When Herodotus wrote The
, in the mid-fifth century BCE
prose was in its infancy in Greece, "rhetoric" was mainly
oral instruction - aided by condensed exemplars, rather
than formal analyses - and both "science" & "philosophy"
were still largely aphoristic, and coupled to poetic form.
And, not only was The
the first fairly systematic lengthy prose
work of analysis, it was also followed by a counter-reformation
of the discipline - in the shape of Thucydides work -
which dropped the anthropological angle, and the use of
much dubious hearsay evidence, but also narrowed the focus
in on the political/military sphere...an emphasis that
continued to dominate the discipline into the 20th century,
although by now much enriched by other concerns.
So, by the time the other intellectual modes had got their
act together - at least in this (influential) case - history
had preceded them twice...by setting the initial prose
mode, and by redefining itself in a more rigorous (although
Looking at the developmental evidence - for analogies,
not "primitive" models - this isn't actually too surprising.
As Kieran Egan has perceptively noted, much of the anthropology
in Herodotus comes across rather like a ancient Greek
Guinness Book of Records
- a near-universal favourite of kids at that age
when they first begin testing the factual extremities
of their world...and a key stage in developing the mental
tools they'll need for analytical thought.
So...both in phylogeny & ontogeny, history comes first
- which (of course) to superficially "progressive" thinkers
from Descartes on, means that it must be "primitive" and,
therefore, superseded by more formal approaches. Here,
despite all their rhetoric, the post-modernists are at
one w/the philosophical mainstream...as well as many areas
of science. Abandoning "grand narratives" boils down to
undermining narrative itself - not so coincidently, also
a venerable avant-garde tradition.
Trouble is, humans happen to be narrative creatures -
we ourselves are stories, constantly re-woven within the
memories that are never the fixed files we imagine - and
so, yet again, the postmodern presents us w/yet another
vain dystopia...which could only drive people insane who
were so foolish as to attempt a life bounded by its theology...
The key to fruitful historical thinking isn't a concentration
upon critique, to the point where narrative dissolves
in a welter of uncertainties...however smug this may allow
us to feel about more "naive" approaches. Nor, pace Thucydides,
is it a narrow focus upon what can be firmly established
in a limited sphere. No, the real key is in the refinement/exploration
of Herodotus' model...attempting to survey all types of
evidence to the best of our abilities, focussing upon
questions we want (however provisionally) to answer -
rather than on theories or types of action - and diversifying
our tools pragmatically, rather than being governed by
logical strictures incapable of dealing with interlocking
and multicausal events in unrepeatable time.
As such, history is a profoundly human endeavour - with
all the strengths (and weaknesses) that entails. And,
whilst individual questions in certain areas - such as
the biogeography of domestication brilliantly outlined
in Diamond's Guns, Germs
- may be amenable to more clearly "scientific"
approaches, I doubt the same will apply overall. Simply...the
factors are too diverse, and their interaction too contingent,
to ever be formalised - as Popper & others have frequently
However, this is not to say that history does not have
much in common w/science... As John Lewis Gaddis has recently
shown, however, its sister disciplines are the historical
- rather than the social - sciences, as the latter mainly
still cling to nineteenth century positivism, and are
too-often obsessed w/finding "independent variables"...which
(probably) don't exist in their sphere. The commonalities
are rather with areas such as biology and geology, and
these sciences - like historians - have developed a multitude
of techniques to deal w/the recalcitrant facts of contingency,
and interdependent variables of often bewildering complexity.
When we take history as the foundational model for a revived
Humanities, it should be as the modest, pragmatic search
engine that it is capable of being - and frequently is
- so unlike most more formalistic approaches. Moreover,
even pragmatic formalisms, such as the rhetorical tradition,
only properly cover half the terrain because, put simply
- things both change & stay the same...
History, flawed as it (necessarily) is, takes both aspects
seriously - and has a grand tradition of borrowing any
intellectual tool that can aid in its quest. The resulting
theoretical pluralism is what humans need for real self-understanding
- not quasi-theological quests for "rigour"...or overarching
"grand theories" that fudge evidence for the purposes
of academic empire-building.
Because, as I said earlier, we are
narrative creatures. Instead of denying this - in typically
utopian fashion - we need to turn our propensities in
this direction to fruitful ends. Arguably, when it comes
to ourselves, formal/rational models will always remain
auxilliaries to fundamentally narrative understandings,
ideally embedded within broader historical frames. The
models are crucial to the task...but they will never take
precedence - except to our detriment - as, if we deny
the narrative nature of our knowledge-frames, it will
simply expose us to much more damaging errors, as the
intellectual record so clearly shows.
History, as they say, will out...