Allan Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error should be required reading for historians. This collection of essays grapples with many of the profession’s current obsessions – memory, identity, narrative, objectivity, grand narrative, cultural history, counterfactuals, epistemology – in an open-hearted yet skeptical, rigorous yet forgiving way. As Megill admits, he is writing “high intellectual history,” intended to shape the thinking of history’s practitioners. He has definitely shaped my thinking.
There are thoughtful reviews and summaries of the book, so I will not seek to encapsulate it further here. But I do think it deserves a hearty endorsement as the First Book of Graduate School – for, having been assigned Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream earlier in the millennium, what has stuck with me is that:
- Historians once thought of objectivity as the goal, but after many seesaws they came to see that as a myth. (This something I think life in the era of “fair and balanced” Fox News has made evident to everyone.)and
- Peter Novick was really worked up about “the David Abraham Case,” and felt it apropos to conclude a long and seemingly dispassionate analysis of the end of objectivity with an emotional retelling of the sordid case of his former student being accused of falsifying sources. Looking back, this does relate to the question of objectivity, but in a petty, off-putting way that hardly seems a fitting denouement to such a tome.
Novick arose from my memory because of its place in Megill’s book: In his section on fragmentation, Megill cites Novick’s admitted “rhetoric gaffe” in naming his final chapter “There was no king in Israel,” for James Kloppenberg (among other readers) finished the verse (Judges 2:25) in their reading, that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” No, says Megill on behalf of Novick; we should not valorize synthesis nor deplore fragmentation; they should be neutral terms, each possible choices in the writing of history.
In the face of fragmentation, Megill argues that the true measure of history is the rigor of its analysis, which he divides and defines as a process of description, explanation, justification, and interpretation. Well and good; the merits and details of that plan have come earlier in his book. (Some shorthand definitions, somewhat doing justice to Megill’s formulations, are: Description is defined by Megill as the “what” of history; explanation defined as the “what caused” the described event or created the described evidence; justification defined as “how do we know/why do we believe,” defending this explanation against others; and then interpretation is defined as the significance, “why this matters” to readers today.)
This framework is flexible enough to respond to fragmentation while still maintaining a core definition of history. In this age of fragmentation, history has a broadened range of subjects to be described; what was once seen as marginal or inconsequential is now brought to the center of new studies. Empowered by political convictions or theoretical challenges, new interpretations revise the understanding of even well known events. Explanations have been opened up by narrative and literary approaches, providing new ways for the evidence to be evocative as well as convincing. And then there is justification, which has the most fascinating reaction to the age of fragmentation in history. As I read Megill, the nature of justification does not change at all.
As historians choose new evidence, apply new interpretations and present and explain their histories in new ways, Megill’s analysis suggests it is historian’s justifications—our rules of evaluating and defending evidence—that have not changed, and hence are the central identifying method of historians. Whatever you have chosen to say, it becomes compelling when you convince the reader that this is truth, not fiction; and that this is the best possible explanation of the facts. (Next week we’ll return to how, if you make that case with voice and vision, it might rise from the range of solid but dull history to that of elegant history.)
The central task of history, then, is the making and defending assertions about the past. Is this recognizable to you as a definition of what history is?