Featured post

Dead Blog?

Because of serial spam attacks which the Blogger platform seems unable to deal with (yes - people warned me about Blogger), I have moved the...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Judging History … Or why historicists are the real relativists (The Unbearable Weight, Part 3-ish)

Si rien n’est vrai, rien n’est possible
(If nothing is true, nothing is possible)
-          A. Camus, L’Homme Révolté, p.98

Nietzsche (according to Camus) said something similar.  So did Lacan, again starting from the widely-cited but evidently erroneous ‘quotation’ of Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov that if god does not exist, everything is permitted.[1]  Lacan said that if you didn’t accept the existence of someone or something that you accepted could permit, then (logically enough) nothing could be permitted.  It’s not just about the semantics of the verb to permit; what, like Camus and (apparently) Nietzsche, Lacan meant (as I understand it, anyway) was that the absence of some sort of accepted yardstick against which things can be judged means that there are no grounds for acting for or against anything.  So much for the continentals.  One of the founding fathers of hard-line analytic philosophy, A.J. Ayer, said that ethics were not a true subject for philosophy because they were metaphysical (which he thought wasn’t proper subject-matter for philosophy).  You couldn’t make a logical argument for something being good or bad; all ethical arguments reduced ultimately to the equivalent of ‘yay, charity; boo, theft’.  Put in historical terms, you could transpose that to ‘yay, FDR; boo Hitler’.  Actually, that's a bad example, because I want to separate the judgement or assessment of individuals from judgement or assessment of their actions: let's instead say 'yay: founding the Red Cross; Boo: the Nanjing massacre'.  In its way, this is the same argument as Lacan’s/Camus’/Nietzsche’s.  However, whereas, because there was, for Ayer (a hard-line atheist after all), no acceptable, rational, neutral yardstick, it was pointless to attempt to discuss it, I would follow the continentals into the solution of discussing these things other than in purely rational terms (as in the first part of these thoughts).  And so what I am going to attempt to argue in this latest in my inchoate series of meandering ‘thoughts’ (if they can be dignified by that term) is that it is not those who are influenced by continental philosophy who end up in a position where they are disabled by relativism but actually the historicists, and by the logic (such as it is) of their own arguments.

With that in mind I am grateful to ‘ADM’ for her comment on the last instalment of these wafflings, essentially because it suggests to me a number of points I have often heard and with which I could not disagree with it more!  I can say that without any trace of personal disagreement or animosity because these points that ADM sets out so well pretty much represent, I would say, the orthodoxy of the historical profession - and because they points I will respond to aren't quite the one's she is making!  Me?  Not following the orthodoxy?  I know you will find that an absurd idea![2]

Essentially, and to anticipate my argument somewhat, I think that the debates on judging history have the whole problem the wrong way round.  There was quite a useful representation of what I mean in a forthright review-article [3] by Roger Collins of several recent works including a book containing an essay by Lisa Bitel which argued for a politically-committed teaching of medieval history.  Collins is quite right, that finger-wagging at the past for its sexism, racism and so on is an empty gesture, aiming, I would say, at little more than the facile, grandiose public occupation of some sort of moral mole-hill.  And yet, I would also say that Bitel is right that a politically-committed historian cannot unproblematically pass things over in silence.  To do so is tacitly to acquiesce in it.  It is surely pointless now to tut-tut about Charlemagne executing thousands of Saxons in the 780s, in itself, but to pass over the massacre of Verden as simply ‘what people did in those days’ (what can you do, eh?) is ethically highly questionable.

Tamurlane: Misunderstood
You can’t say that Hitler is just different from Charlemagne, because he is more recent and some of his victims and/or their children or relatives are still alive.  There is no historical statute of limitations.  Otherwise, at what point do we start discussing the Holocaust as just another historical atrocity, like Tamurlane’s slaughtering of the inhabitants of central Asian cities (millions of dead, some people estimate)?  Well, it was just an extreme case of the antisemitism that pervaded much of Europe at the time, wasn’t it?  Who are we to judge?  But people died; human beings like us.  There’ll always be something qualitatively different, unique about the Shoah (with luck, by which I mean I wouldn’t want repetitions) but there seems to me to be no compelling reason to enshrine this as the only atrocity of history deserving of ethical treatment and comment.  There is an annual remembrance day and pressure groups that preserve its memory, for sure, but people have died in horrible circumstances throughout history.  Pity the victims of the Armenian genocide (which Israel has accepted Turkey’s denial of, shockingly), or – even more so - those of the ‘colonnes infernales’ in the Vendée in the 1790s, or the victims of the massacre of Thessalonica in the 390s who have no one to speak for them.  They were human beings, like us, too.  If you accept that the Shoah was ‘all bad’ (as anyone sane surely must) the only logically consistent conclusion you can draw from that, without descending into grotesque Zionist arguments, is that all massacres are Bad Things, just different and (usually) on a smaller scale.  Let me make it quite clear that I’m not trying to reduce the significance of the Holocaust to being just another bad thing[4]: quite the opposite; I’m moving the scale in the opposite direction.  Here in some ways I return to my points about the universal in the particular.

The way out of the impasse is, I suggest, by acknowledging that both sides in the debate as usually rendered are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  The issue of an ethical engagement with history is not about us judging the past, but about the past judging us or, better, about us judging the present through the prism of the past.  I came to this point of view via a comment made by Slavoj Žižek in In Defence of Lost Causes (I think) about the issue with Marx today not being about what Marx has to say to us but what we would have to say to him (or something like that – anyway it was the same general point).  So, to return to the massacre of Verden, what I suggest is that the event is viewed as a focus for thinking about – an opportunity to meditate on – such actions in general.  These were the ‘dark ages’, right?  What light does it shed on our supposedly more ‘advanced’ civilisation?  Put another way, to consider the massacre (say) as an historical phenomenon can (and should) include its ethical treatment without it necessarily becoming in any way about ‘judging the past’. 

One of my innumerable teaching mantras is ‘to explain is not to excuse’.  Of course one must see things within some sort of context, but ethically things should not stop there.  One reason why they should not concerns causation.  If historical context becomes an explanation in itself, as it inevitably does in the historicist way of looking at things, then no one has any agency or moral responsibility at all.  You can’t make any exceptions to this rule that will withstand any close analytical scrutiny. 

"A regrettable incident"?
2nd SS 'Das Reich':
"Men of their times"?
But the moment you allow individual agency into the equation the ethical issue surfaces.  If that person had a choice (as surely s/he did) then you need to explain why s/he made the choice that s/he did.  And this of course has to take into account the commonly-accepted options of the time and the reasons why people saw some choices as valid and others as not.  But people did not always make the choices that ‘their time’ demanded of them.  If they had not done, nothing in the world would ever have changed (and furthermore, such an approach leaves one wondering where the accepted options available at any one time actually came from if not by people actually making new choices further back in the past).  This is where the historicist position reveals one of its many internal contradictions.  Most historians will have no problem with the historian who writes that Charlemagne executed 4,500 Saxons at Verden because he thought it would put an end to the Saxon revolt, and leaves it at that.  But that is not an ethically neutral statement.  It is no more ethically neutral than one that says that men of the SS 'Das Reich' division wiped out the village of Oradour-sur-Glane because they thought it would put an end to Resistance attacks on them, and leaves it at that.  What, exactly, was Charlemagne doing in Saxony?  In fact the statement is no more ethically neutral than the statement that Hitler killed six million Jews because he thought it would bring unity and benefits to the German race, and leaves it at that, or one that says that Stalin wiped out however million Kulaks because he thought it would further the dictatorship of the proletariat, and leaves it at that.  Leaving things unremarked upon tacitly approves them.  It buries the victims just as surely as the perpetrators did (if not better in most cases).

There are very many, very common ways of approving and disapproving in historical writing, without actually saying ‘This was A Good Thing’ or ‘That was A Bad Thing’ (which I used simply as 1066 And all That short-hand).  The orthodox position generally sees no problem with the approval or admiration of things past.  Presumably, when a historian expresses admiration for Charlemagne’s energy and ability to organise (I have praised this myself), that is OK.  Think about it; instances of this will be littered throughout the works of all kinds of historians whom I regard as very fine practitioners of the art.  Aesthetics work in the same unidirectional fashion.  You can coo over early medieval metalwork or manuscript art, or the beauty of the space of the Hagia Sophia without exciting comment, but you can’t say (as I have done) that this is ‘obviously rubbish’ or that the decoration on an early Parisian plaster sarcophagus was ‘clearly not the work of a well man’, except for comic effect.  Indeed I well remember David Ganz getting physically irate with me for describing Venantius Fortunatus as the ‘W.T. MacGonagall of his day’ (fair enough; it was at best a pretty flippant gag).  Thus, in fact, in practice, the historicist position says we are allowed to commend, but not to criticise.  There is no consistency, methodological or theoretical, here.  It allows ethical and aesthetic judgement in one direction but not the other.  Actions, productions and results transcend their time if we like them, but not if we don’t.  What this is, is the position that allows us overtly to praise Mussolini for getting the trains to run on time (if indeed he did) but prevents us from openly condemning him for dropping gas bombs on Libyans and Ethiopians.  Charlemagne?  Wonderful organiser and strategist, you know; lovely sponsorship of learning.  But a cold-hearted murderer of thousands in an afternoon, just to shore up his conquest of their land?  Ooh no: now you’ve gone too far; you’re allowing your own feelings to influence your judgement. 

This is why the orthodox historicist position is in fact one of disabling relativism.  It allows no position to act in the present on the basis of an understanding of the past.  Because actions in the past cannot be condemned (only praised or commended), because they have to be understood in context, then nothing in the present can be combatted or condemned either.  They also have to be understood in their context, which evidently explains and excuses all.  Everything is valid on its own terms.  As we have seen, this approach enables no means of criticising history written to support extreme and distasteful political positions (on right or left), as long as that history does not falsify evidence or deny the reality of events or commit other obvious sins of method.

To explain, however, is not to excuse, but both elements of that equation need to be present for good history.  In fact, what I think we would agree on is that it is not the commendation or condemnation of past events that makes a bad historian but one-eyed condemnation or commendation.  A historian that goes out of his or her way to explain away the ‘stains on a reputation’ and ‘big up’ the good things is probably not a good historian.  Nor is the historian who condemns in simplistic fashion, without the ‘explaining’ element of the equation.  But it is the lack of even-handedness that makes them that way, not the recognition of and commenting upon good and bad things.  If all history that approves or condemns is bad history, as ADM suggests, then all history is bad history, by its very nature (as I will return to explain below).

Here is where I return to the first part of these musings about history and ethics.  There is, I argue, a contradiction inherent in this historicist position, especially when used to espouse what I consider to be ethically and politically dubious positions.  When approaching the evidence, all schools of thought, I think, accept that (as I argued before) one does so in a spirit that allows the preserved voice of the past to speak and be heard (in the first part, I argued that that ethical demand was actually inherent in what I called the ‘aesthetic moment’ – the decision to study history in the first place).  As we’ve seen, we then listen and we grant that voice some priority as that of another human being.  That does not imply that one must purely take it on its own terms – that approach would logically lead us to a place where all we could do was to re-describe the past as manifested in the surviving evidence, without comment.  That is chronicling and antiquarianism, not history.  I don’t think that that is a controversial statement.  But once we permit some people (those whose voices are preserved) to be examined with that respectful but critical scrutiny then the implication is that we allow all people – all fellow human beings – that same respect.  That means that the voiceless victims cannot be passed over in silence as collateral damage for the ambitions of the great and the good.  We are back with the universal in the particular, inherent in the ethical demand that is itself present the decision to study history, but none of this is really controversial.  In a way, women’s history and then gender history have been about recovering the experiences of those who do not dominate the record, and the same is true of Black history and other sub-types of the discipline (actually I am opposed to ‘interest group history’ but that’s a different matter).  All I am really trying to do is to bring out and develop an ethical dimension (indeed a demand) that is actually already implicit within accepted historical ‘good practice’, in a way that would be empowering and enabling for politically-committed historians.  In that sense, then, I disagree that this is something that is going far beyond history.  Far beyond antiquarianism and chronicling, perhaps…

Ludwig von Wittgenstein: Anyone
else think he looked like the late
Patrick Wormald?
Wittgenstein, in one of his apparently increasingly numerous manifestations,[5] said (in yet another version of the argument I started with) that:

“Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world, dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all the people that ever lived and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgement or anything that would imply such a judgement.  It would of course contain all relative judgements of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. … Our words, when we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense.  Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only contain water and if I pour out a gallon over it."[6]
I would adapt that to say that if all the events of the past – thoughts, words, deeds, justifications, etc. – were recorded in a Great Book of All The Past, it would not contain a word of History.  And it couldn’t contain History any more than a teacup could contain a gallon of water.  As I just said, the ‘teacup’ is just antiquarianism and chronicling.  What happens when we start history is that we start analysing, commenting and explaining; all things that in a way are transcendental.  Such analysis, comment and explanation is, as I have tried to argue, not ethically neutral or disinterested.  If one looks for a value to history, the usual defences (‘relevance’; ‘learning how we got where we are’) are pretty weak if scrutinised closely (I’ll have to leave why for another time) and certainly of little comfort to medievalists.  For me the key (not the only) purposes of a historical education are twofold: the ability to scrutinise what you are told critically, sceptically, and understanding other people and their cultures.  These are both things that make history a dangerous subject.  In both of these dimensions there lies the ethical demand of history to treat the other human being (the ‘autrui’ of Levinasian ethics) with priority and respect.  Where history is written in a way to justify unethical politics and positions in the present – whether of left or right – by writing off the suffering of human beings, without further comment, as some sort of unavoidable collateral damage on the altar of some principle then, I maintain, it contradicts the principles and demands inherent in the process of historical analysis itself.  It thereby becomes ‘bad history’.

Thanks for all your comments thus far, for helping me see what needs further justification and explanation.  Keep ‘em coming!

[1] I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov so I wouldn’t know.  I’m still girding my loins to try one more big push to finish Crime and Punishment.  To quote Father Ted, I think Dostoyevsky lost his way in that novel, somewhere between the crime and the punishment.  Anyway, it’ll be over by Christmas…
[2] It’s a pretty damning indictment of the profession that I still haven’t yet found anyone to take over from me as the Enfant Terrible of the early medieval historical discipline.  I’m 46, for heaven’s sake.  I should be in carpet slippers and charter witness-lists by now; that or endlessly repeating the researches of my youth.  Oh, hang on, though…
[3] This is a bit of an unfortunate piece.  Roger does make some very good points, as you’d expect, and savages at least one very deserving victim but (to mix my metaphors) this sort of blanket bombing of the profession inevitably catches some innocent people in the blast.  I emerge quite well from the carnage, but I think I have developed a sort of ‘survivor’s guilt’ as a result.
[4] Not long ago I was pretty shocked to see a book that described as a ‘genocide’ the massacre of Goliad, where 400 Texian rebels (who had, let’s not forget, risen in rebellion to defend their right to own slaves against a Mexican edict of liberation) were executed by Santa Anna’s troops.  As a massacre, clearly I have to condemn it, but to call this genocide really is pretty absurd and insulting to the victims of genuine, systematic killing.  It might have been this book.  If not I apologise, although further down the page the author inaugurates a discussion on how American settlers into Mexico – illegal immigrants – were different from Mexican illegal immigrants in the modern USA, producing the all-too-predictable responses.  Goliad is also described as genocide in an evidently pretty poor book reviewed here.  I was going to say that maybe one ought not to expect historical perspective in Texas, a state where - I am told - about half of a school-child’s historical education is taken up with the history of that state alone, but there I go.  Historical perspective: what does that mean?  That 400 Texian lives didn’t count because there were far worse massacres in history?  Does their legal status as rebels according to contemporary the laws of war justify describing their killing without comment?  Does the morally objectionable basis of their cause justify their execution?  The risk is to give that impression.  There is not, admittedly, a numerical threshold at which systematic massacre becomes genocide (I have an image of two soldiers amidst the ruins of a slaughtered village, and one saying to the other ‘Damn! We only needed one more to make it genocide’).  But the massacre at Goliad, brutal though it was, wasn’t genocide.
[5] How did Wittgenstein die?  He became the Late Wittgenstein.  Sorry but that’s the only Wittgenstein-based gag that I know.
[6] In conversation, apparently, Wittgenstein used to express the same point, more crudely, as ‘you can’t shit higher than your own arse’.


  1. Thanks for this, Guy. Lot to stew on here. I'll (hopefully) be back...

  2. Ok, I don't think that's exactly what I said -- or at least, that's not exactly what I meant! My own impression is that, in asking why there are differing treatments of Verden -- or indeed, why Charlemagne blinded enemies, kept his daughters from marrying, etc. -- would (and does) lead to a picture of him as someone who is not simply heroic. I would say the same of Augustus who, despite a great many truly wonderful achievements, was a ruthless bastard, even if we discount the scurrilous bits in Suetonius.

    It's not at all that I think we should be relativists: it's that I think we shouldn't have to say "good" or "bad", and that we should be sure to look at how people at the time considered things. In that sense, I hope that there is always an implicit comparison, and think discussions that include exploring explicit comparisons are fruitful. I just don't think that it's my job to say "good" or bad" -- I think it's my job to say, "here's a really complex person/set of circumstances that we should pick apart. Here is a man who managed to expand an empire from to Y -- what were the costs?" But then, one of my favorite questions to ask students is to try to reconcile the version of Rome and the pax Romana presented in the Res Gestae with Calgacus' speech in the Agricola.

    I'm trying to work through a migraine at the moment, so can't think as clearly as I'd like, but will look at this again later. But my badly made point was not that we should be relativists per se, but that we need to consider context, and that getting students to ask the right questions is to me a better way of teaching and thinking about history than is bringing out a sledgehammer or letting students merely say X was good or bad, and ignoring all of the details that are important.

  3. Two things, I suppose, are important for me to say.
    One is that, as I have said before on this blog, my view of 'evil' (if it exists) is that it is something you *do* rather than something you *are*. This immediately makes things more complex, because it removes any necessarily one-dimensional account of past actors.
    The other is that I don't think that I have, anywhere in this series of posts, advocated "bringing out a sledgehammer or letting students merely say X was good or bad, and ignoring all of the details that are important", or anything close to that. Or if I have I need to be pointed at where I did so.

  4. You haven't said that! But that is the context in which I was placing -- or maybe *against* which I was placing -- my own ways of approaching what is good and bad history (i.e., that there are people who *do* believe that's what we are supposed to be doing, and students who want to frame their arguments in terms of "Charlemagne was a bad person" or "I don't agree with the Salic Law because it's not nice to women").

    So my earlier comments should probably be seen as riffing off of yours, I think, rather than as a direct response or argument. I entirely agree with your last paragraph here, btw. But I also think there is a difference between *being* ethically neutral and disinterested -- something I don't think any good historian is, or can be -- and trying to present a narrative or teaching historical methods in ways that encourage students to question the authority of the narrative, of their assumptions of what good and bad are (because sometimes context *does* make a difference in how we see the actions of people now and in the past), of themselves...

    Ok, so clearly I fail on the "be objective" vs "they should questions authority" issue... but I think that it's just pedagogically sound to try for objectivity (where objectivity = trying to present sources and facts that show lots of sides to the story). At the same time, I think it would be entirely unethical to pretend, to ourselves or our students, that our choices in readings, or sources, aren't influenced by the things we think are important. Or that we like better. I'm just glad that my colleague in Poli Sci prefers Plato to Aristotle, and Aquinas to Anselm, because between the two of us, the students are likely to get both!

    anyway, I think there's a difference between being aware of our own biases and values and trying to correct for them (i.e., attempting to be objective and present things as ethically neutrally as possible), and believing and saying we *are* objective because we don't recognize that we aren't. If that makes sense. If not, I blame the meds and the pint of something bitter-ish.

  5. Not much to disagree with there. Indeed I think on reflection that I may have been 'riffing' off your comment because it raised or suggested general points that I have frequently heard before, rather then from a close reading of your exact words. Apologies for that; it was lazy of me. I've edited the above to reflect that.

  6. Actually I think that the difference between deeds and actors is important, because it is an area where I think you can really challenge students to challenge their world views, because they are brought up with an idea that individuals are just 'evil'. Thinking about what people do, in their multiple inconsistencies and contradictions is a good way of getting around 'Charlemagne was a bad man' without letting him off the hook for the massacre of Verden. It makes people humans - like us. That's more difficult in a history either populated by people who are either sinners and saints, or in one where no one has any responsibility for what they do.

  7. Absolutely! It's one of the problems with evil, at least in the modern world. If someone is evil, then s/he is easily 'othered' and the actions can be dismissed, or at least separated, from our own -- and from our own connection to society.

    One other thing: I don't know that I made this clear, and perhaps it is something to re-think, because it clearly reflects an assumption on my part of a common value system. But regarding something like Verden, or indeed a modern mass murder (or any murder, really), I think it never occurred to me that people could read "Charlemagne ordered 4500 Saxons to be put to death" and not be horrified. I mean, who does that??

    Having said that, I probably should work a bit harder on making sure that the costs of pre-modern empire building get as much emphasis as I give to the costs of modern empires.

    (appropriately, as I am thinking much of Fulda, the word I have is hesse)

  8. Hi Guy

    So, paraphrasing & boiling down, ethical historians would produce balanced information on what happened and its context. By balanced I think I mean unbiased. I assume there is still scope for the historian to also include their opinion*, so long as it is clear what is opinion and what is fact. Essentially you are then allowing the reader to know what you think and make an informed** judgement on whether to agree or disagree, with "informed" being the critical word?

    * as a reader rather than historian I do so prefer opiniated writers, don't you :-)

    ** sorry to jump on this, but informed choice vs uninformed choice is a big part of my professional life and I think often the "informed" is lost in blind pursuit of "choice", just to tick a box somewhere.


  9. Indeed I well remember David Ganz getting physically irate with me for describing Venantius Fortunatus as the ‘W.T. MacGonagall of his day’

    I remember that seminar. I laughed along with the rest, and I took it to be aimed at baiting Jinty, which she seemed to take in good heart. But really, most people were laughing weren't they?

    A historian that goes out of his or her way to explain away the ‘stains on a reputation’ and ‘big up’ the good things is probably not a good historian.

    Devil's Advocate: what, like Bede? I suppose he mainly silenced the stains rather than explain them...

    If there's a philosophical point here I suppose it's about the nature of the good. Morally just, or `fit for purpose' style effective? Bede, if we let him stand as an abstract person who did what you mean, would not be an ethical historian, but he would fail this despite being extremely clever, well-organised and mainly accurate in his information. At that rate, then, though we might be misled by them and have to check them--and of whom would that not be true, because how could one judge?--we could still learn a great deal from `bad' historians.

    And lastly, you are worryingly right about Wittgenstein and Patrick Wormald. Wow.

  10. I'm sorry, now that I check back I see that Magistra's previously made the same argument. My apologies for not reading before clicking.

  11. Yes. Indeed she did, and you are (both), with all the good will in the world, a way off the point (at least the point I was trying to make). Because history starts just now. Thus I am not judging Bede as an historian, or Gregory of Tours, or even Richard Southern. Not on ethical grounds anyway. That would come under the heading of empty finger-wagging at the past, such as I discuss, wouldn't it? No the point about those past historians, even those of twenty years ago - or even those works of twenty years ago of writers still with us (like, ahem, me) is that that, like past actions, they are a prism for thinking about the present and what *we* do and how *we* write history, now and henceforth. All that is encompassed within my argument.

  12. Actually there's a big logical flaw in that last comment of mine, which undermines everything I said. If I really *did* think that the sort of history I'm thinking about begins now then there would be no point in arguing or engaging with anything since, by virtue of happening in the past, it would start to be covered under the 'empty finger-wagging' law. So, obviously what I mean is that even the recent past counts as 'history' and thus as something that is pointless to castigate, but better to think *with*, ethically. On-going, current debates, would be treated separately. I can see that this does introduce a bit of a tricky grey area... Maybe I would draw the line around works by historians no longer alive and historical positions no longer argued for by their living authors. That might work, analytically.

  13. Just as an aside, a few years back I read an article about a thesis someone did on Italian railroads which concluded, apparently, that the trains did not run on time any more frequently under Mussolini than before his rule.

  14. I think I remember hearing or reading something similar, which is why I put the parenthesised comment afterwards. Thanks for confirming that I hadn't dreamt this!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.