What We Talk About When We Talk About History: (Hopefully) Part One in a Series…

I’m not an Historian.

At least, not yet.

I’ll tell people this proudly, because I think it means I’m not coming at this project with any artificially "naturalized" concepts– I like to think I don’t have as many assumptions about what history is or how one goes about it. This is because academically, I’m not from an historical background. And I honestly just don’t completely grok what people talk about when they talk about history. Since coming to George Mason, though, I’ve been trying to work through what it means.

But sometimes someone will say something that makes me realize that I have fairly definite beliefs, or at least suspicions, about what I think History is– or should be. These moments are wonderful, because sometimes my beliefs come crashing down, and other times they’re reaffirmed, but these moments are always times when I realize that I’m starting to become an historian– to become someone who cares deeply and holds strong opinions about the nature and methods of Historical work.

A couple of the students in my Historiography course last semester kept bringing up the idea of history as a science. This seemed, to me at the time, to be patently ridiculous. Science means reproducible results, controlled experimentation, objectivity (a term I’m so loath to use that I almost always write it bracketed or under erasure or in scare quotes)… History is simply not like that, I felt.

History is interpretive, it’s subjective. It’s narratizing. The way that it’s done in the academy today, History is something deeply intertextual– it takes place in the footnotes, dialogically.  When you look to the origins of historical writing, it doesn’t come out of the sciences, it comes out of the tradition of bards, chronicles,  and heraldry. It’s a poetic tradition.

Moreover, there’s the problem of sources. Sciences are, I thought, the product of direct observation. Most of History’s sources are just textual traces, documentary remnants from unreliable narrators. When we write history, we do so placing trust in those sources. We may have standards of critical skepticism, we may demand plausibility and require that sources support one anothers’ assertions, but we essentially are interpreting texts, and when we talk about History in terms of "reality," we’re really placing a lot of trust in our sources or our own critical faculties.

I’m starting to open up to the idea that there are strong similarities between History and certain scientific disciplines. One reason for that is a conversation with a friend from my old alma mater– who is, incidentally, also a Mason grad. In a conversation over the summer, talking about History over Thai food in DuPont, he presented a quite strong argument for History as a Science. I wasn’t converted, but it was the first time someone made the argument so convincingly to me. I’ll talk more about that conversation in a later post.

But the argument made by John Lewis Gaddis in The Landscape of History is what I want to talk about here. Gaddis’s book is one of the most incredibly clever books I’ve read in a long time. And I mean "clever" in both the complimentary and pejorative sense of the term.

Gaddis argues that History is much closer in its approaches to Physics or Evolutionary Biology than to the Social Sciences– History, like those "hard sciences," is deductive, multicausal, complex. It’s a strong argument.

But like Gaddis’s entire book, it’s also deeply metaphorical. The whole book is awash in strange metaphors– my favorite being the image of the SS Jaques Derrida bearing down on the British coastline. And this is part of the insight of the book– that scientific insight is often deeply metaphorical. It’s thought experiments, insights gained from suddenly recalling the image of the snake that eats its own tail.

So I would say that Gaddis influenced my oppinion insofar as he has helped convince me that History is like many sciences. I’m just not completely convinced that it falls into the category of science, that it IS Science.

Of course, I’m biased. I don’t want History to be a Science. I’m not interested in being a scientist. I came to History because I wanted a way to do the kind of textual interpretation and theory that I came to love in college… and make it Mean Something. Because I sort of stopped believing, after a certain point, that Joyce changed the world. But I can’t believe that William Randolf Hearst didn’t.

I love the idea of History as the Art of the Footnote. As a practice of navigating between texts, sailing through a sea of traces and scraps of the past. I know that Historians can’t throw out the concept of Historical Truth, but I don’t want to stop asking why. Many people seem to feel that microhistory represents the postmodernization of historical practices, but I don’t know if that project goes far enough. I want to see Derridian history– history that attacks the authority to make Historical Truth Statements. I know that this sort of project would quickly become tiresome and difficult and of questionable utility, as Derrida’s work itself did, but I think that it would only strengthen History as a discipline. I think Historians need to make the postmodern turn, if only to turn away from it.

And, as a final note, I do want to add that if there is one criticism I would have of Gaddis’s book, it would be that– I think he sets the social sciences up as a bit of a straw man, creating an unfair comparison between more contemporary Historical Theory and a fairly Modernist, mid-twentieth century view of what the social sciences "do." From some of the sociologists I’ve met, I get the feeling that they’re further along in making the postmodern turn than a lot of Historians. (Of course, the handful of Economists I’ve talked to have seemed to fit fairly well within his characterization of that discipline.)

I have a lot more to say, and I know that this is somewhat muddled. But I’m trying to tease out an argument, a way of explaining what I think, or at least suspect, when it comes to the theory of History, the philosophy of history, whatever you want to call it.

So… More thoughts on this later.