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Wednesday, 27 March 2019

History as an Act of Faith

Allow me to try out some thoughts that I am trying to put in order as part of my argument about there being an inherent ethical demand within history.  This is probably going to be a bit rough and ready - or incoherent if you prefer.  Sometimes it helps me to get things a little clearer in my head to try them out here.

I began an argument some posts ago about how history operates on the basis of faith.

Remembering that History is more than the simple cataloguing of facts, of things that happened, think about the things that a historian absolutely cannot know.  These include:

  • Whether your source is lying (as opposed to being erroneous): Historians are frequently confident that they can detect a lie, but the confidence is entirely misplaced.
  • Whether your source is speaking the truth as it understands it (as opposed to being factually accurate)
  • Whether your source is being straight with you (this encompasses both of the above).

Whether you like it or not, the facts of all of those matters are secrets that the authors of your evidence took to their graves.

These points could - and indeed ought to, if one were proceeding on rigidly positivist lines - prevent anyone from writing history.  We proceed in spite of them, whether you like it or not, on the basis of faith, or trust.  The whole historical project begins from a leap or act of faith.  In a sense in cannot be more than that.  In normal conversation we proceed on an assumption of good faith, on the basis of an unspoken contract.  We assume our interlocutors are not lying, if for no reason than that we expect them to believe us.  But there is no such contract involved in an encounter with the traces of the past.  Historians often speak as though we are in dialogue with our sources but, while the metaphor has pragmatic value, if examined closely it doesn't really work.  Whatever contract of good faith was made by the producers of our sources, it was not made with later historians.  The historian must - as pointed out above - approach the evidence on the assumption that it is going to be straight with her (that if it speaks truth it does so deliberately; if it lies it does so on purpose) but cannot expect anything in return.  In that sense, in engaging with the sources the historian enters a space of heteronomy.  A real dialogic engagement with the evidence is impossible; the engagements made by the different parties cannot but miss each other entirely.
The faith that allows us to proceed is a faith, I argue, in the historical project itself. 
Think about some further irreducible issues of the production of history.
  • No narrative is 'true'.  A narrative is not a fact, even if it (as it at least ought to) proceeds on the basis of verifiable facts.  A narrative can be wrong, for all sorts of empirical reasons (events in the wrong order, for example), but no narrative (unless it limits itself purely to a relative chronological list or chronicle) can be true.  Narratives are all shaped selections; they are all ultimately fictions.
  • No historical explanation is empirically verifiable.  There is no way an explanation can be externally validated.  A historical explanation is only ever more or less persuasive.
  • The same applies to causation.  We are accustomed to see events causing other events, but, as I have argued before, that is a mistake.  Events come about because of unrepeatable constellations of circumstances and consequences, many of the latter entirely unintended.

It can be argued then that historical knowledge - understanding history as more than the most basic cataloguing of events or regurgitation of contemporary views - is anything but concrete.  I have argued before that historical research overwhelmingly continues on the basis that we are talking about solid empirical findings, even when aware of - even when accepting - the fundamental points made above.  Too much historical debate is about who is right and who is wrong and conducted as though, when we get beyond the lowest level of empirical accuracy, such an argument were capable of resolution.  That, it seems to me, is in bad faith.

I have argued before that the very possibility of history lies within the empirical impossibilities I have listed.  But if there are no concrete answers to be had (and there aren't) what is the historical approach about?  One can answer that to some extent with reference to the things I set out in my 'Manifesto' but we can and should go beyond that.  Yet, assuming that there is no transcendent 'truth' (i.e. a truth about progress, or reason, or spirit, or providence) to be had from history (I don't believe there is, but you might differ), then where do we go?

This is where I return to my current bee in my bonnet, and the idea that we ought to think less about argument, rhetoric, winning debates, convincing people, and more about hermeneutics: interpretation and understanding.  This is an approach every bit as wed to empricial bases, to method and to rigour; it's not a license simply for 'touchy-feely'  statements of what X 'says to me' (but I don't necessarily want to rule that out); certainly not a permit to play fast and loose with the facts.  Nonetheless, given that there is no attainable horizon of 'final' knowledge, we ought to embrace that.  It seems to m to be more consistent with the act of heteronomy, vis-à-vis the evidence, mentioned above to avoid closing its 'voice' down.  We need to keep open the (multiple) 'saying' (in Levinasian terms) of the evidence, and to allow equally multiple interpretations.  Rather than trying to choose one reading or interpretation over another, perhaps we can keep them in play simultaneously, creating a more 'layered' effect. (I have an unfinished article that attempts to do this.)  We should be less afraid of this.  These things keep open a sense of dialogue without consensus (a Nancien 'unworked community' of historians).  They keep open what I think is the most important feature of History, as a 'humanity', the understanding of different people, how and why they did things, and how and why they thought about things, how they fitted into their space with all the other, in some sense, non-human occupants of their world.  It keeps the unreachable horizon open and inviting.  The faith in the historical project lies in a commitment to continuing this unceasing movement towards that unattainable horizon.