Dave’s response to McKeon

Michael and I probably agree more than we disagree about these issues of interpretation, but I’ll outline some of the areas of agreement, indicate the main points where we diverge, then get out of the way of discussion.

I should say straight off that the previous post is a very full and useful guide to Michael’s thoughts about historical method, which help a great deal to illuminate the decisions he made in structuring the book and approaching his topic.

Now here are the areas of agreement:

1. I am fine with treating interpretation and explanation as a doublet, both of whose terms represent phases in a process equally necessary for the proper understanding of the past.

2. I also appreciate your concern for beginning with the intentions of historical actors, then fully exploring the social contexts of their actions within those socio-historical settings. Frankly, I don’t know any other way to proceed with historical inquiries.

3. I also understand your caution about reading subsequent historical events (i.e., the “failure of Enlightenment”) backward into the actions and consciousness of those historical actors who had no clue about how those historical events were going to work out.

4. Your whole paragraph on modernity and its failures is really admirable, and explains why we need to remind ourselves and our students what modernity looked like before it was tried out.

Now, here are the disagreements:

5. Having said that, because I hold what you call the poststructuralist belief in the epistemological inaccessibility of the past, I do believe that historicists and presentists both reconstruct the past more or less adequately (or persuasively) in the present; no one can claim a privileged access to the past, no matter what terms they use, or how well they use them.

6. My biggest problem with the notion of “seeing the past in its own terms” is not simply with the question of “whose past [meaning which people in the past should be described],” but also the problem of “whose terms,” meaning whose scholarly interpretations should be preferred, and why.

As you noted, this problem does indeed beg a number of questions: should “the past” be understood in only one set of terms, which we could recognize to be the past’s own terms? How would we which of all the different ways to describe the past are not just true statements, but the past’s own terms? Whose authority decides? In a few instances, we might have direct evidence from contemporary accounts, but otherwise we are relying upon traditions of interpretations/explanations that have accompanied these texts into the present, and then using that tradition as a corrective to our own obsessions and desires concerning these topics.

In other words, I suppose I am stressing the fact that historicist interpretation is not just an individual, synchronic act, but a collective process repeated over and over again on a diachronic axis, rather like your brilliant account of Johnson’s “quantitative” analysis of Shakespeare.

This is one reason why I am less worried about anachronism, since I believe that successive historians are not advancing away from, or towards, some fixed point of historical truth, but are instead attempting to generate valuable insights into their materials that will speak to contemporary (scholarly) audiences. I do take it for granted that the nature of these insights will change over time.

If we think about the historical accumulation of interpretations of the past, we would see really staggering variations in critics and epochs’ views of the past’s “own terms” over time. These wildly divergent views tend to get institutionalized and naturalized, however, into a rather tidy and academic version of the “past in its own terms” that may in fact have little to do with what people in the past may have actually, concretely believed. The views of most 18c readers of an 18c author are certainly “partial” in comparison with what we as scholars take years to internalize.

My Swift students are still shocked to hear that a critic as good as Samuel Johnson could doubt the attribution of a Tale of a Tub, or that the rumors of Swift’s secret marriages or insanity had such a dramatic effect on even the most considered views of him in the 18th and 19th century. These were matters of debate and controversy in the past: whose view, then, counts as that of the past’s? Thackeray’s Swift? Orrery’s? Sheridan’s? Ehrenphreis’s? Do we really believe that these writers use the same set of terms to understand a figure as complex as Swift?

So I appreciate all the cautions that you have given us about projecting our present-day concerns too freely upon the past, but I in turn would caution against over-idealizing the act of historical understanding. Instead, I would call attention to the scrappiness and persistent controversy of actual historical writing in the period under question.

Is it possible that a pragmatic or “rhetorical” orientation toward the past is closer to the actual views of the past held by history-writers between Camden and Gibbon, rather than the more elevated views held by Meinecke or Dilthey? If so, what should this disparity tell us?

Best wishes,


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