Method of Approach

Yes, there is such a thing as “the historical method” when electing to look into past events, persons, movements, and ideas! It is a very fine thing to do since we often interpret through our own perceptual glasses and come to erroneous conclusions otherwise. We reconstruct the flow of events from our own or another’s memory and/or records that were kept. Even with the best of intentions we could be missing something in the landscape of events, ideas and motives so that we should always remain very humble indeed.

Posturing and perception are tricky factors in gaining a wholistic grasp of what has gone before. From “he said-she said” to what is known as the Christian Reformation when both camps were mud-slinging that each other was the “anti-christ”; properly understood, any historical rendering cannot be dull! Personal “fingerprints” and personality are all over the residue we carry with us into the future.

The 18th and 19th Centuries began to develop careful critical historical writing to try to establish the true course of events, not to polemicize or to justify. There are actual histories, chronicles, biographies, records, administrative, financial, military, religious, correspondence of major figures and archeology. It is a type of forensic historical dig!

The 18th Century treats us to the “testimonial method” in the “Age of Enlightenment”. The historian must know when a document is telling the truth. It is equally important to know about the author and purpose in writing since a document deals with personal memory. Not everything is remembered since we remember things as we attach our particular meaning to it. We eventually forget events but remember meaning.

Is there such a thing as a “scientific historian”? Apparently so, as various patterns in classical logic are marshalled in the compiling of the historical account. The document is treated as evidence: what did the writer mean? What new approach to a particular subject is being provided in the document? Historical imagination is employed to discover what people meant by their actions by judging alternative responses. What might I infer from the fact that this person made this statement? What light does this shed on the subject? Subsidiary probing questions are guided by the basic one related to the material the person is dealing with. If you like a good debate, then historical argument will appeal to you: data is given particularly when the conclusion is questioned–>the conclusion, assertation, is made–>qualifying attributes are assigned (possibly, presumably, probably, necessarily)–>warrents (facts) given to support the step taken between data and conclusion–>rebuttal points out how a warrent may not apply to case under discussion and therefore has no authority. The truth of the warrent may be challenged.–>backing for the warrent asserted or ammended.

All too often the flavour and impact of an event can get lost by historical editing. Thousands of pages of financial records can be compressed into one sentence: “From 1500-1550 there was an economic depression” since documents record a steady rise in prices but no rise in wages. But the sentence leaves a clue for others to delve into the search for primary source material if the curiosity is sufficiently aroused.

It is important how source materials are handled. “Facts” are a problem at the best of times. Each person reports a “fact” differently from another reporter as they each vary in interests, opportunities, nearness to the event, and prejudices. Every “fact” we have is always filtered. Some societies construct official histories and the principles of selection are handed down from a government agency. Background, political views and social position affect the slant in which history is recorded.

Whether you are reading an accounting of a country, a faith group, or a political leaning it is important to know who the author is. “Fact” and “interpretation” are rarely clearly separable. We know that Jesus lived in Galilee during the reign of Caesar Augustus and that he was crucified in the reign of Tiberius, that he had disciples, taught, and healed. Beyond that the judgments on his life and works, and the meaning of it go off in a dozen different directions. We know that Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuits, but the judgments on that event and its consequences are not at all uniform. People continue to hold honest and sometimes profoundly different views on significant events.

Have you ever caught yourself out as having a warped perceptual field? Our perceptions are built on our past. Can you think/see how your perceptual field has trapped you into a small box, making your understanding of people, ideas and movements an imprisonment of the mind? The world and its experiences are a wonderous adventure, so step outside the box! Point of view stems from a perception of the past. Understanding other people’s point of view is the beginning of wisdom, and betimes it even facilitates negotiations and cooperation.