Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Modern Historical Theory

More on the philosophy of history...
In more recent times, historians have looked to Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886) as the originator of historical investigation in the modern sense.  In a famous line, Ranke indicated that the task of a historian was to present history “as it really happened,” [1] an approach to history that we might call historicism.   At the end of this section we will question Ranke’s “modernist” idea that it is possible for anyone but God to know “what really happened” in any fully meaningful sense. [2] Nevertheless, several features of his method of doing history are central to the way we approach history today. [3]

For one, far more than even Herodotus and Thucydides, Ranke insists that historical writing must be based on evidence.  For Ranke, he thought mainly of documents when he spoke of evidence.  But those that followed rightly expanded our sense of evidence and primary sources to include things like “material culture,” the physical remains from a particular time and place.  For example, if we want to investigate what people at the time of Christ in Israel thought about the afterlife, we will not only want to look at the relatively few writings that have survived from that time.  We will also want to look at things like the way they buried their dead. [4]

Perhaps more important is the emphasis in Ranke’s method on questioning the sources.  One must not simply take the word of one’s primary sources but approach them with a critical eye.  For example, when reading the Jewish War of the Jewish historian Josephus, we cannot simply assume that he is giving us an unbiased presentation of events.  We need to be aware that he was a general in the war and actually surrendered to the Romans.  Is there a hidden agenda of defending himself?  We need to be aware that he was writing for a Roman audience and those who won the war.  Does he make them look better than he would have in private conversation?  Does he modify his descriptions of groups like the Pharisees in order to make them intelligible for his audience?

We are now far more aware of bias than Ranke was in his day.  You might say that while he set us on a good course for questioning the biases of sources, today we realize that it is just as important for us to question our own biases.  I grew up in a “conservative” group in the Methodist tradition.  How does this fact affect the way I read the writings of John Calvin?  I like ideas and theology.  How does this affect what jumps out at me when I read a source like Josephus?

A third, very important insight Ranke brought was that the historian should let the concrete historical phenomenon drive your interpretations of history rather than some abstract ideological framework in which a historian may want to fit that historical data.  His thoughts here were probably a direct response to G. W. F. Hegel’s theories, which were very dominant at the time and which we will look at a little later in the chapter.  Sometimes we as Christians may have this tendency, to want to take the very complex currents and opinions of various periods of history and put them into a box that says, “This was the era in which people believed x because they had turned from God” or “This was the time where y happened because people served God.” 

Ranke thus anticipated what Jean-François Lyotard would say in the late twentieth century about grands récits, “grand frameworks” or “meta-narratives” by which we organize the complex phenomena of the world.  We are far more likely to be accurate in our descriptions of the world if we stick to the concrete data and petits récits, the smaller stories where we are better able to account for more data.  It is much easier to capture the essence of a meeting you had this morning than to summarize the way meetings went in the twentieth century.  And it is easier to say how meetings went in the twentieth century than to demonstrate that meetings tend to go better for Christians, which tries to put an ideological grid over meetings...

[1] Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (“History of the Romantic and German Peoples from 1494-1514,” (1824).

[2] See the next chapter for a description of what we mean by “modernist” here.

[3] For the paragraphs that follow, I am deeply indebted to Mark Day, The Philosophy of History: An Introduction (New York: Continuum, 2008), 6-9.

[4] Although the evidence is far from conclusive, the fact that Jews at the time of Christ took the bones of their dead and “re-buried” them after a year in a stone box called an ossuary is sometimes taken as an indication of belief that those bones would one day come back to life.


Deane said...

"François Lyotard"? And then in your tags, "François Lyotard".

Surely you mean "Jean-François Lyotard".

Ken Schenck said...

exactement! Many thanks...