Daily Archives: September 7, 2006

Why do we prefer one historical interpretation over another?

Miriam’s post about Cowan and Habermas, as well as Jen’s earlier post about Watt and other theorists of the novel, made me wonder about a fundamental aspect of our scholarly practices: why do we prefer one interpretation over another?

We often talk one interpretation “winning out” over others, or of one historian or critic emerging as the “standard account” over the claims of rivals, but we rarely analyze this process of persuasion hardening into institutionalization. (Offhand, I can think of Fish, or Kuhn, or maybe Samuel Weber, but it’s surprisingly hard to think of examples)

One interesting writer on this question is F.R. Ankersmit, whose Narrative Logic (Martinus Nijhoff, 1983) I’ve been working through lately.

FRA distinguishes between the internal and external questions provoked by historical narratives: internal questions are “posed only on the basis of something mentioned in the [narrative]; [while] “external questions” may be formulated from any conceivable perspective” (30). FRA talks about the common scholarly situation in which two competing interpretations of the same subject-matter come about, “the first giving a satisfactory answer to all its internal questions while avoiding all the important questions that can be asked on the subject-matter, whereas the other answers at least a number of these questions, although sometimes unconvincingly.”

FRA’s example is the historiography of the persecution of witches. He describes how the 19c historian Lecky blamed the witch burnings on the stupidity, meanness, and superstitiousness of the medieval clergy. Keith Thomas, on the other hand, developed an entire causal argument about medieval superstition and the process of demythologization of Catholic dogma (30-1). Obviously, Thomas’s explanation raises all sorts of new questions about what this “demythologization” entailed, but we nonetheless prefer the account of Thomas, which cannot resolve many of the issues it raises, to Lecky’s. Though Lecky’s account can answer its own internal questions more persuasively than Thomas’s, it does seem to isolate witch-burning too much from other issues that remain external to its argument.

I think FRA’s example helps explain how the broader explanation sometimes wins out against the narrower one, if we feel that the narrow explanation doesn’t explain enough, or doesn’t interest us in pursuing it further. It’s hard to see, for example, how one could extend Lecky’s explanation with further research.

So does Ankersmit’s account of competing historical interpretations seem accurate to you? Is this why we still read Habermas or E.P. Thompson, even after others have written books on the subject-matter they helped to establish? What do you think?


Emotional responses to literature and scholarship

Bill Benzon at The Valve has an interesting post up about “tears and laughter” as critical responses to literature. His own post was inspired by Laura Carroll’s answers to a “Name a Book that . . .” meme in which she gave Jane-Austen-only answers to questions like “One book that made you laugh” and “One book that made you cry.” Benzon feels like laughter and tears have little to do with his own critical work, but he wonders how much others think about emotional response as a part of their work.

I suggested, in my comment there, that this seems to be a common and explicit part of much literary and historical study in our period. I thought, first, about Jim Chevallier’s post about the “almost infantile pleasure” and excitement of the eighteenth century, and Sharon Howard’s post expressing genuine thrill in the face of so many wonderful, individual, untold stories in her work on plebian and criminal accounts. For me, as I’ve said before, the eighteenth-century novel surprised me by being not just “interesting,” but deeply moving, emotionally, and genuinely entertaining.

In conversations with other people who teach eighteenth-century texts, I’ve heard almost universal agreement that it is an especially difficult era because the authors seem to expect that readers develop sympathetic emotions in order to understand the moral or intellectual arguments. That is, the feeling comes before the understanding, just as Hume suggests it does in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Those who don’t empathize, laughing or crying along, seem not to understand what the author is getting at. Those who do can’t understand why the other half of the class is so sullen and silent.

Last semester, I went to a wonderful talk by Prof. Carrie Hintz of Queens College on her research into Restoration-era spousal biographies. Her talk was extremely detailed, learned, and analytical, meeting every criterium for an excellent intellectual exercise, but, at more than one point in the talk, she brought up how personally moved she was by reading these works, that it had a similar effect on her as watching a romantic dramatic movie. No one would suggest that her emotional investment could have compromised her work, which was so clearly excellent, and yet that comment certainly made everyone sit up in their chairs. I remember hearing many of my fellow grad students approach her afterward to say things like, “This is why I study Cavendish! She makes me excited to be alive!” It was liberating to hear a role model speak so earnestly about emotional response.

I’ve noticed that other eighteenth-century scholars often talk about this personal, visceral, emotional reaction quite freely around others working in the period, but to do so in “mixed company” often comes out sounding like an admission of guilt. Are we embarrassed by our emotional investment in the texts? Scholars of other periods seem to worry that this emotional investment may spoil analysis, but we seem to take for granted, as a discipline, that Clarissa makes us gasp and cry and Evelina makes us wince and laugh. I even feel that my understanding of Samuel Johnson’s aesthetics has improved with the refinement of my emotional sensitivity to reading.

And I’ve begun to bring this deeply visceral kind of interpretation to works in other periods as well. While discussing Donne with my class yesterday, I kept trying to talk to them about why the Holy Sonnets give me goosebumps, and how deeply shocking and blush-producing I find his elegy “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” I felt like they were thinking through the poems, but a little shy or unpracticed at feeling through them, which, biased as I am to the connection between the two, I hope to be able to urge them to do.

Are we just odd ducks? Is it that there is such a clear Humean association between emotional sensitivity and moral understanding? Is it that there is a deep suspicion in current scholarship of the possibilities of individual emotional response as interpretation? Do you find that your treatment of the emotional content of texts changes either with the period of the work or with the company you’re keeping?