In my previous engagement with Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History (see part 1) I examine his assault on the idea that history = the past, that history is singular, and that history can be objectively understood. Today I ponder his arguments in Chapter Two: “On some questions and some answers”. These are the seven questions he addresses with his answers:

1. What is the status of truth in the discourses of history?

Jenkins suggests that gaining real (true) knowledge is “unachievable”. (p. 28) As discussed in the last post there is a chasm between the event and the historian. We know the event through the traces it has left, but how reliable are those traces? Jenkins says we can still use the word “know”, but he makes this qualification:

We are (our culture is) a-moral, skeptical, ironic, secular. We are partners with uncertaintiy; we have distruved truth, have tracked it down and found it to be a linguistic sign, a concept. Truth is a self-referencing figure of speech, incapable of accessing the phenomenal world: word and world, word and object, remain separate. (pp. 29-30)

Jenkins states plainly, “…truth is always created and never found.” (p. 31) So, we can’t “find” the truth of history, we merely “create” it. This is what we know. Jenkins follows Foucault stating, “…truth is dependent on somebody having the power to make it true.” (p. 31)

Of course, the reader should stop in his/her tracks to ask, “Is Jenkins telling the truth?” Should we find it problematic that Jenkins expects us to believe him when he says, “History is a discourse, a language game; within it ‘truth’ and similar expressions are open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor–it draws the line.” (p. 32)

2. Is there any such thing as objective history, or is history just interpretation?

Jenkins says that it is true that we can find “facts” (p. 32) like the year someone was born, but he claims, “…historians are not too concerned about discrete facts (facts as individual facts), for such a concern only touches that part of historical discourse called its chronicle. No, historians have ambitions, wishing to discover not only what happened but how and why and what these things meant and mean.” (pp. 32-33) So it isn’t so much the problem of say know Jesus of Nazareth was understood by people to be the Messiah of Israel (a fairly self-evident fact), but what historians do with that data when they write their histories on Jesus of Nazareth. They are not objective anymore. They import their subjective understanding of Jesus into their discourse.

3. What is bias and what are the problems involved in trying to get rid of it?

Historians are bias. This is a plain fact. Let me use Jesus of Nazareth again. If someone is an atheist they will have no room for the possible historical accuracy of miracle reports. If they are a believing Christian they may have a very hard time denying the accuracy of such reports. There isn’t much to add to this.

4. What is empathy; can it be done, how, why, and if it cannot be achieved, why does it seem so important to try?

So how do we avoid pure subjectivity based on our bias? Many historians suggest empathy. In other words, “the claim that one has to get into an informed appreciation of the predicaments and viewpoints of people in the past in order to gain real historical understanding…” Let me return to historical Jesus studies. Scholars learn as much as possible about Second Temple Judaism, ancient Rome, the geography of the land, the religious beliefs of the people, and so forth. Why? Because if you don’t know the historical context you will import your modern context.

BUT Jenkins doubts that this is all that effective. He gives some reasons for why this is unachievable:

(1) “The philosophical problem of ‘other minds’…[which] considers whether it is possible to enter into the mind of another person we know well…” If we try our hardest to pretend we are a Jew in Jerusalem in the first century can we do it? Jenkins says no. (p. 39)

(2) “For what  is effectively ignored in empathy is that in every act of communication there is an act of translation going on; that every act of speech (speech-act) is an ‘interpretation between privacies’.” If I try to think like a first century Jew as a twenty-first century American it is inevitable that I will translate things from that world into my own. I cannot understand it from their world.

(3) “…there is no presuppositionless interpretation of the past…” and “…interpretations of the past are constructed in the present…”

We can boil down Jenkins’ objection to the distance between historian and events, the need for translation, and they presuppositions we use to filter the data. At the end of the day we are no where near thinking like a first century Jew. We think about first century Jesus through twenty-first century paradigms no matter how hard we try not to.

That said, anyone who has done historical work knows from experience that one’s ideas do alter when we try to be empathetic. We do not obtain objectivity, and we do filter the data, but we move closer to understanding a different world when we try than those who do not. I think Jenkins point here must be taken with a grain-of-salt since he often comes across as “all-0r-nothing”.

5. What are the differences between primary and secondary sources (traces) and between ‘evidence’ and ‘sources’: what is at stake here?

Jenkins makes the assertion that all sources as “surface” sources. We cannot dig any further down. This leads him to the conclusion that we are “…if we are freed from the desire for certainty, if we are released from the idea that history rests on the study of primary/documentary sources…then we are free to see history as an amalgam of those epistemological, methodological, ideological and practical concerns I have outlined.” (p. 48)

I admit, I am a bit surprised by this assertion. Even if our knowledge of history is always on the surface at least primary sources are ground level while secondary sources are a few stories from the ground. There is no way to avoid making history into total mythology if we do not have primary sources. Not all secondary sources are created equal either.

Jenkins asks, “Does the evidence of the past press itself so irresistibly upon the historian that he/she can do not other than allow it to speak for itself?” (p. 48) No, of course not, but it is still the evidence, the data, and not merely a secondary report on the data.

Let’s compare historical work to that of a detective. Reading a newspaper’s account of a murder is not the same as investigating the murder scene and interviewing witnesses. Yes, interpretation is involved, and no we cannot have absolute certainty, but degrees of plausibility and certainty do exist. I am puzzled by Jenkins here.

6. What do you do with those couplets (cause and effect, continuity and change, similarity and difference) and is it possible to do what you are asked to do through using them?

I alluded to this problem earlier: when event A is followed by event B does it necessitate “cause-and-effect”. When a historian says that the United States bombed Hiroshima because of A is it really because of A or is that a construct made by the historian? Is it like a bat hitting a ball pushing it away? Do event work like that or when we do history do we create cause-and-effect?

7. Is history an art or a science?

History isn’t a science in Jenkins’ view, but more like an art. This threatens the guild, because it turns a nose to their methodology and regulations.