Historiography

An aside from historian-hat-wearing Ben:

 Today on Quora I came across a thought-provoking paragraph. My reaction to it went something like this:

“The idea that ‘history is written by the winners’ is a clichéd truism that isn’t actually very true.”

This could be insightful – go on…

 “History is actually written by academics…” 

Great point – the actual historical players rarely write about themselves. Instead, academics – monks, scribes, and others do the actual recording. We receive information through the lens provided by these observes who are not necessarily unbiased but are rarely primary actors in the events they record.   

 “…trained in a careful scholarly method and working within a system …”

More nods from me – much of the historical record is written in somewhat of code – scripted language and ways of thinking that shouldn’t be taken literally by our modern sensibilities, nor dismissed as outright falsehood as many are wont to do.  Instead, the records need to be read in the context of the norms and thinking of their location in history, which can sometimes feel weird and alien.

“…of peer review, both of which serve to discard unlikely or obviously biased interpretations.  It works toward an argument to the best explanation – ie one that explains as much of the evidence as possible and which is agreed is the most likely version of what happened in the past.”

 And suddenly, my agreement does 180.  The author is not trying to give the reader an appreciation of the nuance of the historical record, but instead is worshiping at the altar of The Expert.  If you look at historiography (the history of history) it isn’t a tale of steady convergence on consensuses. Instead, there are wild swings as one historian comes up with an excellent story that fits the evidence and then another comes up with a different excellent story, even without a change in the evidence.  There is nothing wrong with this – history is at its heart just storytelling that helps us understand our past.  Historical stories should of course explain the evidence, but I believe there is danger in the assumption that there is a single ‘right’ history and that the experts will lead us there. 

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