September 9, 2010

excerpt: History as Fiction

From Gordon S. Wood's The Purpose of the Past, Chapter 7:
Historical scholarship should not be set in opposition to imagination. History writing is creative, and it surely requires imagination, but it is an imagination of a particular sort, sensitive to the differentness of the past and constricted by the documentary record. ...

One can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete, that recovery of the past is partial and difficult, and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations, and yet can still believe intelligibly and not naively in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified. Historians may never see and represent that truth wholly and finally, but some of them will come closer than others, be more nearly complete, more objective, more honest, in their written history, and we will know it, and have known it, when we see it. That knowledge is the best antidote to the destructive skepticism that is troubling us today.
This chapter was previously published as Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), a book review in the New York Review of Books, June 1991.

My thoughts:

Wood has the benefit of working with sources on the American Revolutionary Period, and a much vaster reservoir of overall data than we have for Ancient, let alone Biblical History.  Still, I think he speaks generally for all historical work in this quote.  It remains true that we CAN embrace the extent of our ignorance AND make limited attempts to reconstruct the past for its own sake WITHOUT wallowing in uncertainty for its own sake.

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

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