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Stars and Histories


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#1 Hugo Holbling

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 11:57 AM

I made a post on the blog today quoting a nice metaphor (used by Roy Porter) for the historiographical problems for those who would view history as an empirical discipline (or even a science):

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The historical record is like the night sky: we see a few stars and group them into mythic constellations. But what is chiefly visible is the darkness.

The stars here stand in for "the evidence" - those traces of the past available to us and which provide the boundary conditions for our historical narratives (the limits on our interpretations, to put it another way). The trouble is that we look up and each see different things, unless we are able to convince others that what's really there is what we see, hence my advocating the importance of rhetoric (and its study) to historiography. What we see is determined to an extent by the possibilities the stars provide but also by what we expect or hope to find, the circumsances of our search and the presuppositions we unavoidably employ (this is Lubbock's principle in another sense: "what we see depends mostsly on what we look for"). An important question posed by the anti-representationalist is thus not "what do i really see?" but "why do you want me to see one thing and not another?"
"In everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong." - Cities of the Plain

#2 Peter Kirby

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 01:58 PM

Given that people tend to study history that is meaningful to them, it would be because (to use the astronomical analogy) identifying that constellation affects the way one navigates through the seas of life.

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Peter Kirby

#3 mosaic

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Posted 13 February 2005 - 10:44 PM

This is very interesting stuff. Hugo, I remember you saying it might be time for historians to debate what is the meaning of their work since the epistemological objections seems insurmountable. This got me to thinking of film and media analysis. A very good book, "Studying Contemporary American film,"  a guide to movie analysis shows the reader a vareity of different approaches to studying film: psychoanalytic, linguistic, classical, deconstruction, etc. The authors justification is to prevent singular absolute ideas about films, recognizing the many layers that we can find. Now, as far as the meaning of history is concerned, could something similar be done in history? Is this being done?

The 'stars' certainly must be there in order for us to be intepreting but would a conscious effort to show from what angle you're approaching an historical topic be of any good? That is, historians will continually try to get as close as possible, what if some just treat it has text?

#4 mosaic

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 03:21 PM

I suppose my question can be stated in simpler terms: What can history be without trying to be as close as possible to the truth? What can be done(and should?) be done with the 'facts' ?

#5 Hugo Holbling

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 08:07 PM

Well, what's clear is that looking for a different method is to miss the point: none can do what history has traditionally sought to achieve. However, that need not mean giving up on truth; instead, history could acquire a little more philosophical sophistication and realise there are other forms, or else treat history as a narrative rather than an empirical discipline. Alternatively, there are histories to be written from differing perspectives, like the work already done on black or feminist history.

Personally, what i want to see or do is look at histories from a rhetorical perspective: the question then becomes not what does a historian or "faithful observer" want me to conclude about the past but how he or she goes/went about it. This is glaringly obvious in some Galileo scholars (like Shea, for example) but more subtle in others (Feyerabend or Finocchiaro, say). I'd also like to see more biographical or sociological approaches: what circumstances contributed (in large or small part) to Koestler and Drake interpreting the so-called Galileo affair so differently?

Although experiment acts as a brake on interpretation in science to a certain extent, i think there are plenty of avenues of inquiry from the philosophy of science that will translate well to historiography. I'm not sure that many historians understand the implications of under-determination or theory-ladenness, for instance. Perhaps studies of the symbiosis between theory and experiment and the resulting construction (rather than discovery) of knowledge suggested by some philosophers can be applied to history, too? And so it goes...
"In everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong." - Cities of the Plain

#6 mosaic

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 09:30 PM

Ah! I remember you also saying that different methods were not the point. It seems I was suggesting that but I wasn't--biographical and sociological would fall under the time of analysis I had in mind. That is, some acknowledged presuppositions and study of specific episodes from a particular perspective. Black and feminist history is an excellent example. In particular, "The Invention of Africa" by V.Y. Mudimbe which seems close to what you're talking about. Mudimbe talks about the 'invention' or construction of Africa by Europeans. However, Mudimbe also notes in a later interview that "invention" in of itself is not neccesarily bad. "Africans" construct Africa  and there is the construct of Europe also. Later I'll post an interesting excerpt from Mudimbe about his book. [It is very relevant to your last quote about discovery and construct]


I was wondering what you would think about the tripartite distinction, history of ideas, history of thought, and history of thinking used by Owen Barfield who, I think, as an interesting approach to history (he calls it the "semantic approach"). A history of Ideas would be, for example, the history of a philosophical position, Idealism--delineating its conclusions, etc. A history of thought would tell us what "men" began thinking at a certain time, say Idealism again. However, a history of thinking would concern itself with "how they became able to do so," which to me, would encompass the biological and sociological approaches you talked about. While Barfield's excursions are decidedly different from Feyerabend, and others, it is interesting that his overall distinctions and ideas function along lines you suggested here.


By the way, do you know of or would characterize a historical analysis as employing a different form of truth? A case analysis might be worthwhile.

#7 Hugo Holbling

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Posted 14 February 2005 - 10:17 PM

Barfield's approach sounds interesting but i would need to study it or know more about it. As for case studies, what do you have in mind?
"In everything that he'd ever thought about the world and about his life in it he'd been wrong." - Cities of the Plain

#8 mosaic

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Posted 20 February 2005 - 04:15 AM

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Later I'll post an interesting excerpt from Mudimbe about his book.

And here it is:

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The invention of Africa stems from a very simple hypothesis. In all societies, one always finds, a sort of zero degree discourse: a primary, popular interpretation of founding events of the culture and its historical becoming. That this discourse should be qualified as conveying a body of legends and myths is of no importance since its ordinary function is to witness, naively for sure, to a historical dynamism. [emphasis added].There is also, in principle, very explicitly in certain societies and less in others, a second level of discourses. These deploy themselves critically and actualize themselves as, say history, sociology, economics of the culture; that is, as disciplinary knowledges transcending the first level discourse and, by their critical power, domesticating the domain of popular knowledge and inscribing it in a rational field. It is at this level that the identity of a culture and its dynamics manifest themselves as project and invention, as a construct claiming to hold in a regulated frame the essentials of a past and its characteristics or, if one wishes, the "spirit of a culture" in the specific illustrated, for example, by the romantic concept of Volkgeist.

Finally, there is a third level  discourse; one which, in principle, should be critical of the second level discourses, and interrogating their significance and objectives; and, at the same time, by vocation, autocritical...At least theoretically, nothing prevents us from conceiving of this third level as one which a meta-discourse could bring about a history of histories of a given culture, or as, Lucien Braum has demonstrated in his book, the possibility of a history of histories of philosophy.

From this perspective, it is obvious that to the question "what is Africa?" or "how to define African cultures?" one cannot but refer to a body of knowledge in which Africa has been subsumed by Western disciplines such as anthropology, history, theology, or whatever other scientific discourse. And this is level at which to situate my project.
from A conversation with V.Y Mudimbe Faith Smith
Callaloo, Vol. 14, No. 4. (Autumn, 1991), pp. 969-986



What is important to understand is that the description of the process of developing a regulated history is of itself is not a moral judgment against history. Judging from some responses to Hugo, there is this sort of fear that elucidating the constructivist character of history functions to indict, undermine it, or leads to excessive "relativism." What it functions to do is to bring, critical attention to what it is we're doing, the difficulties and most of why we are doing what we do in history. This also opens up the space to criticize the validity  of the constructs as such. Mudimbe, hismelf, says he does not deny that there is some primary, or local discourse in Africa but African second level discourses have been silenced radically or converted to Western discourses.

#9 Hugo Holbling

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Posted 20 February 2005 - 09:52 AM

That's interesting. It's hard to know if fear of relativism is at the root of concern over the constructivist nature of history, since much of the commentary i receive fails to address the epistemological arguments presented (indeed, one historian is regularly spamming the Studi with abuse instead). I don't think we can "criticise the validity of the constructs", since historical discourses do not have any measure of truth (or rather, it is meaningless to speak of the truth of an historical proposition or account); but we can ask what they are for - even where the historian denies that there is anything present other than a disinterested pursuit of (approximate) truth. With all the work that has been done in literary and critical theory, there seems to be no reason at all why we should allow an author to adjudicate on the intent and meaning of their writings (including me, obviously).
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#10 mosaic

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Posted 20 February 2005 - 03:20 PM

Hugo Holbling said:

That's interesting. It's hard to know if fear of relativism is at the root of concern over the constructivist nature of history, since much of the commentary i receive fails to address the epistemological arguments presented (indeed, one historian is regularly spamming the Studi with abuse instead).

Yeah. I suppose its still to be decided pending relevant arguments concerning the epistemelogical objections. Something critical is perceived here though since the compulsion is always to justify forcefully what they're doing when none of the ideas forces them to make these kind of arguments

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I don't think we can "criticise the validity of the constructs", since historical discourses do not have any measure of truth (or rather, it is meaningless to speak of the truth of an historical proposition or account); but we can ask what they are for - even where the historian denies that there is anything present other than a disinterested pursuit of (approximate) truth.

Wouldn't this itself be a criticism of "constructs" purported to be "true"? Nevertheless, I agree. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that absolving ourselves of a naive historical realism and, realizing history's constructive nature allows us to reject the meaning(?)--what constructs are for of particular historical discourses.I suppose the best example is one you're most familiar with: The Galileo Affair. Different histories of Galileo have served to illustrate different themes. The constructive nature of history allows us to see this, and thus question the themes that have been explicated in different histories.  What are they for? And should we accpet them? Use them? What?




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