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History isn't as purely subjective as you say

Nov 27, 2001 11:37 AM
by kpauljohnson

--- In theos-talk@y..., Eldon B Tucker <eldon@t...> wrote:
> With history, it's possible to make an assertion (or have
> an theory) about what happened with a particular key
> individual, someone in the public eye. Materials can be
> gathered together that make a case for the claim. This is
> more like an attorney building a case in a courtroom, where
> the desired outcome is paramount, rather than the exacting,
> impersonal scientist, constantly testing theory against
> further observations, experimenting and adjusting theory
> to external reality on an ongoing basis.

And what makes you believe that the above is an accurate description 
of the way history is written? It is a gross distortion of the 
process of *scholarly* historical research and writing. I'll use 
myself and my current project as an example. For an entire year, 
I've been collecting a lot of primary source material about a 
particular rural community in North Carolina. Trips to the state 
archives, interviews with local residents, lots of Internet 
genealogical research, etc. I end the first year of research with 
100+ pages of resource materials and a spirit of questing that has 
only increased since beginning the project. For the entire year 
ahead I'll be writing narrative in the first person. Just telling 
about the family legends as they came down to me, things that various 
family members and others in the community have told me about the 
region and its people, and so on. That'll be another 50 pages, and 
the primary source material will get whittled down to about the same 
amount. I don't have any theory at all now about what all this 
means, and am not looking for one until after I write down the story 
as it has unfolded. Only after all that, once I have a draft of 100 
pages, will I start to work on the layer of interpretation and 
theory. Only then will I look much to secondary sources and tie in 
my findings with what other scholars have written and theorized about 
the region and its political and racial complexities. So the overall 
interpretation is very definitely the last step in the process. 
Grappling directly with the primary sources, and trying to answer 
small questions one at a time, comes first.

With my book on Edgar Cayce, I followed much the same pattern. An 
entire year of immersion in the Cayce readings and selection of 
quotes therefrom, without any clearcut "message" to convey-- followed 
by another year of writing interpretation based on interviews and 
research in secondary sources. With my work on Blavatsky, three 
years of research in the primary sources followed by a couple of 
drafts that weren't about the Masters in any sense. It started out 
as a series of investigations of HPB's associates and travels, and I 
had been working for a solid three years on various angles before the 
thought ever occurred to me that I might end up making historical 
identifications of Master figures. My point: there's an openness, a 
questing spirit, behind the process of historical research that 
people who haven't experienced it just don't seem to be able to 
grasp. Instead, they make up stories (as were made about me by some 
very prominent figures) about how the researchers had their minds 
made up all along and twisted everything to fit their own 
interpretation. That's what *attackers* of scholarly historians do, 
far more than what scholarly historians themselves do.

Now, I'm no academic historian, just an amateur, and I have certainly 
written (as I continue to write) about subjects that interest me 
keenly for subjective reasons. (Are there ever objective reasons to 
pursue a topic for years?) So I don't claim to represent the ideal 
at all, far from it. But a genuine academic historian would, I 
think, be even further from your misleading description than I am. 
He or she would have devoted years to exploring primary sources 
before even starting to construct any interpretative framework. Only 
histories and biographies written from strongly partisan political or 
religious perspectives violate this process and do as you describe 
all historians as doing. That is, starting out with their minds made 
up about an interpretation and them scavenging in source materials 
for bits and pieces of evidence to back that up. My projects have 
always been surrounded by an aura of mystery, as I continued to dig 
deeper and deeper into the subject matter without knowing where it 
was taking me until the thing was more than half complete. This is 
not unusual at all, rather it seems to be the usual pattern even for 
popular biography and history. It's all about DISCOVERY, Eldon, not 
about proving a set of a priori conclusions.
> The way that a history is written is heavily biased
> upon the culture and expectations of the historian.

Not necessarily so at all. Some histories are dry recitations of 
fact that hardly reflect any subjective views at all. Now when you 
say "culture and expectations" if that includes scholarly 
historiography you may be right. Of course historians, like 
mathematicians and scientists, are of their own time and culture 
including an academic culture. But that does not render them 
incapable of objectivity, any more than it does mathematicians.

> An American historian, for instance, would write an
> entirely different story of the American Revolutionary
> War than a British historian.

Not necessarily so at all. I mean, there are surely American 
histories of the revolution that are more different from other 
American books on the same subject than they are from certain British 
ones. And vice versa.

And a historian in Pakistan
> might write a different story of what happened that someone
> in today's America.
> There's the idea of Ocam's razor. It implies that the
> simplest explanation of something is usually the true
> one. 

Most fruitful, perhaps, most advisable to adopt as a working 
hypothesis, but by no means presumed to be "the true one."

This approach has been abused out of mental laziness.
> People will explain things in the simplest way *in terms
> of their preconceived beliefs*. If someone has a paranoid
> belief in conspiracies, the simplest explanation of some
> crime might be "evil government agents." It's simplest
> because it fits most easily into their preconceptions.
> Or if someone has a heavy fundamentalist Christian bias,
> they may find "the devil" as the simplest explanation of
> of unexplained phenomena or events in life. Yet another
> may explain things in terms of "sexism," "racism," or
> "economic exploitation and class struggle."

And what renders scholarly historical writing distinct from all this 
is that it is supposed to avoid all such kneejerk simplistic 
interpretation based on personal belief systems. It's ideally a 
universal language allowing people with very different personal 
belief systems to communicate at a level that transcends such 
differences. It is overwhelmingly focused on primary sources and 
offers interpretation in a way that is not heavyhanded with 
> History is not an exact science, not like physics with
> clearcut experiments and results. 

History can certainly provide exact answers to some questions.

It's more like
> politics and religion, weaving tales of why things happened
> and are the way that they are. Historians are story
> tellers, not scientists, and write those tales fashionable
> with their own culture and time. 

Not necessarily so at all. They don't just tell stories, they 
grapple with evidence at great length and with a rigor that 
nonhistorians don't seem to understand at all. And the range of 
subjects being investigated and written about is as broad as all of 
human history, not in the least restricted to what is fashionable. 
Academic historical works don't generally sell well.

What they say may seem
> accurate at the time, because it is in accord with
> popular belief, and seems to explain those facts thought
> important. Later generations, though, may discount their
> writings as showing the biases of that particular time.

Again you seem to think that works of scholarly history are 90% 
interpretation and 10% research instead of vice versa. Later 
generations can readily discount the *biased interpretations* of a 
particular historical work, while respecting the research that went 
into the project and the *information* presented. And making use of 

> The same is true of Theosophy. Historians can quarrel
> over whatever theories strike their fancy.

I see no quarrels being started or sustained among Joscelyn Godwin, 
Maria Carlson, Michael Gomes, Stephen Prothero, Pat Deveney, Greg 
Tillett, Jim Santucci, etc. Including myself-- no one who has 
attempted to write serious history of the Theosophical movement has 
ever attacked me or quarreled with me, or vice versa. The quarreling 
comes from the nonhistorians who belittle, mock, and demean.

They can
> mock, belittle, distort, misrepresent, or characterize
> people of former generations. They can basically refashion
> whatever happened to be what they like, much as a clever
> politician can manipulate the masses. This can be done
> by "true believers" in something. It can be done by
> antagonistic "debunkers" of the same thing. Or it can
> be done by supporters of some other belief, "the true one,"
> seeking converts by disillusioning followers of a rival
> belief. Everyone is capable of doing this manipulation
> of the past -- and we must all watch out for it in
> ourselves and in others, in order to keep our minds clear
> of delusion and self-delusion.

Just as we must watch out for the very strong and dangerous tendency 
to dismiss the entire endeavor of historical research and 
interpretation as nothing but subjectivity. There is a vast amount 
of highly objective work going on, and it's terribly unfair to treat 
all those historians as nothing more than propagandists, just because 
there *are* propagandists in the world.
> I'd say to take what we hear with a healthy dose of
> questioning, examination, and reflection, and not
> automatically accept something on claimed authority.
> This could be something from a politician, religionist,
> and historian of whatever school.
Amen. But unlike politicians and religionists, historians ask 
*precisely* that of their readers. No historical scholar of any 
standing would appeal to authority. S/he'd present the evidence, 
offer an interpretation, and leave it up to the reader to come to 
his/her own conclusions.


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