This post is based on a Twitter thread I started back in 2021 and have expanded since. Its origins are in a sense platform-specific. Twitter discourse is awash in accusations and counteraccusations of informal logical fallacy; pretty much any criticism of anyone will meet with charges of ad hominem, any defence or elaboration of a position with cries of “motte and bailey.” Meanwhile, however, discussions of the past, historical research, history teaching, or public memory often produce a set of glib injunctions that have seemed to me deserving of comment — “don’t judge the past,” “let the facts speak for themselves,” “they were men of their time,” and so on. So I wrote a thread commenting on these from the perspective of a practicing historian who spends too much time online. But as I went along, it seemed to me that these injunctions, the concepts invoked around them, and the problems with them, get at important features of historical thinking, and their use or misuse colours public discourse about history offline as well as on. Responses to the thread have strengthened these impressions. So putting them here seems like a good idea.
Here they are:
1. Objectivity is not neutrality. Given two conflicting accounts of an event, there is no reason whatever to assume that the truth is in the middle.
2. “Relevant” is not a synonym for “recent.” I recently ate lunch. The formation of European overseas empires happened a long time ago. Which explains more about the world we live in?
3. “Everyone back then was-” Just hush. No they weren’t.
4. “You shouldn’t judge the past…” Really? Why on earth not? What else are you planning to do with it? Every time you decide what to read (let alone write) about the past, you’re judging which parts mattered and which didn’t, and making assumptions about why they did or didn’t.
5. “…by the standards of the present.” I have some bad news for you about your location in spacetime. Yes, try and understand past events and figures in their historical context. But if you think their views were inescapably shaped by their time, wait’ll you hear about you.
6. “Historians should let the facts speak for themselves.” Oh, OK. Let’s see what they have to say.
7. Saying something is “socially constructed” is not a way of saying it is not real, or that it is a matter of personal preference, or that it can be ignored without consequence or changed on a whim. My graduate school debt is socially constructed. So is the Enlightenment.
8. Showing that a belief or practice existed in some form in many periods/places doesn’t explain (much less negate) its significance in a specific period and place. Yes, fear of others has perhaps always existed. No, that doesn’t mean modern racism is nothing new.
9. Whether a source is “biased” or not is not usually a very difficult or a very interesting question. Any source produced by people for any purpose is bound to be “biased.” The question is: what can you do with a given source, allowing for — or even making use of — its biases?
10. Likewise, “context” is not simple or binary; there are always multiple contexts in which a given fact, event, source or figure can be put. What matters is why we put something in one context rather than another, what a given choice of context lets us see and what it obscures.
11. Answering a historical research question is not simply a matter of looking up and collecting ready-made “information” on a given topic. It requires identifying and analyzing primary sources, as well as considering existing analyses and interpretations in secondary sources.
12. History does not predict the future. Its prototypical objects are unique — people, events — located in and shaped by past contexts that are complex, imperfectly known (hence debatable) and impossible to reproduce. It does not generate testable hypotheses. It isn’t meant to.
The original points appear here as they do in the Twitter thread, with minimal adjustments for the greater flexibility of this platform (the availability here of italics, for example). However, I am also taking advantage of this format to add just a little commentary below, where some of the points in the original thread provoked productive discussion or clarification.
On Point 3, I have written more here. Point 5 is also one I’ve written a fair bit about, both here and on Twitter. As David J. Hensley (@d_j_hensley) pointed out, Columbus “was probably bad by the standards of the 15th-Century Taíno.” So one question is not so much how we can avoid “modern” moral standards as why we should think that avoiding ahistorical interpretations of 1492 requires according interpretative primacy to Columbus’s moral standards, and not those of his contemporaneous victims or critics. Another is whether we are even capable of asking questions that do not reflect our historically conditioned standards of judgment.
Susan Amussen (@susandamussen) augmented Point 9 by noting that historians teach students to enquire into the genre of a source as well as its purpose, authorship, and audience. This is an important point. “Bias,” in the sense of what determines a source’s presentation of facts, relations, or circumstances, is a matter not just of individual position or interests but also one of broader generic, institutional, social and cultural conventions. Learning how a type of source works is a crucial step in interpretation, and one that can take a great deal of time and exposure to sources.
Point 12 generated the interesting response from Andrea Boykowycz (@bwycz) that historians do test their analyses of the past against evidence and that methodology is reproducible, and so history does in that sense generate testable hypotheses. I take her point about the role of evidence and the reproducibility of method. My reply was and is that in practice most “hypotheses” are actually interpretations of evidence people have already looked at; deriving predictions from a theory and then devising empirical tests that will either bear the prediction out or not is not the norm. Or so I think. Critiques of existing narratives, in any case, are often questions of interpretation rather than of new data. But I think there is room for debate here. Evan Haefeli (@EvanHaefeli) commented that I might be taken to be implying that we can’t learn from the past. I would not want to deny that, but I would differentiate between learning from experience and predicting the future.