Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Tricks and Juggleries

Cautionary Notes On the Study of History

There are those who think that history is the ultimate arbiter of all truth and debates.  "History shows us . . . " or  "History says . . . " are phrases not uncommonly heard.  Such claims, while appearing both august and wise, are usually false.  History does not give up her secrets easily.  The past (like the present) is inordinately complex.  The more historians research, the more questions and complexities they find--at least this is the case for the serious professional historian.  

Herbert Butterfield concludes his essay, The Whig Interpretation of History with this cautionary note:
Perhaps all history-books hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already.  In any case, it is never safe to forget the truth which really underlies historical research: the truth that all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history.  . . . She is at the service of good causes and bad.  In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most.

Therefore, we must beware even of saying, "History says . . . " or "History proves . . . " as though she herself were the oracle; as though indeed history, once she has spoken, had put the matter beyond the range of mere human enquiry.  Rather we must say to ourselves: "She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination." [The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1965), p. 131f.]
As we contemplate the present world--and even our own country--we can readily agree that we are faced with a whirling, complex mess.
  For every opinion, there is a counter opinion.  For every belief there is the contradiction of it.  Out of this morass comes human action--itself a grand mix of motives, goals, standards, and understanding.  But if this be true in the present, how much more difficult must it be to draw reliable conclusions about the past, about our history?  This is what Butterfield means when he says that history "will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination".

Of course the problem does not lie with the past, per se.  Rather, it lies with the set of glasses which we wear as we study the past. Those glasses tell us what to expect and what to find when we study the history.  Things become even more treacherous when we approach the study of the past in an attempt to "prove" a point of view that is either controversial, or is so "certain" it is beyond controversy.

Butterfield concludes:
This is the goddess the whig worships when he claims to make  her [history] the arbiter of controversy.  She cheats us with optical illusions, sleight-of-hand, equivocal phraseology.  If we must confuse counsel by personifying history at all, it is best to treat her as an old reprobate, whose tricks and juggleries are things to be guarded against.  In other words the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the marketplace.  And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear.  [Ibid] 
Let caution, self-awareness, and self-criticism abound as we study the past.

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