Friday, March 25, 2005

"All history is fiction." This is often held out as a foundation of post modernism, although I've never been able to find out who actually coined the phrase. Conservative historians, we imagine, can get a bit hot under the collar when they hear it and will insist that history is about what really happened and they are not just making it up. Actually, you will find it quite hard to find a professional historian who does still believe that his craft is to find out what really happened. Rather, they are trying to link together facts into some sort of narrative that explains and enlightens.

I suggest the post modernists might have a good point. You see, history is not just a collection of facts and figures. People who just try and sort out the facts are usually called 'antiquarians' who are supposed to be a bit inferior to real historians. Also, a record of events that is just "one damn thing after another" is called a chronicle and not a history. The chroniclers are also felt to be a rather lowly breed compared to the true man of history. So it is the explanatory, analytical and narrative elements of a historical work that mark it out as a member of that illustrious genre. And it is the case that you can analyse, explain and narrate in many different ways. The facts can be fitted together to produce radically different pictures. So in what sense is the historian's creation not fiction? Based on a true story perhaps? Dependent on the facts but not determined by them? The only historian I know who thinks he is engaged in a selfless search for the "Truth" is Diarmaid MacCulloch.

If you don't believe me, here is a current example. We have all heard of the scientific revolution which took place between 1543 and 1687 when modern science was born out of the rediscovered ashes of ancient Greece. The concept of the scientific revolution is so entrenched in the historiography of science, that questioning it is rather hard to get away with. I've been supervising some students (and very good they were too) who had been to some lectures by an iconclastic historian, Andrew Cunningham. He thinks the scientific revolution is an idea invented in the twentieth century for political reasons. It is, not to put too finer point on it, fictional. Now, Dr Cunningham has his own story that science was born around 1800 in the aftermath of the French and industrial revolutions. He has been roundly criticised by such luminaries as Peter Dear and Edward Grant but it is hard to escape the conclusion he is no less right than everyone else.

The scientific revolution really is a twentieth century concept. That is unarguable. The only question is whether it represents a true picture of what was happening in the seventeenth century. Put like that the concept becomes much harder to defend because we are just arguing about how to describe a past event that we all agree is being fitted into a modern strait jacket. Of course, Cunnigham's alternative picture suffers from the same problems and so we are forced to admit that if both fit the evidence then both are valid. So too are other models like my own favourite which sees the seventeenth century as continuous with the Middle Ages. But they can't all be true to we must accept that they are, in a very real sense, fictions. So what do we believe? In the end, I think we believe what seems right to us. And that is largely based on our political preferences and how well given ideas have been explained to us. If you can make an idea sound good, as Dr Cunningham undoubtedly does, then people will be impressed by your rhetoric and believe you.

Another example will illustrate what I mean by political preferences. What caused the collapse of the Soviet Empire? If you are a conservative, the answer is because Reagan and Thatcher stood up to the Russians and they realised they could never win. If you are a leftie, it is because of the internal problems inherited from Stalinism. Reagan and Thatcher only risked the USSR collapsing in flames rather than peacefully. And finally, if you are a Catholic, it was because of the moral witness of the Pope and the indomitable spirit of Poland forcing the Soviets to let go of its Empire. I'm not about to argue about which of these is right. I merely point out than even events that most of us can remember well are subject to fictionalisation as soon as we try to explain them.


jack perry said...

No, no, no: the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by our Lady of Fatima, after the Holy Father consecrated the world to her :-)

Good post. Gottlieb argues much of the same about "the scientific revolution" in The Dream of Reason, pointing out that Galileo's more famous experiments had been carried out centuries before by a Greek Christian who taught at Plato's Academy, by the name of John Philoponus (two different links) and that Galileo knew about them. In order to tell a story with nice divisions, historians ignore Philopponus and act like Galileo was doing something he'd never heard of. You'll notice that Weisstein's article doesn't mention that Philoponus was a Christian...

Hugo Holbling said...

Nice stuff, Bede, although I don't think that claim is "often held out as a foundation of post modernism"; after all, how could there be any such foundation? In any case, I've drawn attention to your post here.