The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Linguist Roy Harris on history III: what should be expected of historians

Still am reading for duty right now more than pleasure….

Harris himself in his book, The Linguistics of History:

It is up to the historian to make clear at some point what kind of communicational authenticity the historia is presented as having in that particular case, which means explaining how its various components and materials are selected and integrated.  That is a considerable demand.  Historians are not accustomed to meeting it, because for generations they have coasted along on the built-up prestige that accrues to their discipline.  History is now prisoner to its own processes of historification. 

The demand I am voicing is not met by listing ‘sources’ in footnotes: that merely defers the accountability.  It requires the historian to come clean about, for example, what has been taken over unquestioned from earlier historians, what has been subjected to fresh research, what relationships have been reinterpreted through the perspective adopted, what has been ignored because deemed to be irrelevant, and what has been highlighted because it happens to have a bearing on contemporary concerns.  A historian may well protest that such a demand would require extensive expansions or annotations not just to every paragraph, but to every sentence, and perhaps to every other word.  So it might.  But if ‘truth’ is what is being claimed, a proliferation of caveats cluttering the text seems a small price to pay in the service of such a noble cause (223, 224).

I wonder if Harris is indeed asking too much.  And at the same time, it seems to me that many historians already take account of all of these things.  Then again, perhaps I don’t read enough history to really know. 

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