Methodological Difficulties
Two Kinds of History
The Past and the Advocational Agenda

The following was originally posted to the WSW E-mail list, in response to a theoretical question. It is repeated here, somewhat abridged, at the request of several recipients, and as a footnote to our discussion of postmodernism. It addresses a postmodern confusion about whether the past can be known, or whether it is irretrievably subject to our preconceptions about it.


There are two types of history.

Type 1. This might be called attitudinal history. It consists not in discovering the facts, but in taking positions on them, and if necessary making them up so as to have something to take a position on. Cultures, or groups within a culture, do this continually with their sense of past identity. In that process, they amend details, invent incidents, and reconfigure personas. They create a more acceptable idea of what they are, and what they come from. The motive is either adaptive (reshaping the perceived heritage to meet current needs or to support self-images) or else frankly glorificational. It is history, or ethnic self-consciousness, as it is taught in the elementary schools of that culture or country.

Type 2. The other is the pursuit of the past as it was; the thing which Ranke and others are trying to get at. In that past, it is either true that Mahavira predeceased Buddha, or true that Buddha predeceased Mahavira, but not both, and not neither. The evidence, in fortunate cases (and not all cases are fortunate), will tend to point to one or the other of these options. It is this kind of history, the set of past happenings to which the evidence in favorable cases may sufficiently point, that we are here concerned with.

History as a field of activity has its origins in Type 1 behavior: the glorification of an identity-conferring past. The growth of scientific or Type 2 history out of that tradition of glorification is a recent development. It remains at all times a minority venture, subject to curtailment in periods of national passion, and vulnerable at all times to the agendas of cultural passion.

The Two Types

Historians of Type 2 will notice the myth-creating or fact-modifying process of Type 1, but as a datum in its own right; as something that happened at the time. Thus, to an observer of the Han scene, the expanding myth of Confucius is not exclusively a lie about Confucius. It is also, separately, part of the truth about the symbolic position of the "Confucius" persona in Han times. Everything, including frauds and delusions and occasions of mass hysteria, is data for Type 1 history. It merely has to be treated as the thing which it is (in this case, evidence for Han attitudes), and kept from being taken as the thing which it is not (in this case, evidence about the historical Confucius).

Historians of Type 1, on the other hand, are engaged, like the Han Dynasty, in their own emphasis and highlighting and perhaps invention of the received past, in interaction with a contemporary public.

The Role of Imagination

Imagination, or the inventive faculty, is natural in a Type 1 writer. It lays the foundation for the wider appeal at which Type 1 historians tend to aim. This was true in ancient times as well. We can see the faculty of imagination at work in the Shr Ji, as it dramatizes and embroiders the Jan-gwo Tsv stories (stories which were for the most part already pretty phony). Type 1 historians speak fondly of "the writing of history," that is, the crafting of a compelling narrative, preferably with plenty of sex and violence in it. Those people do not have much to say about the technique of interpreting evidence. You can always spot Type 1 historians (at least among the American scholars of a certain age) by the fact that their favorite book is Garrett Mattingly's "The Armada," a book which opens with an arresting scene: the beheading of red-haired Mary Queen of Scots. Sex and violence. The Shr Ji has more sex and violence than the Jan-gwo Tsv. It is for that reason a more successful "narrative history" than the Jan-gwo Tsv. Questions of accuracy don't enter into these judgements. The sort of success at which they aim is conferred by the judgement of the reading public.

Type 2 historians don't use imagination. Their analogous skill is rather inscenation, the ability, not to invent the past in your own image, but to think your way back into it on its own terms, shedding your identity and expectations, and as far as possible in a given case, acquiring a more appropriate identity: one's naturalized citizenship in the past.

The Problem of Interpretation

It should not be supposed that "scientific" or Type 2 history is limited to the accumulation of data bits ("mere facts," as they are snittily called), and that "interpretation" of those facts necessarily brings in Type 1 behavior. That is not correct. Interpretation may remain within the past. It doesn't have to be contaminated with the present. It is recognized by serious historians that the less it is contaminated with the present, the better. The interpretation of archaeological data, such as coins with their mint marks and their degrees of wear through handling, can lead to finding out the geographical extent of a long-gone economic system. Such a result is an interpretation, but it is an interpretation about the past, and it is constrained by the evidence about the past. It is not a concept imposed on the past by the present. The coins are there; their circulation is also "there" in the archaeological record, for those who know where to look for it. Modern expertise is brought to bear only to recognize the meaning of the physical artifacts and the implications of their distribution in space.

The fact that concepts have frequently been imposed on the past only shows that historians are not yet very good at what they do. Perhaps they may get better if they keep trying.

We hope they will keep trying. It seems to us too early to draw the conclusion that history is necessarily hot air. There may be another possibility.

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27 Feb 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page