Friday, September 2, 2011

Skepticism as the Default Position of the Historian

As much as I love the study of history I am probably one of those few aspiring historians who is skeptical that we can accurately glean so-called transparent "lessons" from history. I was reminded of this by two things this week. First, I got into a marginal debate on a forum at because a couple of members glibly replied that had the United States and Britain more carefully studied the history of the Anglo-Afghan wars they probably would have been deterred from invading Afghanistan. (I've already briefly mentioned the mistaken interpretation many have regarding the Anglo-Afghan wars in another post [here, #11-13] so I'm not going to revisit that conflict in this one; I'm planning on a future post that will examine the Anglo-Afghan wars more comprehensively). Then I read a post at the National Interest blog that examined how the 1930s appeasement policies of Hitler tend to be misused (one could even argue, exploited). The major example in that article has to do with Libya and Qaddafi but many other examples abound such as Bush 41's reference to Saddam Hussein as a Middle East Hitler figure; in my mind a half-assed attempt to provide moral justification for the Gulf War.

Anyways, these two events this past week reminded me of how often policy makers, political pundits, journalists, historians, etc misappropriate history because many of them believe that history is (mostly) inherently didactic. Now I'm not saying that history can't or doesn't teach lessons. What I am saying however is that you are guaranteed to misinterpret historical events (and by extension misapply them) if you start with the premise that the principal purpose of history is to be some kind of "instructor". History is much too complex of an entity for simplification and so will almost always stymie attempts to extract clear cut principles from it.

Another matter that I want to mention in terms of historical methodology relates to an incident I had in one of my classes the other day (I enrolled in a local community college to take history courses to pad out my transcript for when I start applying to graduate schools this fall.). My history instructor briefly spoke about the various degrees of sources historians use in their task of writing and interpreting history. He of course emphasized the value of primary sources over secondary ones which I didn't have a problem with. All things being equal a primary source is usually going to convey more accurate information than a secondary one. My problem had to do with his additional comments that imparted a kind of infallibility to primary sources. As many historians have long come to realize primary sources don't always contain accurate historical information since many of them consist of things like political memoirs which were most certainly edited (and in some cases distorted) by many of the authors who were motivated to make such changes because they knew they were writing for posterity. An example of this is Winston Churchill's otherwise fine WWII memoirs in which he omits vital information from certain periods of the war (e.g., the summit at Yalta) that might have cast the great war leader in a less positive light. In other words, primary sources have to be given the same kind of scrutiny that we give to secondary sources.

The bottom line with everything that I have said is this: historians need to be more skeptical. Better yet, their default position should be one of skepticism. If there is one chief principle in the discipline of history this is it. Yes, I'm aware that this is epistemologically old fashioned, and yes, I'm aware that it's impossible for anyone to be wholly objective and impartial. But to my mind that doesn't mean we shouldn't try our damnedest to be. Simply put, I think a lot more humility is required from those of us who study history. And a reassertion of skepticism as the starting axiom of our studies would go a long way towards this goal.

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