The Nature of Historical Scholarship

Is there a such thing as an purely objective reading of history? I think the obvious answer to this is no, although this does not mean we can learn nothing objective from history. N.T. Wright framed this question quite nicely in Part II of The New Testament and the People of God. In the battle between the naive realist, who believes the historical text through the author provides a window into the objective truth of an event, and the phenomenalist, who believes the historical event is illusory because it is irrevocably filtered through the lens of the author, Wright proposes a third way. On pages 61 and 62 of the 1992 North American edition of The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Press), Wright says (emphasis original):

What we need, I suggest, is a critical-realist account of the phenomenon of reading, in all it’s parts. To one side we can see the positivist or the naive realist, who move so smoothly along the line from reader to text to author to referent that they are unaware of the snakes in the grass at every step; to the other side we can see the reductionist who, stopping to look at the snakes, is swallowed up by them and proceeds no further. Avoiding both these paths, I suggest that we must articulate a theory which locates the entire phenomenon of text-reading within an account of the storied and relational nature of human consciousness.

Such a theory might look something like this. We (humans in general; the communities of which you and I, as readers, are part) tell ourselves certain stories about the world, and about who we are within it. Within this story-telling it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we describe ourselves as reading texts; as we have already seen, even deconstructionists themselves write texts which they want others to read to discover what they, the deconstructionists, intend to say. Within this text-reading activity it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we find ourselves, at least sometimes and at least in principle, in contact with the mind and intention of the author. Discussing the author’s mind mat or may not be an easy task; it is in principle both possible and, I suggest, desirable. I for one shall never be convinced that de la Mare did not intend the obvious ‘surface’ effects of his poem, even though the deeper meanings are, as we have seen, a matter of speculation, hypothesis and discussion. He might, for instance, have written about them elsewhere himself. Nor can I believe that the parallel between Leverkuhn and Germany never occured to Mann while he was writing his novel.

At the same time, it is important to stress that both of these authors wanted their readers to think about the subject-matter of their works, not about them as authors for their own sakes. Their work points neither back to the reader nor inside their own heads. They are constructing neither mirrors nor kaleidoscopes. They are offering telescopes (or perhaps microscopes, which are really the same thing): new ways of viewing a reality which is outside, and different from, the reader, text and author alike, though of course vitally related to all three. It this ‘fits’ with the story we tell about ourselves and the world that texts and authors should point to realities in the world, to entities beyond themselves. Only a naive reader would suggest that the only referent of the poem was a horseman and an empty house in a wood, that the only thing described by Mann’s novel was a demon-possessed composer, or that the only reality portrayed in the parable [of the wicked tenants] was a tragic everyday story of grape-farming community…

Wright then goes on to expound a theory which keeps both the naive realist and phenomenalist in mind. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the third way described by Wright, but that’s a topic for another post. The point is that historical inquiry is not simply a matter of reading text and knowing the truth of an event. As Chesterton once quipped, we debate history as much as theology. The interesting question is to what extent can we gain “knowledge” from historical inquiry. Knowledge is gained to be sure, as Wright points out, but what is the nature of this knowledge?

For instance, we can know with a great deal of certainty (or at least probable certainty) that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. but why he crossed the Rubicon, what point was he trying to make, and how this bold move fits in with his psychological makeup are all questions just begging for subjective answers by the historical scholar. But this does not mean we are helpless. There may be other historical texts or archeological findings that help point us toward a conclusion, and this is in indeed the task of the historical scholar, but this does not mean that we will necessarily gain anything like certainty in our historical endevours. Sometimes we will, but not always. And just when probable certainty is reached on any given topic in history is always a matter for debate. For a more in depth handling of this complex topic I really do suggest a careful reading of Part II of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. In fact, while you’re at it, read the whole thing. It’s good from beginning to end.

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