The Project's methodology is standard historical methodology. As it happens, standard historical methodology has been widely abandoned by the current "discipline" of history, but that is their problem. Their other problem is what we will call postmodern theory. That theory includes the notion that there is no past outside our own minds, or that we are precluded from knowing the past because we inevitably import the bias of our own minds. These ideas are often relied on in debate to disable the ideas of an opponent, or to legitimize "readings" of a text which disregard standard precautions and facilitate personal agendas. None of this has been shown to be fruitful as a way of doing history. To save time, and conserve bandwidth, preoccupation with the postmodern cluster of theories is not permitted on the Project's E-lists.
History is difficult, but it is not impossible. There is a fact "out there" which can in principle be discovered. Some "accounts" of a historical situation are better than others. The ways in which they are better, and the technique for making one's own account better, are capable of statement. The sum of such statements is historical method. Some elementary points of historical method are given below.
The Main Points
- Early and Late
- 1. Sources. The earlier source is presumptively the better source, and the contemporary document is presumptively the best source. The longer an issue has been available to later pressures, the more it is likely to have been affected by those pressures. Later pressures may easily show up as interpolations or later layers in early documents. It may thus not be assumed that a document is integral (all of one date and authorship), and it may not be assumed that a later document, or a later layer in a composite document, is the best evidence. Exceptions exist, but they must be established by argument in each particular case.
- 2. Hypotheses. It is an important part of a suggested account of something (a hypothesis) that it include a scenario: a way in which the thing proposed could imaginably have happened. If some late document is supposed to contain early information, we need to know how it could have gotten there. For example, the word "oral" by itself is not a scenario; respect needs to be shown for the way information is actually handled in oral cultures.
- 3. Past. People in antiquity do not write things down merely to satisfy our curiosity. Insofar as they consider us at all, they typically hope to influence us on behalf of their side of some controversy: to appeal to us as their posterity. The agenda of a text must always be sought, and once found, it must be taken into account. No text can be assumed to be free of its own reason for being. Some people regard "official" sources as authoritative. On the contrary, the agenda of government documents is typically the glorification of the government, and the concealing of its crimes and failures.
- 4. Present. Investigators have their agendas too. One very common reason for investigating the past is to provide some kind of lesson for the present ("relevance"). That reason is invalid. We need to meet the past on its own terms; to recover it, in Ranke's words, "as it really was," whether or not the result speaks to our condition. Providing wisdom to our own generation is a separate function: it is philosophy, not history. The two should not be confused.
- Grand Ideas
- 5. God. People like to detect some grand plan behind all of human history. But on inspection, it appears that the past is distinctly untidy. It does not proceed by a single path to the place or places it reaches. Nor can the identity of single cultures over time, or the unanimity of interest among all the members of a culture at any one time, be assumed. We should not seek to make history simpler than it is.
- 6. Man. Human authority does not decide questions of history. Arguments based on the citation of some "great scholar" are not valid. The word "great" itself is not valid; we are all mortal here. It is permissible to agree with one previous investigator rather than another, but always for reasons. Names are not evidence.
The Big Problem
The big problem with these rules is that they eliminate all the shortcuts that people are sometimes inclined to take. Accepting these rules means that history must be laboriously dug out of the evidence, and to become adept in handling of evidence is not the work of a weekend. It takes decades. As Ranke put it, "the historian must be old." A certain modesty about one's first ideas is thus required; a willingness to see them modified in the light of continuing work. Even in the sciences, most inspirations turn out to be no good. The historian's only substitute for longevity, which is the condition for learning from our own experience, is to make good use of the experience of others. This too requires modesty: a stance of availability to other opinions: a faculty of reconsideration.
Your thesis advisor may have told you otherwise. But in the long run, in the working life of the serious historian, your thesis advisor and indeed your whole graduate curriculum are not necessarily your best friends. Experience is your best friend: your own experience, and that of others. Be in touch with others, and stay in touch with the evidence. The rest is work; a lot of work. The good news is that the work does sometimes lead to results.
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