Friday, June 17, 2011

thoughts on the limits of historical description

I begin with an obvious point: Humans exhibit significant limitations regarding the ability to describe and/or reconstruct the past. I have two such limitations primarily in mind, though perhaps there are others. First, processes of human perception already filter through the sensory data assaulting our senses and limit what we notice about the world around us. As we move through the ever-moving stream of the present, we don't even notice some things (how windy it is on an average day, how many people walked past my office door in any given hour, etc.). We remember even less (I almost certainly noticed things that happened on 11 September, 2000, but I can't recall any of them).

Second, our language is limited in its capacity to describe and communicate the things we do notice and remember about the real world, and what utility our language does have already directs interpretation of the events we're attempting to describe. For example, if I tell you about "what happened" to me at the bank, you expect a certain type of story (perhaps I slipped on the wet floor, or I found a $10 bill on the counter). If, however, I tell you about "the incident" in which I was involved at the bank, you expect another type of story (such as I couldn't get in because the police had barricaded an armed robber inside).

Such easily documented considerations have typically urged historians to exercise caution in what we think we know about the past. And rightfully so. But we have run the risk of being immobilized in our attempts to know anything meaningful and authentic about the past with any degree confidence. So I enjoyed Gerd Theissen's comments in this regard, from his 1996 essay, "Historical Scepticism and the Criteria of Jesus Research: or, My Attempt to Leap Across Lessing’s Yawning Gulf” (SJT 49: 147–76):
So human inability to give a genuine account of truth implies the equal inability totally to refashion everything according to certain interests and intentions. As we are axiomatically convinced of human imperfection before we have studied a single source, so—provided our source material is sufficiently complex—we are protected a priori from the suspicion that everything described in these sources is fictitious. (Theissen 1996:155)

Theissen's comments echo things written by folks such as Michael Schudson, Barry Schwartz, and Gary Alan Fine, all of whose works are finding their voice among biblical scholars. This is a helpful development in biblical historical criticism.

No comments:

My Visual Bookshelf