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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Actual Historical Research and Abridgements of History

"It is only by undertaking an actual piece of research and looking at some point in history through the microscope that we can really visualize the complicated movements that lie behind any historical change... Perhaps the greatest of all lessons of history is this demonstration of the complexity of human change and the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men; and on the face of it this is a lesson that can only be learned in detail. It is a lesson that is bound to be lost in abridgment, and that is why abridgments of history are sometimes calculated to propagate the very reverse of the truth of history. The historian seeks to explain how the past came to be turned into the present, but there is a very real sense in which the only explanation he can give is to unfold the whole story and reveal the complexity in telling it in detail." -- Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, p. 21-22.

There are a couple of things worth remarking upon in this passage. First of all, note how Butterfield distinguishes an "actual piece of research" from an "abridgment." Let me assure you, my faithful ten blog readers: I bet about zero of you have ever read more than one or two pieces of actual historical research, if that many. (For most of you, the total will be zero.) If I gave you such a work, you would find it "boring" ( as one economist at the NYU Austrian Colloquium described such works to me). What you have read is almost entirely abridgments (A Distant Mirror), or even abridgments of abridgments (Guns, Germs, and Steel). If you judge what historians do, or how "rigorous" historical work is based on such abridgments, you are in the position of someone who tries to judge how rigorous is quantum mechanics by reading The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

In pointing this out, I do not mean to say no one should write such abridgments, or that it is worthless to read them. (I read them all the time!) But these are opinion pieces, and anyone who reads only such pieces will of course conclude that history is a very inexact discipline, and that historians never agree on anything. Well, that's because you are not reading any works of real historical research, but works of opinion about what "timeless lessons" we can draw from actual historical research. (For example, Nicholas Nassim Taleb has clearly read only such abridged works, and his denigration of "historians" is based entirely on such works.)

Secondly, Butterfield notes correctly what a "complete" historical explanation would consist in: not some abstraction that showed certain "correlations" between some events and others, but a exhaustive narrative of the facts. In history, there is no gulf between facts and explanations: an exhaustive narrative of the facts in question is the most complete explanation that could possibly be given for them.

3 comments:

  1. Dr. Callahan - can you suggest one or two pieces of historical research by way of example? Does biography fall into the category of research or abridgement?

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  2. Crosbie, the problem with attempting to answer your question is that any answer would suggest that I am noting the one or two exceptions to the general run of abridgments. But quite the opposite is true: 99% of what is written by historians would be historical research... but only the other 1% makes it on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

    In any case, here is an *abridged* list of journals dealing with British history alone:
    * Albion
    * Anglo-Saxon England
    * Archaeologia Cambrensis
    * Arthuriana
    * British Scholar
    * Brycheiniog
    * Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies
    * Ceredigion
    * Clogher Record
    * English Historical Review
    * Journal of British Studies
    * Journal of Scottish Historical Studies
    * The Scottish Historical Review

    The bulk of the contents of all of these journals would consist in historical research. And there are probably a thousand or more journals that are not on this list, dealing with other parts of the world and other epochs.

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