Historiography

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Truth, Morality, and Meaning in History
Excerpt

Introduction "It [history] requires us to join the study of the dead and of the living." Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

The ancient Greeks had a great interest in themselves. Within this interest was a curiosity concerning their origins – in other words, how they got to where they were. This era is often seen as the birth of history in the Western world, exemplified in their great historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Yet we know that there were clear differences among these giants and the other early historians that followed in the Greco-Roman world concerning the scope and nature of what constituted history: so it has been and will probably always be.

 

History is based on the reconstruction of the past lives of human beings, the most complex of all creatures, and it raises many questions. What exactly caused a chain of events of great importance in the past? What are our sources and can they be trusted? Can we be sure that what we have uncovered truly explains what happened? What was the role of chance, or pure accident, in our search for causes? Do we understand fully all of the effects of the past? Can we know what was in the hearts and minds of those who performed specific actions, especially if, in our eyes, the consequences of those actions were evil? Are there patterns of behaviour that recur? Is there a meaning to individual lives or the lived lives of the human race collectively? Are we connected to other forces beyond us – be they gods or forces of nature – that guide our actions?

 

This book is concerned with most of these questions as well as some additional ones. It is grouped into three central areas of investigation, with chapters on truth, morality, and meaning. These areas do not function as sealed compartments, as there is much flow in the discussion from one to another. In relation to the first area, the older debate about accuracy in the reconstruction of the past has been joined by new perspectives derived from other disciplines and the media. Whether moral issues, especially moral judgment, are within the domain of historians is a constantly recurring debate. Meaning in history, or the lack thereof, has continued to be an interest for a minority in the academic profession, and perhaps for more outside it. In the view of the author, there is an urgency to discuss these areas. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not this urgency is real.

 

Now, if I shift to myself for a moment as a sort of case study, I shall raise some of the central questions in this book with reference to a life of over seventy years (don’t worry – this is not an autobiography). How, for example, did I become a historian? From the time I was a schoolboy, I was always interested in history. Where that interest came from, I have no idea. Neither of my parents had any proclivity for it, nor did anyone else I can think of in my family. There were other subjects in school that caught my attention, and frequently I got better marks for my efforts there than in history. However, when I read outside class, which was not that often, it would be in history or historical fiction. The same was true of my choices in cinema.

 

As an undergraduate, my subject of concentration came to be history, by a somewhat circuitous route. Although my plan was to become a lawyer, my marks in history steadily improved. In my senior year, I decided to go on to graduate school, rather than law school, at least for the time being. I never left the profession once I entered it, but, facing some challenges, I often wondered if I had taken the right fork in the road.

 

In terms of my specialties in history, I can see more clearly some causes for the choices that I made. As my father was a European immigrant, taking the path of British and European history was probably based on interest in my roots. My dynamic mentor in graduate school was in social history, with a special interest in the roles of religions, and I soon was zealously consumed in study of the same interests in modern history. Both my parents were religious, although their traditions differed from each other. This probably explains both my early interest in the effects of sectarian strife and, as my own life evolved, other questions involving secularization and the challenges of unbelief. I can also see the causes of my later career pattern reinforced by professional rewards and advancement. However, looking back over my whole life, it could easily have gone in other directions. I am a fairly religious person (Catholic Christian), but I never felt much of a hand from above concerning my career – although in the other aspects of my life, there may have been times when I did. In defence of this thumbnail sketch of my life, I would invoke the name of the great historian E.H. Carr, who advises us that, in order to best understand what a historian has written, the reader should know something about the historian.

 

Further, in the interests of full disclosure, I would say that, in the fashion of most historians trained in my generation, I have tried to present the various sides of the central issues contested in this book in a spirit of critical inquiry. However, more than in any of my previous books, I have supplied and at times argued the Christian position. I have not attempted to present things in the "concealed mode of Christian apologetic," as Michael Bentley has said of Herbert Butterfield. I do so openly.

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Truth, Reality, and Meaning in History
Excerpt

Introduction

"It [history] requires us to join the study of the dead and of the living." Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

The ancient Greeks had a great interest in themselves. Within this interest was a curiosity concerning their origins – in other words, how they got to where they were. This era is often seen as the birth of history in the Western world, exemplified in their great historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Yet we know that there were clear differences among these giants and the other early historians that followed in the Greco-Roman world concerning the scope and nature of what constituted history: so it has been and will probably always be.

 

History is based on the reconstruction of the past lives of human beings, the most complex of all creatures, and it raises many questions. What exactly caused a chain of events of great importance in the past? What are our sources and can they be trusted? Can we be sure that what we have uncovered truly explains what happened? What was the role of chance, or pure accident, in our search for causes? Do we understand fully all of the effects of the past? Can we know what was in the hearts and minds of those who performed specific actions, especially if, in our eyes, the consequences of those actions were evil? Are there patterns of behaviour that recur? Is there a meaning to individual lives or the lived lives of the human race collectively? Are we connected to other forces beyond us – be they gods or forces of nature – that guide our actions?

 

This book is concerned with most of these questions as well as some additional ones. It is grouped into three central areas of investigation, with chapters on truth, morality, and meaning. These areas do not function as sealed compartments, as there is much flow in the discussion from one to another. In relation to the first area, the older debate about accuracy in the reconstruction of the past has been joined by new perspectives derived from other disciplines and the media. Whether moral issues, especially moral judgment, are within the domain of historians is a constantly recurring debate. Meaning in history, or the lack thereof, has continued to be an interest for a minority in the academic profession, and perhaps for more outside it. In the view of the author, there is an urgency to discuss these areas. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not this urgency is real.

 

Now, if I shift to myself for a moment as a sort of case study, I shall raise some of the central questions in this book with reference to a life of over seventy years (don’t worry – this is not an autobiography). How, for example, did I become a historian? From the time I was a schoolboy, I was always interested in history. Where that interest came from, I have no idea. Neither of my parents had any proclivity for it, nor did anyone else I can think of in my family. There were other subjects in school that caught my attention, and frequently I got better marks for my efforts there than in history. However, when I read outside class, which was not that often, it would be in history or historical fiction. The same was true of my choices in cinema.

 

As an undergraduate, my subject of concentration came to be history, by a somewhat circuitous route. Although my plan was to become a lawyer, my marks in history steadily improved. In my senior year, I decided to go on to graduate school, rather than law school, at least for the time being. I never left the profession once I entered it, but, facing some challenges, I often wondered if I had taken the right fork in the road.

 

In terms of my specialties in history, I can see more clearly some causes for the choices that I made. As my father was a European immigrant, taking the path of British and European history was probably based on interest in my roots. My dynamic mentor in graduate school was in social history, with a special interest in the roles of religions, and I soon was zealously consumed in study of the same interests in modern history. Both my parents were religious, although their traditions differed from each other. This probably explains both my early interest in the effects of sectarian strife and, as my own life evolved, other questions involving secularization and the challenges of unbelief. I can also see the causes of my later career pattern reinforced by professional rewards and advancement. However, looking back over my whole life, it could easily have gone in other directions. I am a fairly religious person (Catholic Christian), but I never felt much of a hand from above concerning my career – although in the other aspects of my life, there may have been times when I did. In defence of this thumbnail sketch of my life, I would invoke the name of the great historian E.H. Carr, who advises us that, in order to best understand what a historian has written, the reader should know something about the historian.

 

Further, in the interests of full disclosure, I would say that, in the fashion of most historians trained in my generation, I have tried to present the various sides of the central issues contested in this book in a spirit of critical inquiry. However, more than in any of my previous books, I have supplied and at times argued the Christian position. I have not attempted to present things in the "concealed mode of Christian apologetic," as Michael Bentley has said of Herbert Butterfield. I do so openly.

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Talking Back to the Indian Act

Talking Back to the Indian Act

Critical Readings in Settler Colonial Histories
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