What does it Mean to Understand the Past in its Own Terms?

I was really struck by this passage of Michael’s about his critical and historical method, because it articulated an area where Michael and I probably disagree in theory, though perhaps not so much in practice:

But to characterize my method I think I need to have recourse to readings in historiography and historical method, especially the distinction between interpretation and explanation–to simplify, the difference between understanding the past in its own terms and understanding it in terms not available to it.

Now, Michael immediately qualifies this distinction between the “presentist” and what I’d call the historicist positions, by saying that we need to pursue both. Nonetheless, he does stake out a position that “presentist” studies have dominated theory and criticism for quite some time, and seems to suggest that such a historicism could act as a corrective to presentism. And this seems a worthy point: any critical method, pursued without sufficient awareness of its limits, can generate mechanical and unpersuasive results. This seems as true of “presentism” as it does of the most scrupulous historicism.

But if Michael’s dialectical method has any validity (which I think it does), the position of the careful “historicist” is going to be as conditioned by the present as the most rampant presentist, who is nonetheless going to be determined by his own historical situatedness. In other words, both sides will have constructed their notions of past AND present in a present that impinges upon them in various ways, and in response to their perceptions to the past. In other words, I don’t see any automatic advantage on either side, though both are obliged to be as scrupulous as possible in their reconstructions of both past and present.

Let me give a few examples from our own discussion: Carrie Hintz made some interesting points about secrecy in our recent political past, with her references to the Lewinsky scandal. And even as our little discussion has unfolded, a very lurid sex scandal (phone sex! on the floor of the House! whoops, not true!) has overtaken political argument in this country. Even as we discuss scandals like the warming-pan baby, the notion of “scandal” takes on a new saliency in both the present and in our reconstructions of the past, because of events none of us foresaw a few weeks ago (I hope). I’d argue that both historical interpretation and explanation use metaphors for us to render the past intelligible, and that these metaphors are as likely to come from present-day scandals as they are from past ones, for example.

In your own explanation of the traditional/modern divide, Michael, you had recourse to Chinua Achebe and his presentation of perceptions of tradition in a non-Western context. These are obviously things that chronologically and conceptually were unavailable to John Selden, though Selden had an admirable interest in “Oriental” languages and cultures. But talking about Selden’s interest in such things indeed seemed charming and “antiquarian” until critics began to think more critically about the West’s discursive constructions of “non-Western” or “traditional” cultures in pre-20th century writers. Though sustained critical interest in such topics was only generated, say, after Said, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that pursuing those questions is purely presentist, since these parts of Selden’s scholarship have been known about for some time, though they were known as part of his philological work on biblical languages. But is calling it “biblical” any less mediated or presentist than calling it “orientalist”? As you acknowledge, we need both kinds of approaches, and use them both together, all the time.

There are other issues here, as well, like the dangers of hypostasizing “the past” so that only a particular set of terms can be defined as “its own.” The virtue of the dialectical method, I think, is to put us on guard against believing that any particular set of terms could be considered self-sufficient or adequate for such explanations. Does the resident of Edinburgh in 1704 inhabit the “same” present or past as the resident of London in the same year? Does the illiterate laborer digging up Roman ruins for the local clergyman’s researches share his sense of antiquity? Etc. etc.

So I appreciate your notion that we must be careful about introducing anachronisms into our analyses, but I believe that a historicist may be in as much danger of doing so as a presentist.




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