Recently I finished Keith Jenkins’ book Re-Thinking History (Routledge, 1991). Jenkins is a professor of history at the University of Chichester who is known for his advocating of a postmodern historiography. What characterizes a “postmodern” historiography? Well, oddly enough this statement by the philosopher Voltaire works quite well: “There is no history, only fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”
In other words, when someone writes a “history” they take data available to them (archaeological, botanical, paleontological, papyrological, etc) and they reconstruct a narrative from that data. It could be argued that many events given a cause-and-effect relationship in say a book on Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon are the complete invention of the author. Sure, we find that this or that happened, but do we know that this or that caused Caesar to move toward Rome? How do we know?
Some historians seek to do history as scientists do science. They want testable hypothesis that result in some form of “objective” knowledge. Others say that this is not possible, so the best analogy for the work of a historian is that of an artist taking various materials to paint a picture for his/her audience.
In Jenkins’ book he advocates a very subjective, almost relativistic understanding of history. I think there is a lot to learn from what he says, though I have my contentions. Over three parts I will interact with Jenkins as an amateur in historiography. I hope to come away a better thinker on how to do historical studies.
History is Histories; there isn’t one “history”.
Jenkins is a Lyotard of historiography in that his first attack is upon the idea that there is one “history” that is all encompassing. Rather, Jenkins argues that there are many, many “histories” (plural) that tell many, many stories from many, many angles. (p. 3) These histories are discourses on various subjects. (p. 5) History and “the past” are not one and the same since the past has happened, but history is a present interpretation of some of the events of the past. (pp. 6-7)
When the historian seeks to bridge the past to the present s/he does so with presuppositions involved. S/he has “epistemological fragility” as Jenkins dubs it. He states, “…no historian can cover and thus re-cover the totality of past events because their ‘content’ is virtually limitless. What he wants the reader to note is that even a modern historian writing on say the election of President Barack Obama must chose to include and exclude details and there are thousands of details that the historian cannot know. “Second, no account can re-cover the past as it was because the past was not an account but events, situations, etc.” (p. 11)
In addition to the chasm of time we have the chasm of experience. Jenkins notes that “…history relies on someone else’s eyes and voice”. (p. 12) Often we aren’t the primary source of our historical work. We rely upon the accounts of others. We receive the events through their subjective lens.
So how do historians make their work secure? Often it comes down to a discussion of methodology. Jenkins thinks this falls short since historians use many different methodologies and often do not agree on how to do the task at hand. (pp. 15-16)
Even if a historian thinks they have a well-developed methodology there are many more factors to consider: the guild and it’s influence, epistemological presuppositions, particular “routines and procedures”, the influence of the work of other historians, the process of writing a history (including the work of editors, limited word counts, sell-ability), and finally, to move to the reader, their own subjective understanding of what you wrote. (pp. 20-24)
What Jenkins accomplishes in his first chapter “What is History?” is the deconstruction of the reader’s confidence in objective historiography. He humbles the reader’s epistemological self-understanding. He challenges the whole guild of historians who feel that their club has discovered the “rules of engagement” for doing good historical work that allows us to say with confidence that this happened, this did not, and this is why this happened.
So you may ask what Jenkins offers once he has torn down the common understanding of historiography. This is his definition of “history”:
History is a shifting, problematic discourse, ostensibly about an aspect of the world, the past, that is produced by a group of present-minded workers (overwhelmingly in our culture salaried historians) who go about their work in mutually recognizable ways that are epistemologically, methodologically, ideologically and practically positioned and whose products, once in circulation, are subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment and which structures and distributes the meanings of histories along a dominant-marginal spectrum.” (p. 26)
If Jenkins is correct in his understanding of “history” then we should abandon any idea that we can be “objective” in our historical work or that we are recovering the “bare facts”. No, we are reconstructing a narrative from the available data. That said, it seems that Jenkins departs from epistemological arrogrance to epistemological nihilism. Does it have to be “all-or-nothing” or can we reframe the discussion around “degree” of “plausibility” instead?
Great review, Brian. Thanks for doing this here. My one quibble comes in his definition: “the past, an aspect of the world”. No, the past is the whole world, or was, in a manner of speaking. Historiography is the attempt to represent and to analyze both artifacts from the world, testimonies about the world, and reconstructions of the world [that is past].
To your very pertinent question at close, I say two things. First, most historians in practice I think definitely will win up somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. But second, and more personally, this is why I predict that historical discussions in general are going to spend less and less energy on debating historicity, and more energy considering the various ramifications particular reconstructions of things in the past.
In my opinion, this can be a huge opportunity for all Christendom. For instance, instead of arguing THAT Jesus rose, what if we started from the question, “IF Jesus rose.. what then?” There’s a foundation for a tremendous discussion, imho.
Thanks again for this great post.
Thanks Bill! I agree that most historians won’t go as far as Jenkins, though I do think the “myth of objectivity” may have seen it’s last days. You are 100% correct that this is a great time to do being doing historical work as a Christian. This shift may allow for the discussion to be reframed.
So Jenkins is saying that the three blind men cannot have an objective sense of the elephant?
That our epistemology is imperfect doesn’t mean our ontology is. The three blind men may have a defective epistemological understanding of the elephant, but that does not mean it is fiction, or worthless. Nor does it mean that knowledge of an objective ontology is impossible.
The relationship between epistemology and ontology is that epistemology nears perfection as it aggregates the subjective epistemological norm. This does not mean each man is right, nor does it mean the epistemology they possess is fiction. (Oh and incidentally other branches of human thought are based upon a similar process; no one has ACTUALLY summed an infinite sequence yet we ‘know’ with reasonable certainty some infinite sequences are finite. How can we know this unless we aggregate the subjective epistemological norm of infininte sums (with sum certainty (pun intended)?).
It is true ‘history’ and the past are not one and the same, but history can reasonably describe the past, and we can be reasonably certain of the description.
I think that is the main question to ask of Jenkins. It is not that we must be able to know without doubt everything that happened nor how it happened, but can we provide a “reasonable” or “probable” account of events.
The thing that bugs me about relativistic subjective arguments is the apparent ignorance (or rejection without warrant) of generally well known, well accepted (epistemological) principles.
In the vocabulary of logic ‘truth is a necessary condition for knowledge’.
This means that even a limited epistemology can be aggregated against some norm. To deny truth by denying (perfect) knowledge is simply putting the cart before the horse (and backwards thinking about the relationship between truth, knowledge, and belief).
My response to the “myth of objectivity” is that we ought to build *conditional* arguments, and *conditional* conversations. Again, if it gets beyond historicity debates it’s a good thing, imho.
ie: “Yes, I believe X, but what if I’m wrong? What if Y is correct? If I believed that, then how would I assess the rest of this evidence/text, here?”
That bothers me as well.
Conditional arguments could be very helpful. One could argue that N.T. Wright’s whole project uses this approach. Do you find some things that are so absurd that they’re not worth proposing even on conditional terms (e.g. the Holocaust didn’t occur) and if so, what if critics of Christianity think the resurrection is one of those things.
I’ve not yet read Wright’s defense of his method, but I’m often uneasy about how it plays out in his actual use of said method.
On the ‘some things’ question, maybe so but not necessarily. The challenge is the “What then?” part.
For example, IFF we posited (hypothetically) that the holocaust did not in fact occur, then that would raise astoundingly difficult questions about how could it be possible that so many people believe that it had, and how did such a falsehood ever get perpetuated in the first place. In that particular case it’s obviously distasteful to go any further, even as a hypothetical exercise, but — to answer the question — for argument’s sake, one could nevertheless set out to academically list all the supposed effects of the (hypothetically) imaginary H that would now (hyptothetically) require new explanations. Again, in this particular case I suggest that one shouldn’t go through such questions, but one technically could.
Same with the resurrection, but easier. In this case you’re not positing the erasure of an event, but the inclusion of it. (Also, the H was years of activity over thousands of square miles of territory. The R was merely weeks of activity over a much smaller region. Also the H includes large scale events in which hundreds of people at a time are reported at such a place. The R purports a succession of very small gatherings in very intimate (private) circumstances.
On the R, then, I’d grant that a lot of critics would resist playing along, but I also think they’d be pleasantly surprised at the possible outcomes of the exercise. As I say, the key variable is the “What then?” part. ie: “If Jesus did resurrect, does it or doesn’t it change your view on [pick a topic] in NT Scholarship, and why? I mean: Are the Gospels immediately more reliable or not? Is the synoptic problem any different? Is memory of such an event likely to be stronger? Would it validate any particular traditions of the early church? Which ones? Etc.
The fun part is that I’m sure we’d all get surprised by many of the conclusions. And I hope we’d all learn significant things…
Nice Post! I read this little book some yrs ago for a doctoral seminar on Latin American and the intersection of literature, culture, and history. It changed my view on historiography and particularly how history and the past are not the same.
That would be an worthwhile exercise because I think it forces historians to consider what is most probable. If not the resurrection….then what?
Thanks! The book has forced me to reconsider the goals of historiography as well.
i Think this book is so boring and i would honestly do my dissertation again than study this! Utter crap
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