The Method of History

September 24, 2010

by Gene Callahan

I’m currently reading Bryan Sykes excellent book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Well, excellently written, and, I have to assume, excellent on the genetics. But there are a couple of fundamental misunderstandings of history present in the book, that I think are worth noting, because of the frequency with which people believe them.

The first such error is that Sykes keeps referring to “prehistory,” “recorded history,” “the beginnings of history,” and so forth. These phrases are symptomatic of the error, exploded decades ago by Collingwood, that there is something especially “historical” about written records, that they represent the “recording” of history by those “witnessing” it, and that, in their absence, we only have some fuzzy “prehistory” with which to deal.

But written records do not “record history,” and the task of the historian is not to note down and collect the history others have “recorded.” Those who were there, writing about what happened, have misperceptions. They forget details, sometimes crucial details. They engage in propaganda. They deliberately lie. Their biases distort what they “report” even when they are doing their best to be honest. And others, living later, engage in forgeries pretending to be eyewitness documents.

The historian must interrogate these sources, not believe them. And in this they are no different than a coin, a potsherd, a arrowhead, or the foundation of a building. The idea that, in the absence of written records, the historian cannot proceed, and must throw up his hands and declare that “Beyond here lies the mists of prehistory!” is akin to believing that, in the absence of written reports of a crime, the crime cannot be solved. (Collingwood, in fact, drew this analogy between a detective and a historian long before me.)

The second error appears only once in Sykes’ book, but is nonetheless worth noting. At one point, talking about his research into the genetics of living people as a way of understanding the historical past, Sykes writes, “Most of my archaeologist friends found this proposition completely foreign to them. They had been brought up to believe that one could understand the past only by studying the past…”

Well, I have no reason to disbelieve Sykes’ report here, but it is somewhat surprising that his archaeologist friends would think this, since what they suggest is their correct procedure is literally impossible. The past is gone; as Oakeshott noted, all we can ever examine are present artifacts from which we draw inferences about a now vanished past. Once understood in this light, the use of the DNA of living people in historical research, while adding a nice new tool to the historian’s arsenal, is no revolution in method at all: This DNA is a present artifact which we believe shows traces of a past beyond our reach, and we analyze its present state for what it can tell us about that past. The fact that we find these bits of evidence inside living people, instead of buried in the ground, may be surprising to archaeologists, but it is in essence the same method they have been employing all along.

9 Responses to “The Method of History”

  1. Jerry O'Driscoll Says:

    Good post. I like the metaphor of historian as detective. It suggests not only the pursuit of truth, but also of justice.

  2. Lord Keynes Says:

    The historian must interrogate these sources, not believe them. And in this they are no different than a coin, a potsherd, a arrowhead, or the foundation of a building.

    Absolutely. As an historian by profession the actual philosophy of history and question of methodology fascinates me.

    I have always assumed that we use induction in history to draw highly probable conclusions based on empirical data, but with careful scrutiny of data for biases, errors, limitations etc.

    But then of course in discussion with people who are well-versed in philosophy, you get endless complaints that we are subject to the problem of induction, just like the natural sciences.

    One way round this I am told is to adopt a type of Popperian methodology for history, as in this study:

    Guliano Toraldo di Francia, 1995/96. “Historical truth,” Foundations of Science 3: 407–416.

  3. Current Says:

    The real separation between historians and archeologists is division of labour. Piecing together evidence from written sources and evidence from materials are quite different tasks, that creates the split. Time is a side issue, as demonstrated by industrial archaeology.

  4. Jerry O'Driscoll Says:

    “I have written too much history to have faith in it; and if anyone thinks I’m wrong, I am inclined to agree with him.”

    — Henry Adams (HT: Books section of the WSJ)

  5. Greg Ransom Says:

    The principle of charity needs to be invoked here.

    The idea that Sykes wouldn’t agree to anything you say here that is true is not plausible.

    Sykes book is a terrific read — one of a handful of very good reads in this field.

  6. Greg Ransom Says:

    On point two, specifically, it looks like you are failing to get the point Sykes is making.

  7. RKN Says:

    #2, if true, is puzzling, given that Uniformitarianism – the idea that the present is the key to the past – was articulated by (I think) Charles Lyell early in the 19th century in his treatise on Geology. Since then it has been a guiding principle of all retrodictive science.

  8. Gene Callahan Says:

    Greg:

    1) I’m sure, once alerted to these points, Sykes would agree. That doesn’t mean that the way he has put these things at present is not inapt.

    2) I said right up front I really liked the book.

    3) I think the point Sykes is making on “point two” is that his archaeologist friends were stunned to think he could use this technique. The point I was making was that they shouldn’t have been. The principle of charity needs to be invoked here, Greg.

  9. Gene Callahan Says:

    “The real separation between historians and archeologists is division of labour. Piecing together evidence from written sources and evidence from materials are quite different tasks, that creates the split. Time is a side issue, as demonstrated by industrial archaeology.”

    Quite right, Current. Collingwood was, in fact, besides professor of metaphysics at Oxford, the top archaeologist of Roman inscriptions from ancient Britain of his time. So he specialized in a certain type of evidence, but understood at bottom it is “all history.”


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