Thursday 16 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.”


Anonymous said...

An interesting rant from Skinner worth sharing:“Speaking as a modern unbeliever, I do not feel in the least inclined to concede that those who embrace theism must be acknowledged to have found a fully adequate source for their moral beliefs. A lot of what theists claim about their faith strikes me as unintelligible. Even when it seems possible to follow what they are saying, much of it seems obviously inconsistent with some of our most fundamental assumptions, especially about the nature of causality. And even when their theistic conclusions are not in flagrant contradiction with their other beliefs, I cannot see that theists offer us anything in the nature of adequate evidence in favor of them. But to say all this is not merely to say that theism must certainly be false; it is also to say that it must be grossly irrational to believe otherwise. To say, however, that a belief is grossly irrational is to say that anyone who continues to affirm it must be suffering from some serious form of psychological blockage or self-deceit.” Q. Skinner, “Who are ‘We’? Ambiguities of the Modern Self,” Inquiry 34 (1991), 148.

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Dear Ben,

Good thoughts. It doesn't surprise me that a person would think Skinner's methodology is more thoughtful and nuanced than Marsden's. Skinner is much more attentive to opening up history to influences from the social sciences, namely anthropology and sociology. This 'new phase' of doing history still requires, some say, a good deal of discrimination by the historian.



Danny said...

What are the terms by which we adjudicate that someones methodology is wrong or right? How do we arrive at such a level of confidence that we can declare with some type of certainty that a specific way of writing history is simply flat-footed? How can one affirm a view like Skinner's and then condemn an alternative contemporary understanding of history that a hundred years from now Skinner apparently would not condemn?

Erin said...

So Skinner has found the golden rule of historical method to be "do unto others as you would have done unto you"?

Anonymous said...

There are people even today that have good intentions that are seeming irrational. I don't think it irresponsible to identify them as irrational even though some of what they do or say may be valuable. For example Mormonism. I don't think it is necessary to put ourselves in their place to understand why what they do is rational to them.

Kevin D. Johnson said... seems to me that to posit that history is something other than an uncovering of ""timeless wisdom" of certain "universal ideas"" is positing an idea that is equally fraught with much of the same dangers as it would be otherwise and a quick look at Proverbs 8 would likely dispel Skinner's notion and bias for what it is--atheism.

But, I wonder how we can look at history as Christians without understanding that God Himself through Jesus Christ and even before the incarnation was working to accomplish the salvation of mankind - certainly a universal and necessary theme in history that cannot be minimized at least if you want to retain any sort of meaning to the term "Christian" consonant with creedal orthodoxy and the common confession we have carried over the last two thousand years.

I also don't understand Skinner's need to see everything in history as if the subjects under study necessarily proceed from reasonable or rational grounds. This seems a bit predisposed to misinterpret facts, to minimize the state of the human condition, and to assume that man without God is inherently as he should be. This rationalization of the "facts" would for example create the horror that the Holocaust was somehow worthy of being called reasonable. How demeaning to those who actually experienced and lived through that horrible time in Germany!

So, I'm thoroughly unacquainted with the debate regarding Marsden having landed this morning on a quick read of your blog but I wonder how a man can be Christian and still endorse Skinner's view. It seems fundamentally opposed to the redemptive history of mankind summed up in Christ.

Kevin D. Johnson

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