What do we do, about the past?

What do we do, about the past? Part I

What is it that we do, when we seek to know the past? This has been buzzing in my head for a while now, set off by the recent meeting of the four of us who are writing – we hope we’re now finishing – The Archive Project. We’ve not written about this question in the book, but it is implicit for anyone who does historical research of any kind, and for this reason it has become a preoccupation of the moment.

Of course I don’t mean literally ‘what do we do’. I realise what the literal aspects are quite well, and indeed my chapter in The Archive Project discusses the methodological details of this. It is instead what this literal activity is grounded in, the sub-strata of thinking underpinning the literal activities, that I’m interested in exploring here.

The assumptions of old style ‘classic’ historical research are now largely viewed as untenable. They are, firstly, a correspondence theory that presumes that things really happened and that history (read, historiography) is about this; secondly, the view that actions mirror intentions and so causality is what historical research is about; and thirdly, the idea that history proceeds or unfolds in a coherent chronology (as implied in such terms as modernity and globalisation signifying a process that occurs everywhere).

The assumptions that ground my own forays into historical research depart from these, except for elements of the first. How I understand and engage in the practice of such research is around the following:

  • There is / was, a past. It was / is real. It has made us what and who we are. And aspects of it live on in the present or those of us living now could not know the past at all. But it cannot be ‘recovered’, and nor is it possible to substantiate any correspondence between the things than once happened, and how we think of these now.
  • The past is over and gone. What remains are small often random fragmentary traces, the flotsam and jetsam of past lives and events and which only rarely relate either to intentions or to causality.
  • These traces are made sense of in the present, using the framework of understandings of our time, not those of the past. They are the basis of what I term the ‘now/past’ (which is discussed in my chapter of The Archive Project). Historiography, writing about the past, is a now/past activity oriented to the questions and concerns of now. We cannot know what relationship it ‘really’ has to what really happened, there is no way to access this.
  • Using the traces that remain to ‘know the past’ necessitates asking useful and insightful questions about some particular aspect, and these in turn are a product of the framework of present-time understandings we bring to formulating such questions. If there are no questions to direct our inquiry, then what results will be what the philosopher-historian RG Collingwood refers to as ‘scissors and paste’ accounts.
  • But, moving beyond a ‘scissors and paste’ approach, more is possible. We can ask sensible questions built on the shoulders of those who came before us, and struggle to know ‘the past’ (and also ‘the present’ and ‘the future’ too) through using inferential logic. Here the researcher works with the traces, the small remaining scraps of this and that, and does so in the context of a framework of ideas which provides a background of ‘knowledge-for-all-intents-and-purposes-and-for-now’, and then pushes this a little further, to infer beyond what can be readily substantiated, into what can be inferred as plausibly likely.
  • Imagination is necessarily part of inferential logic – or perhaps rather logic, the logic of in context inferences, must be part of historical imagination. Things need to work, to hang together plausibly, but also the risks and pleasures of testing the limits engaged in. An aspect of this is trying it out in the mind and/or on paper, something Collingwood referred to (misleadingly) as ‘re-enactment’. Does it fly, albeit schematically?

This is where thinking this out has got to for now. There’s more to consider, particularly regarding the combined ontological/epistemological character of the traces that remain, but this will be for another time and another blog.

Last updated: 11 July 2015


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