June 05, 2003

writing history

Due to some of the previous postings I've done on the writing of Australian history (eg., here) I keep getting the odd email criticising my interpretative approach to contemporary disputes in history.

The criticisms mostly come from those who adhere to an empiricist model of history and they think that interpretation of texts opens the door to "anything goes". Because of my focus on primary historical sources as texts and not as facts I am a seen to be light on the truth. Somehow an interpretative approach is acceptable in responding to films but not to historical events.

According to the advocates of the empiricial method, history should be a mirror of past reality and the various distortions (eg., personal bias, prejudice and faulty use of sources) should be removed so that we can possess objective knowledge. On this conception of writing history texts for the present, history can, and should, correspond to the reality of the past. So the emphasis is on getting the story straight. Radicals never get the story straight because they let their political enthusiasms (passions) get in the way. Method and evidence are to the fore because they are the royal road to Truth.

In this post I will make a couple of quick remarks about an interpretative approach by highlighting what is repressed by the empirical method.

First, it sees the connection between writing history and literature. It places the emphasis on the composition, creation and construction of writing different situated histories. These histories are a form of knowledge based around narratives, they presuppose a philosophy of history, politics, judgements about right and wrong etc and this literary narrative creates meanings about the past for us now.

Secondly, a Hegelian point. The empirical method represses the historical conceptual apparatus that works up, or orders , the atomic facts into a complex structure of a narrative. Without this conceptual apparatus we would have a jumble of unrelated facts and not historical knowledge. Call this this historicism.

In bringing the repressed to the foreground we have a different way of writing history--- a discourse that gives the past various meanings through the creation of written texts. As a discourse (a lot of interelated texts) history is different from the past. If you like, the past is what has gone and history is what historians have made aand are making of it. History texts are their reading of the past. As historicans they read it differently to geographers, ecologists or economists: ie they select different things to write about, approach the writing differently and work with a dissimilar conceptual apparatuses.

The above are simple points. They are what historians know. But they want to hammer it back into the empirical way of doing history. Somehow the latter is seen as the only legitimate way in Australia.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at June 5, 2003 03:14 PM | TrackBack

Ok, I will speculate here.

Empirical history is seen as the only legitimate way because of the way history is used by our society.

Emp. History is seen as history that can be presented in a court of law (Or maybe rather the court of public opinion.)

Interp. history is probably not seen as legitimate to present in such a court.

I think this is understandable- for a reader to appreciate the point that an interp. historian is trying to make, there needs to be a level of trust between reader and author.

And I put it to you that the level of trust simply isn't there anymore. (If it ever was there.)

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on June 7, 2003 04:51 AM

the other thing Scot is that interpretation is a form of creation, empirically interpretating presumes that its creation is actually a discovery or uncovering of the truth, they do not trust themselves, therefore they will not trust other intrepretations

all of this ignores the power of create the future through controlling the past,

or do i mean repress

Posted by: meika on June 7, 2003 03:25 PM

Discovery would be an apt analogy if history was a science, when in fact it is an art.

Posted by: Scott Wickstein on June 8, 2003 02:23 AM

I have done postgraduate history and it still amuses me that some historians and others seem to think that if it is written on an official government letter head that there is almost no need to interrogate/unpack/question the utility of this evidence. However, if you write history using film, or music, or a 'non-official' source, you are obliged to spend at least part of your time justifying the use of such sources.

Posted by: dj on June 10, 2003 03:14 PM
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