Friday, 17 October 2008

Once more on historical method

Here’s a quote from Quentin Skinner’s Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002) – probably the best work available on questions of historical method (written by one of the world’s most brilliant historians):

“The golden rule [of intellectual history] is that, however bizarre the beliefs we are studying may seem to be, we must begin by trying to make the agents who accepted them appear as rational as possible…. If as historians we come upon contradictory beliefs, we should start by assuming that we must in some way have misunderstood or mistranslated some of the propositions by which they are expressed” (pp. 40, 55).

And if you want to know more about why George Marsden’s methodology is flawed, Skinner has an entire chapter (chapter 4) devoted to demolishing the notion that historical writing should uncover the “timeless wisdom” of certain “universal ideas” – in a nutshell, his argument is that the results of such writing “may be classified not as histories but more appropriately as mythologies.”


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