Historiography in Driblets

David Henige. Historical Evidence and Argument. Wisconsin 2005

A WSW list member referred to this work in December 2005 as containing useful refutations of some popular historical fallacies. This response was posted to WSW later that month.

Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument

It seems ungracious to be critical of a book which points out some undoubted problems in the realm of historiographical practice, but there are limits to human reticence. My one word for this book would be "arch." Notes at the end. Those who tire of playing Trivial Pursuit with the chapter head quotes will find them identified in the Notes. At the end. The 21 chapters have largely obscure titles. The Roman numeral divisions within chapters have no clear rhetorical function, and are best regarded as calligraphic decorations. To the monstrosity of the spelling "biblical" has now been added a cognate monstrosity, the spelling "bible." Librarians are perhaps especially vulnerable to infection by the French disease of decapitalization. The author is a librarian at the University of Wisconsin.

The work is resolutely anecdotal, and it is resolutely discontinuous in its handling of the anecdotes. One potentially interesting example is the four accounts of De Soto's expedition. They are mentioned, dropped, mentioned again, dropped again, and mentioned a third time. At which of these points, if any, is the methodological moral drawn from the example? It is also difficult to avoid the feeling that partisans of conflicting viewpoints are sometimes being held up to general ridicule. See for instance the long discussion of Shang chronology, pages 151-158. Remarkably enough, this long discussion succeeds in ignoring the Chinese government's massive intervention into the merely scholarly discussion of the problem. Also absent from Henige's book is any mention of the Japanese search for ever more remote versions of itself, culminating in the fraudulent archeology of the Japanese Paleolithic, with Fujimura Shin'ichi as its poster boy. Here is the poster. It was taken by an alert journalist. It shows Fujimura planting objects in an unwarrantably early stratum of the Kamitakamori site:

Fujimura Shin'ichi Faking the Japanese Paleolithic

Of the Asian Antiquity Frenzy, where the ultimate villains are cultures and governments, Henige can hardly be ignorant, but he ignores it. His target is the safely smaller fry.

In one area, the neglected value of critical text editing (ch19), Henige is uncharacteristically clear and consecutive. He even proposes curricular remedies. He ends by asking, "How many American Historical Association prizes are there, and how many of them for text editing?" So much for the critical text. As to other kinds of editing, Henige is identified on the back cover of the book as the editor of two journals and one book series. One of the journals which he edits, African Studies Review, is mentioned on p203 in connection with its reviews policy, part of a long and right-headed discussion of the inadequacy of scholarly review conventions in general. The recommendations of the book become at this point more than usually clear, and more than usually sensible. General derision is not cast by Henige on the work of historians of Africa (though there are dark insinuations about certain Englishmen, meeting behind closed doors on the matter of the Bantu migrations). African examples of historical misunderstanding or historian intransigence are conspicuous in Henige's book by their absence.

The question of counting wars occurs around p193, with a perhaps overly credulous allusion to colossal casualty figures for Spring and Autumn wars. And how does one distinguish a war from a battle or an unopposed raid, a category which includes the majority of military events mentioned in the Chun/Chyou or "Spring and Autumn" chronicle? Henige is right to note that some ancient casualty figures are "grossly exaggerated," but in this area he has no positive recommendations to make

Right on target, let it be noted, is Henige's critique of the quantification mania:

An insidious aspect of quantification is that data are legitimized by the very act of being quantified. When a number or set of number is multiplied, divided, added, subtracted, or otherwise manipulated, they become part of a larger process that presumes itself to be valid. Once numbers are arrayed - in formulas, in tables, in graphs - they become homogenized, with all incumbents looking very much alike. They have the same typefaces and font sizes. Those with lower probabilities are seldom identified in any way.

Only too true. Procedures (and one might add, modern or postmodern theories) do have the power of enshrining the data on which, or the conceptions with which, they operate. The cure, as Henige does not go on to point out, is to train the researcher in validity, and to educate the reader in discrimination. Regrettably, no big curricular push is presently visible in either of these directions. Not only so, but the present reviewer has found that academe as presently constituted is highly resistant to any such developments. Academic intransigence is another large-scale negative factor in the modern historiographical scene, but one which, again, Henige does not care to acknowledge.

It is easy enough to find fools to cite, in a work of the sort Henige is writing. (Those wanting more fools may consult David Hackett Fischer, Historians' Fallacies, Harper 1970). And the exposing of folly is surely a valid part of the recommendation of virtue. In Henige, though, rather often the fools are cited in such a way as to impugn by implication the whole historical enterprise (except perhaps the sector of it subtended by African Studies Review). We could perhaps use a little more in the way of positive recommendations.

The work's positive recommendations, such as they are, and some of them are implicit, might be collected in four pages. My present guess is that these are not the four pages some of us have been waiting for (hoping not to have to write them ourselves), but we shall see. Does anyone care to take the time out, in a holiday season, to gather those four pages and contribute them to the present discussion?

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project