take two examples we’ve already dealt with on this blog).  As a historian of the 20th-century, I should not be able to spot contextualization flaws in that corner of the scholarly literature.

To my mind, if you plan to go about writing history in a scholarly way, it’s better to face the history of ideas head on, as best one can, rather than let them enter totally unannounced.  Once you enter the world of historiography, though—once you start worrying about things like what the philosophers of science were really concerned about, and what a good synthesis looks like—there’s really no stopping, because dissatisfaction with one’s own understanding as well as with the broader historiography’s understanding of historical change becomes habitual.


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