Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Historians and "Perhaps"

After I read Rachel Hermann's excellent reflection on the word "perhaps" in historical writing I recalled a class I taught five years ago on "Religion and the American Founding."  I was working on Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction at the time and thought I would try out some of my ideas on the unexpecting undergraduates who enrolled in this seminar.

One of the books I assigned in this course was Peter Marshall and David Manuel's providential history of early America: The Light and the Glory.  Since I teach Christians at a Christian college we are able to bring theological reflection to the classroom.  (I like to call this a form of academic freedom).  I remember the class members having fierce debates about the relationship between the Christian doctrine of providence and the vocation of the Christian historian.  Most, if not all, of my students believed in the doctrine of providence.  Some of them believed that this doctrine could be applied to historical investigation by suggesting that we could know for sure God's purposes and designs for every historical event.  In the end, I wanted to affirm my students' belief in providence, but I also wanted them to understand the mystery of faith.  We concluded that "perhaps" might be a useful term in this regard. Did God do this or that in history?  Perhaps.  But for now we see through a glass darkly.  (I reflect on these ideas more fully in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

I know that Rachel Hermann's graduate school criticism's of John Demos's use of the word "perhaps" in The Unredeemed Captive is different from the way we employed the term "perhaps" in my Religion and American Founding course, but in some ways the overall lesson is the same.  We historians are so removed from the past, and so limited by the scanty evidence left behind, that we must always do our work of reconstructing the past with a large dose of humility.  On the other hand, our professors and readers often require narratives that make an argument.  Hermann captures this tension well in her piece at The Junto.  Here is a small taste:

I was told that I’d written a polemical dissertation, and received this feedback in various guises. My favorite (really!) was the suggestion that I’d “opened up some cans of worms—perhaps too many of them.” I’m conscious of the fact that a large portion of my editing process is going to involve figuring out which aspects of my argument are actually worth such invective. So this blog post is in part a public declaration to recommit myself to the idea of perhaps. Perhaps some of my arguments will remain, but perhaps some pieces of my argument—and almost certainly, large portions of my chapters—will need many more perhapses.

I’m not sure that every historian goes through this realization when they revise. I suspect that a large portion of them do, but I also imagine that this tendency to equivocate might be more prevalent in certain fields where documentary evidence is sparser. On the challenge of writing an assertive, assured history of Native America, Dan Richter puts it rather well in his most recent book, so I’ll just let him say it:
Documentary and archaeological sources provide many clues about what Native people did as they traded and contended with New Netherlanders. It is a tricky business, however, to try to fathom what Indians thought about these interactions and about newcomers. As is often the case, an indirect and imprecise approach is the best that can be attempted. Although seventeenth-century Native ideation may be inaccessible, it is possible to say something about what Dutch people thought Indian people thought, and what those thoughts might tell us about intercultural relations in New Netherland in particular and eastern North America more generally. (Richter, Trade, Land, and Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America, 42-43).
Pinning down the thoughts, mindsets, and goals of Indians is tough stuff. We can say what they did, and we can say what Europeans thought about what they did—but historians who presume to argue what Indians thought rarely do so convincingly.